Expert Testimony Explains Errors in San Onofre Nuke Plant Saga

It's been more than a year since the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) ceased providing power to Southern California residents. The aging plant had already retired one of its three reactors years ago, but lost the other two in December 2011 when officials discovered that thousands of tubes in the steam generator had been damaged by mysterious vibrations.

For months, Southern California Edison has been seeking to restart one of the two idle reactors, but environmentalists are doing their best to see to it that SONGS is permanently shut down. To that end, the anti-nuclear group Friends of the Earth (FOTE) submitted testimony at a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) hearing today that laid bare a series of expensive mistakes made by SONGS officials that caused the current shutdown, which has cost rate-payers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Delivering the presentation today was nuclear engineer and FOTE consultant Arnie Gundersen. According to Gunderson, SONGS' problems started when Edison officials installed replacement steam generators at the plant. The new system cost $670 million, a price tag to be reimbursed by ratepayers, and was supposed to to last decades. Instead, flaws in their design led to  a phenomenon known as "high void fraction," which was the result of dangerously high levels of steam being created. This high void fraction, Gunderson argued today, is what caused the mysterious vibrations that led to the unprecedented levels of wearing on the tubes, which is what caused the plant to be shut down for safety reasons.

 "Nearly a decade ago, when Edison was designing these defective steam generators, it should have been obvious to them that this combination of radical changes required a license review,"  Gundersen added. "If Edison had assessed the design changes correctly at that time, the flaws in the design and their consequences, including high void fraction and fluid elastic instability, would have been discovered."   

According to FOTE,  these errors suggest that Edison officials are incompetent and can't be trusted to continue operating SONGS.  "Edison played fast and loose by making radical design changes and ducking the rules," claims the group's nuclear campaigner Kendra Ulrich. "The result was the most rapid breakdown of such replacement steam generators in the history of the U.S. nuclear industry. If Edison had followed the rules, an NRC license review would have found these glaring defects, and the lives and livelihoods of millions of people would not have been put at risk nor would hundreds of millions of dollars have been squandered."

As of Oct. 2012, the plant shutdown was estimated to have cost ratepayers more than $300 million. That month, even as Edison officials asked the California Public Utilities Commission for permission to restart SONGS, a hydrogen leak occurred at the plant, although officials claimed no radiation was released into the environment. And this is on a day when no power had been created at the plant for nearly a year.

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