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We look at a current movement underway to keep San Onofre permanently shutdown.

April 26, 2012 1:22 p.m.


Arnie Gundersen, nuclear energy consultant

Veronica Gutierrez, Vice President of Local Public Affairs, Southern California Edison.

Related Story: Solana Beach Looks At Issuing Letter Of Concern Over San Onofre


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh of the it's Thursday, April 26th. Our top story on Midday Edition, with San Onofre nuclear power plant out of commission since January, there's a movement growing to keep it closed or phase it out. The Solana beach City Council was the latest to hear testimony urging city leaders to oppose the plant. Earlier this week, the city of Irvine in Orange County voted to send a letter to federal regulators opposing the relicensing of San Onofre. And a rally by antinuke activists is planned this weekend at San Onofre. Joining me to talk about this are my guests, nuclear energy consultant Arnie Gunderson. Welcome.

GUNDERSON: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Also on the line is Veronica Gutierrez, vice president of local public affairs at Southern California Edison. Welcome to the program.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Arnie, give us an idea of the kinds of things you told the Solana beach City Council last night.

GUNDERSON: Well, I focused on the current problems at the plant, and they were related to the steam generator replacement. Aye written two reports for friends of the earth and traced back the problems in the steam generator to vibrations that were caused by the modification that Southern California Edison went a bridge too far and removed some things inside the old steam generators that I think caused the new problems. And more importantly, though, I talked about the fact that we're not going to know what the problem is in those steam generators until the end of the summer. Mitsubishi, the people that made this, are saying that they're not going to have their analysis done until September. So really, I was urging everyone to -- well, I believe that these units won't be ready to restart until we know the root cause of the problem, which is from Mitsubishi. So we need to be prepared this summer for new ways of generating electricity, and also some load-management by the people in Orange County.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you were also up in the Irvine City Council meeting, I believe. They voted to oppose the relicensing of San Onofre. But they don't really have any say in whether San Onofre is relicensed, right?

GUNDERSON: Well, as a -- I'm assuming that Southern California Edison will make the decision to relicense. That's a legal process that takes as long as ten years. So if you back out that the license ends in 2023 to the -- essentially they have to make that decision in the next six months to a year. Towns do have the right to file in either an opposition or in favor of a license extension. And it's pretty routine that they are involved in the process. The ultimate safety decision comes from the nuclear regulatory commission, but they do accept from experts like me or from towns and individuals, they will accept input in the process. So I think this is the first step by public officials to put them on notice that they're very concerned about San Onofre moving forward after 2023.

CAVANAUGH: Veronica, you've heard -- obviously you've been reading the news about these things, Irvine City Council voting to send that letter to the nuclear regulatory commission, other cities considering voicing their concerns to public officials. How is Southern California Edison reacting to this news from these cities in Southern California?

GUTIERREZ: Well, Maureen, I do think that the things that have been happening have resulted in getting folks who are antinuclear to become more activated than in the past. And they have concerns about safety. We have the same concerns. We have concerns that we are addressing, that we address every day. And we can't speculate. Is there a lot of information that has been out there. I know that Mr. Gunderson who is also a paid antinuclear activist has acted on partial information. Some of that information actually has come from us, a nuclear engineering international article that we had published in January that had a lot of science behind what we are doing. What we do not have the luxury to do is to speculate, to guess at what is going on. We will base all of our decisions regarding the plant on science, on engineering, and the facts associated with safety. We can't do it based on ideology.


GUTIERREZ: And we do see that the national, political discourse unfortunately has moved to a point where science is held in disregard in some sectors. So it comes as no surprise. But all that being said, our main focus continues to be on the science associated with safety.

CAVANAUGH: What about what Mr. Gunderson said about Mitsubishi not have coming up with any real concrete idea of how to stop what's happening in the steam generators until after the summer time? Is that something that you've been put on notice about that we are -- that San Onofre is going to be shut down through the summer?

GUTIERREZ: As I mentioned, we do not have the luxury to speculate. He can speculate.

CAVANAUGH: But that's a yes or no. Have you been put on notice?

