San Onofre remains offline as probe into tube wear continues. California Senator Dianne Feinstein and NRC chief Gregory Jaczkso visited the nuclear power plant last Friday.
April 9, 2012 1:28 p.m.
Alison St John, KPBS, Senior Metro Reporter
Murray Jennex, Associate Professor, SDSU's School of Business, with extensive experience at SONGS
Related Story: NRC Chair Gets Update At San Onofre As The Plant Sits Idle
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, it's Monday, April†9th. Our top story on Midday Edition, it seems as the weeks go by, the shutdown of San Onofre keeps raising more and more questions. As Senator Diane Feinstein and NRC chief Gregory Yasko visited San Onofre last Friday, they were peppered with questions about repair time and whether San Diego will have enough energy during peak energy time usage. The friends of the environmental group claim Southern California Edison made design changes to the steam gen radars and did not properly form the NRC. The chief says they're going to have to look into it. Joining us for an update on this story are my guests, KPBS senior metro reporter, Alison St. John. Welcome to the program.
ST. JOHN: Hello, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Murray Jennex is here, associate professor at UC SD school of business. Welcome back to the program.
JENNEX: Good to see again.
CAVANAUGH: What came out of the meeting at San Onofre last Friday?
ST. JOHN: I think what came out of it is for the general public is the idea that rather than being worried about safety, the worry now is more about the power supply because Gregory Yasko was very clear that the No.†1 priority was public safety that they would not Edison start the plant up again until they'd reached the root cause of this premature wear on the tubes in the steam generator. So apparently as little as a month earlier, the NRC had said we don't know what the cause is, and the company could get started again without our official permission. But now with the visit of the chairman of the NRC, the top regulator in the country, it is clear that they have got all eyes on them, and they will not be able to start until they have been given the okay.
CAVANAUGH: What kind of an investigation is underway to try to determine the cause of the wear on those tubes?
ST. JOHN: Well, the NRC sent in a special investigate team. Yasko said it was fewer than a dozen people. And they're basically using the information that's being provided by Southern California Edison. So it's not an independent investigation as such, it's just that there are NRC eyes looking at the data that has been produced by Southern California Edison.
CAVANAUGH: Now, the NRC seems to have slightly changed its position about whether they were thoroughly informed about design changes to the steam generators. Now the chief says they will review those changes. What's going on there?
ST. JOHN: Well, this is interesting. The last generators lasted 25 years. And then in 2010 and 2011 they were replaced and would supposedly save money for the taxpayer. And yet here we are in two years, and there's quite remarkable, they said unprecedented, sign of wear on these tubes. And the situation is Southern California Edison did not get any special permission to install this redesigned steam generator system because they argued that it was like for like, in other words an exactly equivalent system. But critics of them, are the antinuclear activists, for example, are saying it wasn't like for like or why would these things be behaving so differently and wearing within two years? And they're explaining that the NRC was negligent in not being aware of the fact that this new system was being installed
CAVANAUGH: Now, NRC chief Yasko was peppered with questions about how long the plant will be out of service what. Did he say?
ST. JOHN: He would not give any answer. And this is the change is that rather than -- you're got the dynamic of the independent system operator saying what are we going to do if it's not back online? But there have been letters flying back saying we don't want any pressure on the nuclear power plant, on Edison to start it up again because safety has to be a No.†1 priority. So every time he was asked that question, how long might it be, he said we cannot predict how long it'll be. It's when we decide it's safe.
CAVANAUGH: Murray, back in February when we first talked about this, when the first tube leak was discovered, did you envision that this would be as serious as it's turning out to be?
JENNEX: Well, I didn't think it would take as long to figure out what was going wrong. But if you recall, even back then we did say they have to find the root cause and they wouldn't start it till they did. So so far, nothing's been done that's out of the ordinary. Even with the NRC coming out here. That's not an unusual event. They had an auxiliary team looking at the data. It doesn't need to be independent. And what they did was send in a team that had expertise from around the world and the rest of the industry. So they're providing help. Their sole goal isn't to find fault. It's to figure out what's going on. So this team was actually a good thing. So they're actually helping San Onofre figure out what the problem is. Not punishing them.
CAVANAUGH: Is it surprising to you about the use of the word becoming sort of a mantra, unprecedented when talking about these tube leaks? Tubes routinely start to leak at other generators around the country.
JENNEX: That's correct. And they leaked in the '80s. What was unusual about this is the speed with which the wear occurred. So this has been faster than we've seen before. So I guess from that standpoint, it is a little unique or unusual, and that's why they're taking their time, making sure they get it right because it is hard to figure out what is going wrong here, trying to understand what conditions are causing this care.
CAVANAUGH: Now, some critics basically say that the design change in the steam generator is kind of causing these tubes to rub up against each other or up against the machine the way they don't in other facilities, and that's what's causing this extensive wear. Do you see any credence do that idea?
JENNEX: Not really. In the '80s I was the engineer who created the training program to teach engineers how to do this design evaluation. And they did find their license in how they did this design change. Its safety analysis is the same that the previous steam generator had. So San Onofre didn't do anything outside of the ordinary in processing this change. So I think the people who are claiming this was done illegally, you really don't understand the process. That said, this is a large, complex component. Little things can cause differences. And this is a different manufacturer. So all tube wear is caused by vibration, all tube wear is caused by rubbing. The fact that there's more here, we have to figure out why. It could be as simple as simply having low parameters for what they use to do the mathematical analysis in the design of that steam generator. It usually involves staking it, putting in different support in there to keep that from vibrating. And it's the harmonic that's causing excessive wear.
CAVANAUGH: I understand there was some local activists on hand last Friday, and some met with chief Yasko. What do we know about these local presidents? What are they saying? What are their concerns?
