Three Weeks - Still No Power -San Onofre Remains Idle
February 21, 2012 1:09 p.m.
Victor Dricks, spokesman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Murray Jennex, Associate Professor, SDSU, nuclear power expert
Related Story: San Onofre Still Offline Three Weeks Later
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. For the last three weeks, the San Onofre nuclear power plant has been completely offline. Its reactor No. 2 was offline for scheduled maintenance, and react NO. 3, well, that was where a steam generator leak was detected on January 21st. It caused the shutdown of the reactor. Joining us to give us an update on what's being done to bring the plant back online are my guests, NRC regulatory spokesman, Victor Dricks. Welcome to the show.
DRICKS: Hi, laws are you?
CAVANAUGH: I'm great. Thank you for joining us. And Murray Jennex, professor at SDSU. Welcome back
JENNEX: Good afternoon.
CAVANAUGH: We contacted the plant, but a spokes person was not available today. They did say "extensive testing is underway to understand the cause of the leak. As soon as it is understood, plant operators will implement a repair plan." And that is a statement from Southern California Edison. Victor, last week, the NRC sent out a memo recommending a review of Edison's response and actions taken regarding the steam generator tube leak. Why was this recommended?
DRICKS: It's fairly routine in matters like this one. We want to make sure that the licensee has taken appropriate action. We want to independently verify their response to the event and be assured that if that plant is going to be restarted, that it -- it's done so safely.
CAVANAUGH: What part of your organization will do this review? And do you know when it will begin?
DRICKS: It will be done by -- inspectors from our region 4 office here in Arlington Texas.
CAVANAUGH: And we do not know when it's going to begin?
DRICKS: No, we don't know that -- I would think it will probably begin within the next week or two.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, is someone from the NRC at the plant now?
DRICKS: We always have people at the plant. Most people don't realize the NRC has what we call a resident inspector program, largely an outgrowth of the 3-mile island accident in 1979. We have at least two inspectors at every operation nuclear plant in the country, and there are 104. They basically serve as the agency's eyes and ears at the plants and they're able to respond immediately to any abnormal or unusual events that occur. In this case of this incident, our resident inspector would able to go immediately to the control room and monitor the licensee's suspense to the leak.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, prior to the shutdown of unit 3 at San Onofre, and of course we've been told that the leak was caused by some faulty tubes. Were there any other documented problems with tubes and steam generators at other US nuclear power plants?
DRICKS: Yes. There have been a lot of problems with steam generators aging and thus leaking prematurely. And so the industry and the NRC help a lot of experience in dealing with the issue. The industry has responded very aggressively. And they have procedures that all of the plant operators follow when any leaks are detected, they have programs for inspection, they have programs that the licensees are those are the operators of the nuclear plants, rely on so they get the collective experience of the entire industry behind them.
CAVANAUGH: So did the NRC ever consider stopping the installation of these tubes at San Onofre considering they were just put online last year? That's really prematurely wear.
DRICKS: Yeah, it is unusual. There have been a few other instances, most notably the St. Lucie 2 nuclear plant in Florida where we saw an unusual number of tubes that experienced wear during what we call the first fuel cycle, the first 24 months of operation. But the most important thing for the public to realize is Southern California Edison has a program in place that quickly identified that leak, even though it was very small. They took appropriate action and shut the plant down immediately. And they're taking appropriate action by conducting a very thorough inspection of the steam generators, not only in unit 3 where the leak occurred, but also in unit 2.
DRICKS: And they're looking at 100% of all of the tubes in the two different steam generators.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And No. 2, some of the same tubes were found with this same sort of premature aging problem. Has the NRC been able to determine what's causing this faster than expected wear on the tubes?
DRICKS: No. There are a number of theories and speculation but that's an issue that the licensee, Southern California Edison, is still working on. We had our own special inspector is out there. We have a program called in-service inspection, where specialists from the region go to the various plants during refueling outages and look at specific pieces of equipment. And we had slated, scheduled, prior to the problem here at unit 3 to conduct a thorough inspection of the generators at unit 2.