GUTIERREZ: Let me explain what the process is here. We have scientists from all over the world who are focused on this, on the day to day basis. They are already engaged because the nuclear industry has a culture in which they all learn from each other. So they are looking at the test, they are looking at the inspections, they are looking at analysis and modeling associated with all of that, and they are not going to stake before they know the facts. They don't have that luxury, and nobody who is a nuclear professional or a scientist worth their salt is going to speculate without knowing all of those facts. And we do have to wait for those facts to come out.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now, Arnie, you're the author 've the report commissioned by the environmental group, friends of the earth. In it it claims San Onofre put bigger changes than it told the commission it was going to make. What would be Southern California Edison's reason to do that if indeed that's what happened? What would be the advantage?

GUNDERSON: As a degreed engineer and actually hardly I paid nuclear activist, talk about speculation, I actually signed a report two years ago that they should continue to operate for 20 more years. That's hardly something a paid nuclear activist would do. To the question at San Onofre, they made a strategic decision almost ten years ago to add additional tubes. And I believe that that changed the vibration of the tube, almost like blowing on a reed between your hands. It created a harmonic frequency that's causing these tubes to move and vibrate and hit each other. When I said that, there was nothing on the record to indicate that that was true. But since then, it's actually been confirmed by the NRC and Southern California Edison. So actually I think our reports have not been -- have actually been prescient in identifying a root cause analysis needs to be completed before these units start up. Before those reports were out, there was no one, not the NRC, not Southern California Edison was talking about a real root cause analysis being completed. And until we hear from Mitsubishi, we really don't know.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, just listening to Arnie and your response, Veronica, it seems like as you are doing this work to find out what's going on the steam generator, and all this work to bring San Onofre safely back online, what's unfolding is kind of a public relations disaster for Southern California Edison. Is the company doing anything to mitigate that?

GUTIERREZ: Well, that what we're really focused on, like I said is the safety, and the safe operation of that plant. One of the reasons that there is as much information out there, and there have been as many questions raised is because we've been putting information out there. We're keeping this from the public at all. As developments occur, we put out the information. Now, granted, we can't put out the final conclusions associated with some of that information because we don't know it ourselves. So we're trying to be responsible by just putting out as much information as we can for the general public. But is this eye controversial issue, we recognize that, because people have staked out their positions on an ideological basis. Our focus however like I said continues to be on safety.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when I asked you before about whether or not you know if the plant is going to be open this summer, is this information that you have at this point? Or is this something that is still unknown? In other words, do you know now whether or not this plant is going to be open this summer?

GUTIERREZ: I can tell you that we do not.


GUTIERREZ: We are still looking at this, it'll still be a while before we know enough to know whether or not it will be operation in the summer. And for that reason, we are taking the significant number of steps to prepare for a summer without one or possibly both units.

CAVANAUGH: And what are some of those steps?

GUTIERREZ: Well, we do contingency planning in any case, and every summer we do the contingency planning given the state of the system. In this case, we are looking at transmission upgrades that we have accelerated, they were plan forward 2013. They are now on target for being online by June 1st. The California independent system operator with whom we are working very closely, is also requesting that the AES plant in Huntington beach bring two of its units in to serve us. We are also working on conservation efforts. And every summer we do publicize a lot of conservation messages. Fortunately our customers are very responsive to them, especially regarding emergency alerts. We are discussing with the California public utilities commission there are a variety of programs we can put into place. We have so many people already conserving that we're trying to catch that last set of customers who might be able to conserve a little to make a difference if you pool all of them together. And in addition to that, we're doing a tremendous amount of outreach at the local level with the cities, with the media, with community organizations, business organizations, and customer groups.

CAVANAUGH: Veronica makes a point that there -- you know, there seems to be a whole lot of things that are also piggybacking on concerns about the steam generators if one can use such a light phrase for such heavy concerns. Concerns about evacuation plans, concerns about the issue of nuclear waste. Is it fair to bring these things up at this time in conversation about whether or not San Onofre should remain open?

GUNDERSON: Well, the generator issue is entirely separate. All the other issues are going to be brought up in the license extension process. So if the generators cause people to ask those questions, it's only about six months premature. That will come up in 2013, assuming that Edison makes the decision to relicense. As an expert, I really don't postulate about nuclear fuel and ultimate waste storage and things like that. But the condition of the plant is what's going to determine its moving forward. And the steam generator condition is an indication of problems. And I think that's really where my focus is right now.

