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[UPDATED with "Industry Winning":] San Onofre Nuclear Plant Reopening Pushed Back as 1,300 More Damaged Tubes Found

UPDATE, MAY 21, 5:23 P.M.: The energy director of a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group calls Gregory Jaczko's resignation as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) "a terrifying example of industries trying to wreak havoc on those who regulate them-and winning."

"Jaczko sought to create tougher rules for the nuclear industry in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster last year. But the nuclear industry wanted Jaczko gone from Day One. Jaczko stood alone," writes Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen.

"Jaczko did all he could to stand up to the political and economic influence of the nuclear industry and set commonsense reforms to make the industry safer post-Fukushima. But it wasn't enough. The other commissioners didn't want to be so tough on industry," Slocum continues.

"It is essential that the NRC's new chairperson prioritizes public health and safety over the influence of the nuclear power industry. The new NRC chair must come from outside the agency. The public interest community has zero confidence in one of the existing four commissioners to ascend to be chair."

UPDATE, MAY 21, 3:59 P.M.: Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who has taken a hard line against earthquake-prone California's San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants in the wake of last year's Fukushima Daiichi disaster, has resigned.

"This is the right time to pass along the public safety torch to a new chairman who will keep a strong focus on carrying out the vital mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," writes Jaczko, who led the NRC for three years and served on the panel a total of eight.

But the 41-year-old, whose term was to expire in June 2013, has been accused by lawmakers, colleagues and an independent watchdog of having a bullying style and mistreating female employees.

Jaczko denies those allegations have anything to do with his resignation, and he defended his record in his statement, saying, ""My responsibility and commitment to safety will continue to be my paramount priority after I leave the commission and until my successor is confirmed."

President Barack Obama is considering his replacement, according to the White House.

Perhaps echoing the bullying charge against Jaczko are officials from Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric.

Edison, which operates the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), has clashed with Jaczko over efforts to reopen the out-of-commission plant. Jaczko had said he would not allow SONGS to reopen until all NRC safety concerns were addressed.

To satisfy concerns over potential earthquake damage to its Diablo Canyon facility, Pacific Gas & Electric is blasting an underwater fault off the Central California coast this summer, threatening mammals, swimmers and fishermen.

UPDATE, MAY 15, 2:09 P.M.: U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) has sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) seeking documentation on design changes to the mothballed San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) to determine if the plant operator sidestepped federal regulators. Meanwhile, an environmental group issued a report today that claims the nuclear power plant just south of the Orange County border may pose a danger running at low levels over the summer.

And yet another report hints at possible fire dangers at SONGS.

The plant has been offline for three months, ever since unusual degradation was found in tubes in a steam generator in a then-active unit, causing low levels of radiation to be released into the atmosphere. That prompted an inspection of a second unit that was already down for scheduled maintenance. More leaks were found in tubes in the steam generator there.

Southern California Edison disclosed last week that leaks have been found in more than 1,300 tubes, which pushed back until after the summer the plant operator's desire to get back online in June.

Because those units were only redesigned in 2009 and 2010, Boxer's letter to NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko seeks to get at what exactly was done and how did his regulatory agency review the modifications. The senator sent a similar letter to Edison International, at the power generator's urging.

"Concerns have been raised that design changes in the steam generators contributed to accelerated wear in tubes carrying radioactive water," Boxer wrote. "The determination to restart the San Onofre reactors must ensure the safety of the millions of Californians who live and work near the plant."

Today came the 13-page report from Friends of the Earth, which warns that running the nuclear plant at reduced power could actually make the tube wear problem worse, likening it to cracks and wear that form on hoses in motor vehicles that sit idle. The plant's engineers counter that running the reactors at low power will ease the vibrations they suspect have been causing the tube wear.

Meanwhile, Dan Hirsh, a lecturer in nuclear policy at the UC Santa Cruz and longtime industry watchdog through his group Committee to Bridge the Gap, is raising alarm over fire dangers at SONGS and lessons that apparently were not learned from the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Athens, Alabama, 37 years ago.

A worker there using a candle to search for air leaks started a fire that melted the main and back up cables needed to cool the reactor. The NRC responded with fire regulations in 1981 that put distance between main and backup systems in U.S, nuclear power plants so a blaze in one would not spread to the other.

However, as Hirsch points out, that has yet to be done at SONGS, which has been allowed by the NRC to get around the required separation between the systems by having workers conduct hourly fire inspections in areas that are close together.

