Is 2013's Nuclear-Free Summer the Beginning of an End Game for San Onofre?

On the beach side of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), a banner with an ominous message hangs from the side of one of the buildings: “Safety Through Continuous Observation.”

At least, the sign was there 14 years ago, when I toured SONGS for an article I was writing about anti-radiation pills at the invitation of the plant's owner, Southern California Edison (SCE) (see “Prescription for Disaster,” Jan. 28, 1999). Nowadays, you can't see the banner because the plant is closed—it hasn't been producing energy since radiation leaked from the plant back in January 2012.

The leak led engineers to further examine steam-generator tubes that had been built as part of a replacement system SCE had purchased several years earlier from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), which SCE claimed at the time was a “like-for-like” switch in technology, thus one that did not warrant a lengthy, expensive license review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The future of San Onofre may now rest on the question of whether SCE misled the NRC when it made that claim, covering up the fact that it knew the replacement steam generators were substantially different, consisting of untested technology. Critics of SCE charge that despite knowing the replacements were inherently risky, the company chose profits over safety by keeping this knowledge to itself. In private letters from that time that have just now been made public, in fact, SCE officials themselves admitted they were “very concerned” about the possibility of “design flaws” that could lead to “disastrous consequences” in the form of wear and tear on replacement tubes.

This is exactly what happened, of course. After shutting the plant down more than a year ago, SCE officials studied the damage to the tubes and, in March of this year, came back with a plan to restart SONGS at 70 percent capacity—a so-called “voluntary license-amendment request” that, once again, would avoid a lengthy federal regulatory review. The company insisted running the generators at a lower power would make them safe.

“The amendment is consistent with SCE's plan to operate the unit's steam generators at 70 percent power as a conservative safety measure,” according to a company press release issued at the time. “SCE would like to restart Unit 2 by the summer to meet peak customer demand for electricity. . . . The San Onofre nuclear plant is the largest source of baseload generation and voltage support in the region and is a critical asset for reliability and in meeting California's clean energy goals.”

In April, the NRC gave preliminary approval to SCE's plan, but environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth (FOTE) protested, claiming in a petition to the Atomic Safety & Licensing Board Panel (ASLBP) that the company had failed to solve the problems that had caused the damaged tubes and thus had no basis for claiming it was safe to restart the plant. “It would be an outrage and a betrayal of the public's trust if the NRC were to concede to Edison's demands,” said Kendra Ulrich, a FOTE nuclear campaigner. “Edison's own experts disagree with one another as to the cause of the damage, but agree that the reactor's steam tubes will be in danger of bursting in a matter of months. And the [NRC] says this poses no hazard?”

By May 1, SCE's parent company, Edison International, had admitted in a conference call to investors that if it didn't win permission to restart SONGS by the end of 2013, it would likely have no option but to shut it down permanently. Company officials blamed hundreds of millions of dollars in costs associated with the plant's 15-month shutdown, including repairs and inspections, to the tune of $109 million, with an additional replacement power cost of $444 million. Two weeks later, the ASLBP ruled in favor of FOTE's petition to prevent SONGS from reopening without a full public review, effectively dooming SCE's plans to restart the plant this summer.

But SCE's problems had only begun. In response to demands the company release material on what it knew and when it knew it, the company made public a 2005 letter, in which SCE vice president Dwight E. Nunn told MHI that it had grave safety concerns about several aspects of the Japanese company's work. “We urge MHI to aggressively pursue a solution to these problems,” Nunn wrote. Subsequently, SCE released another letter by Nunn that went into even more detail about SCE's worries that MHI's work could lead to “unacceptable consequences (e.g., tube wear and eventually tube plugging)” that would lead to a “disastrous outcome for both of us and a result each of our companies desires to avoid.”

When SCE made these early concerns public, it did so along with an Orwellian May 28 press release that sought to portray the letters as evidence of the company's long-standing concern for safety. The press release was titled “SCE Exercised Responsible Oversight for Replacement Steam Generators at the San Onofre Nuclear Plant.” Expressing outrage at the revelation that SCE was aware of the potential problems but did nothing to prevent them, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, referring to SCE's claims as “gobbledegook,” responded by demanding that the Justice Department investigate whether the company broke the law by misleading the NRC about safety at San Onofre.

And it's not just environmental groups and liberal Democratic congresswomen who find SCE's handling of SONGS laughable. One industry source whose company owns power plants in California (and asked to not be identified) said that SCE has bungled the crisis at the plant ever since Jan. 31, 2012, when the radiation leak occurred. “[SCE's] handling of the initial radiation leak from San Onofre was ridiculous,” he said. “The spokesperson from Edison initially concluded both that Edison didn't know the level of the radiation leak, but that the radiation leak was no threat to the public or their workers. That just doesn't stand to reason and calls into question Edison's credibility.”

The expert also echoed concerns that given San Onofre's unique location in the midst of one of the largest masses of humanity on the planet—Southern California—it should be held to the highest possible scrutiny. “There is significant scrutiny across the country of the operation of any nuclear plant that is either within 50 miles of a major population area or is vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes,” he said. “San Onofre has three black marks: Nearly 9 million people live within a 50 mile radius, and [it has] vulnerability to both earthquakes and tsunamis.”

Given all the controversy swirling around the plant—most recently, the California Public Utilities Commission announced it will probe why SCE never made its safety concerns public earlier—it's looking increasingly unlikely that SONGS will ever reopen, concludes Bill Walker, a FOTE spokesman. “The bottom line is that the crisis for Edison is mounting every day; there is a new call for investigation every day,” Walker said. “The question is, are we in the end game? Is the clock ticking on an inevitable announcement on when they will close the plant?”

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