CAVANAUGH: Arnie, opponents have been introducing a cost factor into the equation. I've read some opponents of San Onofre are saying it's going to cost so much to fix the two steam generator plants that have been having problems cost a lot to begin with. We as ratepayers are going to ultimately bear those costs. So why don't we instead shut down the plant and put that money into alternative energy? Do you think that that makes any sense? That kind of an argument?

GUNDERSON: The ratepayers will spend over -- through rate increases over time about approximate $700 million to do the steam generator project once. The problems that are encountered now probably should be carried by not the ratepayers again but by Mitsubishi who made this thing and Edison who helped with the key decisions in the design. But I actually put those two in separate issues, that Edison has a decision about repairing this unit or replacing the generators again. It would seem to me that that would be a legal action between them and Mitsubishi about who's going to pay. I don't think the ratepayers should pay twice.

CAVANAUGH: Veronica, have there been any discussions between Southern California and Mitsubishi about who is going to pick up the tab for this?

GUTIERREZ: I am not aware of discussions at the time.

CAVANAUGH: So what Southern California Edison think about passing those onto ratepayers?

GUTIERREZ: I don't think there's been any discussion on that at this time. We're focused on what is the problem here. I understand folks are interested in what the ultimate decisions or requests are when we get to the end of this. We just haven't gotten there yet.

CAVANAUGH: Arnie, you're usually identified as a former nuclear industry executive. Where did you work and what did you do?

GUNDERSON: I was a senior VP for a nuclear licensee, called nuclear energy services. And we had a -- I was a member of the radiation safety committee, and we had a license to handle radioactive waste. I worked at about 70 nuclear power plants throughout the country, installing nuclear fuel racks, I had 100 engineers at a power plant in Louisiana, we were writing procedures. It's hard to imagine 100 engineers for four years to write all the procedures for one power plant, but it's an enormous process. And we also did nondestructive examination. Might have group invented the modern steam generator nozzle dam, which of course is a key component in this discussion about the steam generators that are at San Onofre. So when you're older than dirt you kind of learn a lot over the years.

CAVANAUGH: If what you said happened in that report you prepared for friends of the earth actually did happen, if indeed Southern California Edison changed the steam generators more than they told the nuclear regulatory commission they did, are they in trouble?

GUNDERSON: I went to the public document room at the NRC to find what Southern California Edison actually told the NRC. And it appears that some time in June of 2006, six years ago, they had a meeting, but all those notes are missing. The public document room, the NRC project manager, no one can find the notes of the meeting. It's hard for me to believe that the NRC could have evaluated properly when they don't even have the original documents in the file. I know that the NRC is looking at the issue of where they told everything about this modification when it began in 2006. And I don't think the outcome is going to happen any time soon.

CAVANAUGH: Veronica when might we know more about how these repairs proceeding?

GUTIERREZ: Before I answer that, I have to address what Mr. Gunderson said.

CAVANAUGH: Sure, yes.

GUTIERREZ: I would really recommend that you speak with the NRC to get the facts associated with this. They have already refuted that claim. They were fully aware of what we were doing. And I believe that the NRC can provide you with more information. You don't have to take my word for it. And I'm sorry what was your other question?

CAVANAUGH: When is it that we think that we're going to hear more about how these repairs are proceeding to the steam generators at San Onofre.

GUTIERREZ: As we receive additional information, that is verifiable, that is validated, that has gone through the science and engineering standards that are required by the nuclear industry, we will be providing that information. I can't guess when that's going to be. But we're going through that process. We are hoping that we can get to the end of the process soon, but I can't tell when that's going to happen. We don't have a timeline for this.

CAVANAUGH: And I just want our listeners to know that our investigative unit has put in a request to the nuclear regulatory issue for all documentation regarding the steam generators. I don't believe we've received that documentation yet, but we will let you know when we do. We have to wrap it up down. I want to thank my guest, Veronica Gutierrez, vice president of local public affairs at Southern California Edison. And former nuclear executive Arnie Gunderson. Thank you both very much for speaking with us today.

GUNDERSON: Thanks for having me.

GUTIERREZ: Thank you.