CAVANAUGH: Now, is the manufacturer of the tubes, Mitsubishi heavy industries, are they also making other tubes that are being installed at other plants in the U.S?
DRICKS: No, I'm told that these steam generators are unique.
DRICKS: I think fort Calhoun and Nebraska has steam generators, but they're much smaller.
CAVANAUGH: Changing the subject a little bit, because this all came up in an article and even mentioned by Barbara Boxer, it was recently learned a worker fell into the reactor pool in unit No. 2, but the public only learned about this when workers went to the media. There was no notifications made to the NRC. Why wasn't that reported?
DRICKS: Well, we have very detailed reporting requirements, and specifically here because the health and safety of the worker was not endangered and the licensee had no reason to believe that he had received a large exposure to radiation, they weren't required to notify us. As the regulations read, in the event of a worker who's taken off-site, following a serious injury, they would immediately notify us of that. But in this case, it's not something that they were required to notify us about.
CAVANAUGH: Did it say anything about the safety procedures in place at San Onofre?
DRICKS: Well, that's something that our resident inspector will be following up on. As I said, we have people who are there all the time, and when events like this occur, he will be looking into any factors that may have contributed to this mishap.
CAVANAUGH: My last question, Victor, when unit 3 is repaired and it's ready to go back online, what will the NRC be doing? Will you have to certify that the repairs are made correctly? Will you be there on-site to make sure everything goes correctly? What will happen?
DRICKS: Well, we will be there on site prior to start up. We are on site now.
DRICKS: We are very thoroughly reviewing all of the information that Southern California Edison is providing to us about the steam generators' tubes. We want to make sure that they identify the root cause of this leak. And we want to make sure that they understand the phenomenon so it's not going to take them by surprise again. And we want to make sure that they've done everything necessary to insure the safe operation of the plant.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for your time.
DRICKS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Let me reintroduce my other guest, Murray Jennex, associate professor at SDSU with a background in nuclear power, and he's been generous to be on this program a number of times to explain with his background in nuclear reactors what we're hearing, what other news reports are telling us. Now, in the statement I read earlier, Murray, Edison is still trying to understand the cause of the leak, and repairs haven't even begun. Does that surprise you?
JENNEX: Really not at all. The NRC inspector just mentioned that they have to do a root cause. And a root cause analysis is doing a very thorough analysis to find out what actually caused these tube leaks. Well, as he also mentioned, these are new steam generator, and there's no other ones like it in the US. We don't really have any experience to fall back on. Now we have to look at the models that were used to design the steam generators and see the differences between how they were designed and how they're actually being used, if there's a flaw in the design. Well, that takes time. So the take it's taken three weeks, I'm glad they just didn't rush in and plug tubes. That would mean they didn't really look at it. Now that they're looking at it and doing it thoroughly, we'd be more comfortable with the repair. And we're in the middle of winter when power is cheapest. So this is the best time to do the analysis and take the time to be thorough.
CAVANAUGH: Does it sound to you like this is going to be a long repair job?
JENNEX: Once they figure out what to do, the repairs actually go fairly quick. They have to plug the tubes on both ends of the tube, and that actually is a fairly short job. The planning and figuring out what has to be done is the long part of the job.
CAVANAUGH: Now that they've found the same tubes wearing out in reactor No. 2, that reactor that was offline for just regular maintenance, it sounds as if they're going to have to figure that one out as well. And does that mean all of San Onofre is going to be down for longer than perhaps anybody thought?
JENNEX: I would say probably just the opposite. The fact that they're finding the same patterns says that to me that it's probably a design problem. And once they figure out what the difference is between design and actual use are, it's quicker to do the repair, and they'll be consistent on both units and all four generators. If they'd been different, that would have been a much tougher problem to answer, a much more difficult analysis.
CAVANAUGH: And time consuming.
JENNEX: And time consuming.
CAVANAUGH: You told us the power plant is losing up to a million dollars a day in lost power. Who's going to end up paying for that?