ST. JOHN: Well, they're actually demanding pretty much what the NRC is doing, I think. Interestingly enough, it wasn't just activists, there were some elected officials from North County cities. One of the things somebody asked me was what about the claim for transparency? And Gregory Yasko was very clear that everything was going to be as transparent as he could possibly make it, and once they've discovered what the root cause is, there will be a public meeting and they will share that. But I wanted to ask Murray, do you feel that's enough information already out about where in the steamerators the pipes are wearing? Apparently some of the antinuclear folks are saying if they were more transparent about that, it might be a little more obvious as to what the cause is. What part of the generator is showing increased wear? There were certain areas of the generators that were showing more wear than others but he didn't say which.
JENNEX: Well, that's an interesting question because I have had tube issues in other generators, and there are always regions of flow around tubes. So when they're saying there are regions that are having different wear, he's saying essentially what's happening. The only way to be transparent would be to provide a map showing where the flow is and such. And most people simply won't understand that. If you don't have the background to look at it -- I would have a hard time understanding by simply looking at a map of the flow to say what the problem is. So I think they're being as transparent as they can be by telling you that there are different areas of flow causing different areas of wear. I don't know that they could be more transparent unless they're just opening it up for every engine in the world to take a look at it and analyze the problem.
CAVANAUGH: You want to follow up, Allison?
ST. JOHN: To remove the tubes and replace them is impossible because they're in a U-tube, so they're in bundles. So is that something that in the past you say that there has been wear like this in the past that has been resolved by pulling out the tubes and drilling holes in them and replacing them?
JENNEX: That is impossible. That's not a practical approach. We've staked them in the past. What you do is say, like, an egg carton type arrangement, where you put in supports that keep them from moving different directions. You can't take the tube out and replace it.
CAVANAUGH: There's a TV ad that some of our listeners may have seen and it's put out by the environmental group friends of the earth and it is calling for a shutdown or a continued shutdown of San Onofre.
(Audio Recording Played)
CAVANAUGH: My question, I wonder about the fairness of that particular ad. Is it your understanding that Southern California Edison is trying to reopen San Onofre now?
ST. JOHN: Well, they're caught between two pressure, the pressure to provide people with enough energy so there aren't brownouts in the summer. Or find an alternative. And the pressure to be safe. And I think what we've seen in this last week is the pressure to be safe has ramped up and taken precedence, and Edison is now very clear it's not trying to start it up until they have found a root cause and dealt with it.
CAVANAUGH: Murray, what's your assessment of that ad?
JENNEX: Well, there's always a shade of truth, but it's taken extreme. There's been no tube ruptures. And if you understand what they're trying to do, are when they do these analyses, they're looking at the thinning of the tubes to make sure they'll last to the next shutdown. So the analysis isn't just seeing that's what's wrong now but how long the tubes will last. And part of the process they have been doing is looking at the tubes that won't make it, that could rupture, and preventatively plugging them before they ever start to leak of the that's always the process in that's been done with tubes and has been done for the whole life of this plant, for 20 years.
CAVANAUGH: And Southern California Edison has agreed not to reopen any part of this plant until it gets clearance from the national nuclear regulatory commission. So it's not as if there's a movement underway to do this precipitously at least not in one junction with the nuclear regulatory commission. If the power plant isn't up and running by summer, there's a growing concern about the strain on our power grid. Where will we get electricity?
ST. JOHN: Right. And that is the responsibility or the independent system operator, the state agency that sort of monitors power supply throughout the state. So they've taken an interest in this and have looked at cop tingeancy plans and suggested that there is a plant that was decommissioned in Huntington beach that could be brought back online, and also that they will make liberal use of the flex alert system which alerts people to cut down on energy. And I think there's also been talk about trying to get the corporations to look at ways that they could short notice cut down their power use at certain peak demand times so the system can cope.
CAVANAUGH: The flex alert, that's what we know as rolling brownouts?
ST. JOHN: Well, that's a system whereby the word goes out, and we mention it even on the news, you know, that there's expected to be a flex alert at a certain time, and a request goes out for consumers to cut down on power use.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Murray, this might be a difficult question, but considering that here we are in the beginning of April, and apparently no one knows why what the design flaw is or what's causing these tubes to continue to have a wear-out problem so quickly. What's the likelihood that once we get to the warmer weather that these repairs can be complete and certified and those mantes can be back up and running?
JENNEX: Well, I really do think that they have a basic understanding of what's going on. They have to be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they know what's going O. So it's very specific, and that's what's taking time. They know it's a flow issue. And they're going to fix it, but they have to figure out what's causing the flow issue. They could just transfer that flow issue to somewhere else and still have the problem, so that's what's taking the time. Once they understand that, the staking program and the repairs, they're probably already planning those. So it probably doesn't take that long to do it. They can get a team in there, and probably within about a week they could have all the repairs made. And then start testing, come back up. For us, the real issue is July and August.
JENNEX: May and June isn't that bad. We have the ability to get them back in time and make this a nonissue for a Los of power. I would like to see the ISO make some contingency contracts with power suppliers outside of California.
CAVANAUGH: And if we do make it through the summer, does that strengthen the hand of people who don't want to see that plant reopened?
ST. JOHN: That is the argument I've seen on some of their literature. That it would be possible to do without the plant, so why don't we? That is kind of a theory that is out there. What it would actually take would require a great deal more research and development of alternatives sources.
CAVANAUGH: I have to end it there. I've gone over my time. I've been speaking with Alison St. John thank you.
ST. JOHN: My pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: And Murray Jennex, associate professor at SDSU school of business. And of course he's had extensive experience working at nuclear power plants. Thank you, Murray.
JENNEX: Thank you, Maureen. Always a pleasure.