Elizabeth Salaam 11 a.m., Feb. 26
Fire Danger, Missing Documents at San Onofre
A new report out yesterday commissioned by the environmental group Friends of the Earth questions the wisdom of resuming operations at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station under reduced load. Meanwhile, former plant workers are alleging that decades-old fire safety protocols are still not in place and federal regulators are searching for missing documents concerning the level of oversight that was required before allowing plant operator Southern California Edison to spend $671 million replacing four steam generators at the facility’s two reactors, both of which appear to be prematurely failing just a few years after their installation.
The report, which received widespread media attention both locally and nationally, was prepared by nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson of Fairewinds Energy Eductaion and alleges that, among other things, installation of the new generators involved “significant design changes that should have triggered a license review which would have uncovered problems that subsequently led to serious damage and the release of radiation from the defective equipment.”
Gunderson further states that plugging damaged tubes, which is the preferred approach of plant operator Southern California Edison, does nothing to prevent further damage. The plugged tubes will no longer carry radioactive water, but they continue to vibrate, causing friction that will damage other tubes.
“Reducing power does not provide a remedy for the underlying structural problems that are creating the vibration that has damaged and will continue to damage tubes deep inside the San Onofre reactor. Edison has suggested that plugging tubes and operating at indeterminate reduced power levels for the remainder of the life of the plant may be a solution to the San Onofre tube vibration problem,” says the report (emphasis in original text). “Unfortunately this course of action would leave San Onofre operating with a significant safety risk if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were to allow the reactors to restart.”
The report goes on to suggest that “lower power might create a resonate frequency at which vibration might increase without notice, causing further damage.”
Gunderson also suggests that a complete replacement of the defective steam generators might cost $800 million, while thorough repairs, if it were possible to perform them, could cost $400 million and take at least 18 months. These estimates do not include the cost of replacement power during the repair period, which had already cost an estimated $30 million by early May.
A complete copy of the Fairewinds report is available here.
Meanwhile, more concerns about fire safety have emerged. We reported last month on an electrical fire at the plant that burned 40 minutes before being extinguished. Now, CBS Los Angeles has uncovered previously classified documentation of decades of fire safety issues at the facility.
In 1981, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began requiring that wiring for the main and backup systems at nuclear facilities be separated in order to prevent one fire from damaging both systems. Such a separation still does not exist at San Onofre.
“You have to prevent fires in reactors or you can have a meltdown and you have to create significant separation between your backup and your primary cabling,” Dan Hirsch, a nuclear policy lecturer from UC Santa Cruz told CBS Los Angeles.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Edison an exception to the rule, based on a plan in place to hire workers to inspect the areas where wiring is too close together on an hourly basis. But documents obtained by the television station indicate that these employees “deliberately failed to conduct required fire protection surveillances and falsified fire watch logs,” for a five-year period between 2001 and 2006. In 2009, a fire watch employee was “observed smoking what appeared to be marijuana in the licensee’s protected area.”
Both employees were fired, but the commission did not take any disciplinary action against plant operator Edison. An anonymous employee who claims to have spent the last 11 years of a 30-year nuclear career insists that fire safety is still an issue at San Onofre, which consistently logs the highest number of substantiated safety claims at nuclear facilities in the nation.
“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,” reads a portion of a release from Southern California Edison in response to the fire story.
In yet another development in the ongoing San Onofre saga, senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has asked Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jaczko for documentation detailing the commission’s review process for modifications between the original generators and their replacements.
Edison said in a Monday release that “the NRC was fully informed that the replacement would be conducted under the same regulations as had been previously applied at other plants.”
But the Voice of OC reports that the commission has, for the past month, been unable to provide documentation on Edison’s presentation, even after asking the company for a copy of the presentation after realizing it was missing from official records.
In preparing his report, Gunderson noticed the missing documents on April 12 and followed up with the commission via email. His assertion in the report that the commission was not fully aware of the extent of the changes in generator design appears, for the moment, to be affirmed by the failure to produce documentation to the contrary.