JENNEX: Well, it's all built into the rate. You still have a rate structure. What happens is SE has to provide the power. They provide it from sources that they own or contract with. And the power coming out of the northwest right now is much cheaper than is usually. Plus being in winter when there's nor water around, the hydro electronics are run. So it may be that they're not losing money at all, that it's cheaper to buy the replacement power than it is to operate the nuclear power plant at this time of year.
JENNEX: So to say they're losing money isn't the right way to look at it. How much is it costing them to provide the same power that they would have been providing had San Onofre been up?
CAVANAUGH: For the repairs themselves, though, one would imagine that there's some sort of warrant in place, and Mitsubishi might pick up some of that cost?
JENNEX: We would hope so. I don't know what the contractual arrangements are, but that would normally be part of the situation, they would have at least some responsibility to do analysis and they have to provide support because we don't have the codes they use to design the steam generators to begin with. So they do have to be involved.
CAVANAUGH: Now, we just got finished speaking with a representative of SDG&E, and of course we have to remember that Southern California owns San Onofre, but SDG&E has part ownership of this.
CAVANAUGH: And about 20% of the power from San Onofre goes to feed SDG&E.
JENNEX: I would argue probably more than 20%.
CAVANAUGH: More, okay.
JENNEX: Usually pretty much all of unit 3 comes down to San Diego because SDG&E only owns 20% doesn't mean that's all the power they get. They also have to contract for their power. So they're buying it from wherever is the best source or cheapest source to buy it at. Normally, San Onofre is a very inexpensive source during the summer and the high demand periods.
CAVANAUGH: So we don't know how much this is costing either utility until they finish the repairs and I guess ask for a rate hike, right?
[ LAUGHTER ]
JENNEX: To be honest, I don't think they'll ask for a rate hike based on this. Your rates are based on a kind of average think of what the power production costs and transmission costs are. If they're getting cheaper power, they're paying more for transmission. And there's a balancing out. And the repair costs fit into the maintenance budgets of the plants.
CAVANAUGH: Once the problem is identified and fixed, what were the procedures for getting the plant back online? How long does that take?
PENNINGS: Well, you hit the key word, fix. When you say fix, to me that means they've tested the repair, they're sure it's ready to go. After that, start-up can be very quick. It can just be a couple of days. You do a slow warm-up of the equipment because you don't want to shock it thermally, because that breaks things. And that's about all it will take, anywhere from two days to a week.
CAVANAUGH: My last question to you, after reactor 3 was shut down on January 31st as I said, Senator Barbara Boxer asked the NRC to check safety at San Onofre, which apparently the agency is in the process of doing. But don't incidents like this kind of whittle away at the public's confidence about nuclear power?
PENNINGS: Well, they may. But this is it really not an instance that is a safety issue. As the inspector said, they had procedures in place, monitoring in place that caught it immediately. And they immediately shut it down to fix a maintenance issue. It wasn't an accident. It wasn't something that was -- it was unexpected, but it wasn't something they weren't prepared for. That's something to keep in mind. This is things they're trained to do, to operate this plant safely so when they find a problem, they shut it down, they fix it so it doesn't become an accident. So I don't see that this was actually a safety issue. And it shouldn't be considered a safety issue. And it's not the first time this has happened. As the inspector said, this is a fairly common problem with all of the pressurized water reactors. The steam generators are the weakest link, so they get the most attention. And tube leaks are a relatively common occurrence.
CAVANAUGH: Murray PENNINGS, thank you so much again.
PENNINGS: Pleased to be here. Can I make a comment on the guy who fell into the water?
CAVANAUGH: Yes, certainly!
PENNINGS: This is more of an OSHA question. Right. And it was more of an issue of having lines around and stuff like that. And the truth is, he didn't get much -- I've seen such alarmist reports. It's easy to defect if he got reiteration. If he had, they would have had to report that. I think in many ways people are blowing this much more out of proportion than it is. And it's not the first time it's happened.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much.
PENNINGS: You're welcome, Maureen.