Internal documents show fire inspections were not done and logs were falsified between April 2001 and December 2006, however. In 2009, according to the same reports, a fire inspector was "observed smoking what appeared to be marijuana in the licensee's protected area." Maybe Homer Simpson would be a better candidate.

Fire watch employees were fired for the transgressions, but the NRC did not punish Edison for failing to recognize that inspections were non-existent for five years, Hirsh notes.

The NRC has responded that while fire protection violations at SONGS are more than minor, they posed a "low probability of fire damage."

Due to media reports of Hirsh's findings, Edison released a statement that follows on the next page.
 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) established updated regulations in 2004 that require nuclear plants to submit fire protection plans. Pursuant to a course of action approved by the NRC, Southern California Edison's (SCE) San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS) will submit the necessary plan and will meet updated regulations in 2013.

The plan will describe the elements of a new program to enhance the already robust fire protection capabilities at SONGS. Currently, SONGS has its own on-site, full-time professional firefighting personnel, as well as mutual aid agreements with nearby public fire departments. The new plan will ensure that the plant's fire prevention program meets or exceeds the revised NRC regulatory guidance.

Because these new requirements are being applied to existing plants, the industry has been working with the NRC for several years to establish appropriate implementation protocols, which currently provide for each plant to submit its own, site-specific plan and a proposed basis for inspection.

Both SONGS units of the plant are currently safely shut down for inspections, analysis and tests. Unit 2 was taken out of service Jan. 9 for a planned outage. Unit 3 was safely taken off line Jan. 31 after station operators detected a leak in a steam generator tube.

Nineteen percent of the power SCE customers use comes from nuclear generation. SCE is also working with the California Independent System Operator and San Diego Gas & Electric on power supply contingency plans for this summer should the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station not be fully operational by then.

ORIGINAL POST, MAY 9, 1:13 P.M.: Despite alarm expressed recently across a broad spectrum of critics--from polar philosophical opposites Larry Agran to Dana Rohrabacher--Southern California Edison had been saying that the offline San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) could be humming by next month to meet summer power needs, if only the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would green light it. Now Edison is pushing back a reopening as damage has been found to about 1,300 more tubes.
"SCE and the [California Independent System Operator] have maintained throughout the SONGS outage that nuclear safety has no timeline and the units will only be returned to service when SCE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are satisfied it is safe to do so," reads a statement from the utility giant. "SCE has not filed a request with the NRC seeking to restart the plant."

An Edison executive's recently reported rosy statement that the plant serving 1.4 million homes could be good to go in June if allowed to do so by the NRC was actually made in March to the Independent System Operator and was for administrative purposes only, Edison claims.

It was unusual tube wear in a steam generator, which had recently been upgraded, that led one SONGS unit's shutdown three months ago. That prompted inspections of a second unit that was already offline for maintenance--and the discovery of similar tube wear. Neither unit has been brought back up since.

On Monday, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko issued a strongly worded statement that called talk of restarting San Onofre's damaged nuclear reactors "clearly premature" because Edison has yet to respond to actions ordered by his agency in March.

Huntington Beach Republican Congressman Rohrabacher recently toured SONGS and said once the plant is up again it should be allowed to operate another 10 years before closing permanently.

Agran, a so-called progressive Democrat, last month led his Irvine City Council to send a letter to Jaczko urging that SONGS not be re-licensed until safety concerns are met. The councilman has also called for a permanent shutdown of the plant.

His council on Tuesday night demanded Edison outline energy efficiency plans in light of the power company's representatives having stoked fears that a prolonged SONGS shutdown would prompt rotating blackouts across SoCal this summer and cost ratepayers more than $100 million.  

"The Edison company would do well to stop threatening blackouts as an excuse for prematurely restarting a dangerous nuclear plant," reacted David Freeman, former general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water and special adviser to Friends of the Earth, heading into the council meeting.

"Blackouts are a failure by a utility to supply reliable service and are not new to Edison's customers," Freeman added. "Blackouts are a concern whether or not San Onofre is operating."

Officials from Edison and the Independent System Operator continued their backtracking in the Irvine council chambers Tuesday night, reassuring the public there will be no blackouts over the summer thanks to transmission upgrades, customer incentives to conserve energy and the firing up of a Huntington Beach natural gas plant.


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