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Report Critical Of San Onofre Restarting Steam Generators

September 24, 2012 1:08 p.m.

GUEST:

Daniel Hirsch, president, Committee to Bridge the Gap, lecturer on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz

Related Story: Report Critical Of San Onofre Restarting Steam Generators

Transcript:

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.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Early next month Southern California Edison says it will deliver a long-awaited letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The letter is expected to describe the root causes of the tube failure that shut down steam generator three at San Onofre nuclear power plant last January. Similar to Blair has been found in generator to. In the months since the shutdowns other organizations have been doing research into the two problem sets and unafraid results of one of those investigations was recently introduced as the UN and U.S. Senate committee which oversees nuclear regulation and it contends the damage steam generators at seven a frame are in much worse shape than publicly acknowledged. Daniel Hirsch is co-author of the report. He's a lecturer on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz and president of the nuclear policy organization, the committee to bridge the gap. Daniel, welcome to the show.

DANIEL HIRSCH: Thank you so much for having me here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Once again we invited Southern California Edison to join us for the discussion but they declined. Let me start with your report. In your report, Daniel you compare the problems in the steam generators at San Onofre to other nuclear power plants around the country. What did you find?

DANIEL HIRSCH: The situation in seminar free is really extraordinary. Edison has claimed that they could start up unit 27, saying that really it's problems early typical San Onofre that you see in new steam generators kind of settling in. So we asked for data to support that, no data were provided and NRC had no data so we ended up acquiring the data ourselves by looking at the experience for every new steam generator of similar design in the country. We found this amazing. The median number of steam generator tubes in other words the number of steam generator tubes in a typical reactor is for. At San Onofre, unit two they have 1600, 400 times as many and 1800 for unit three. The number of actual clear indications, places on the tubes that have been damaged, the median for the countries for again. And similar for unit two had 4700, more than 1000 times as much as a typical reactor. Lastly, the number of steam generator tubes that have had to be plugged after one cycle of operation in the country is zero. Not. Unit two had seven of rehab 510 tubes that were plugged and unit three had 807. So the conclusion is that, twofold, one is that these two steam generators, the two reactors with steam generators, units two and three are not really very different. They have the same underlying problem. Edison says they can turn the key and start up unit two, just run at reduced power and it somehow did fundamentally different that unit three, the data do not support that and secondly the data clearly don't support the claim that the problems that unit two or unit three are standard or typical. In fact, these are very very ill steam generators. The fever is a little higher for unit 310 two but both want to be intensive care.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Daniel Hirsch, remind us what the tubes do and why the failure caused the shutdown of unit three at San Onofre.

DANIEL HIRSCH: It's a super question. A nuclear power plant has to transfer the heat from the nuclear flow fuel to avoid melting to avoid a meltdown. If there's a meltdown the radioactivity in the fuel can be released. So you have to constantly provide heat out and use the heat to produce electricity. What happens is they are generators of steam, devices that take the heat from the primary coolant, transfer that to steam in a secondary: to that runs the turbines that produce electricity. So that's critically important for several reasons. One is that the steam generators need to be able to extract the heat to prevent melting. And secondly, the steam generator tubes are the primary coolant boundary which means that that is the place San Onofre if there is a breach you could have radioactivity get out of containment. Those big domes, the steam generators, the secondary coolant line goes out through the containment. So if you have burst tubes you can both cause overheating of the fuel and have a direct pathway to the environment for the radioactivity. The problem with steam generators is the tubes have to be incredibly thin to transfer the heat and incredibly strong to prevent there from the neighbor stand release of radioactivity. The difficulty for sin in a free is that the new steam generators, they are less than two years old are showing the kind of San Onofre that you would expect for ones that are decades old. And as the tubes get damaged to get thinner and the potential becomes greater that they could burst. And because a potential race of radioactivity. Now there are back up systems that could come into play to try to mitigate such an event but we've seen over and over again at Fukushima, Chernobyl, 3 mile Island, accidents occur when even the backup systems failed. He did not unequivocal device like steam generators to be in trouble in the ones that they have now that were just put in are crippled. And the great issue before Southern California is whether they should be permitted to restart the crippled unit two without fixing it first.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now obviously from your own data that shows that other nuclear power plants have tubes installed in their steam generators that for the most part work, work well. Do we have any idea what could be causing the problem here at San Onofre, or is that something we just have to wait until we get a letter from Southern California Edison next month.

DANIEL HIRSCH: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission published in automatic inspection team report that concluded that what had happened was that the new design, all the changes that were made from the old steam generators resulted in an underestimation of the steam flow and that the computer models used by Mitsubishi underestimated by 400% the steam flow within certain parts of the generators causing parts to vibrate. Those parts then started to hit other parts causing rubbing and damage to the tubes. What is more embarrassing is that the reason for this error is because of this and tried to pull what is in some sense a regulatory fast one. They wanted to put a substantially changed to steam generators from the earlier said but did not want to have to get a license amendment that face the prospect of a more thorough review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or an evidentiary hearing in which the public can participate. So they told the NRC that they were making a like for like replacement essentially got a 100 W GE lightbulb going to replace it with 100 W GE lightbulb that is nothing to lose but instead their place to steam generator by a different manufacturer with a different design with new ones that had 400 extra troops tubes that have a different alloy all sorts of other different features that had been changed and is clear that those changes have resulted in the steam generators failing. The embarrassment for Edison is that the first set filled also early they were supposed to last 40 years and may last mailing maybe 45. Maybe five this is clearly an embarrassment they lasted a year or two there was an effort to bypass the process and my great fear is Edison is going to make the same mistake again which is to try to get the NRC to approve restart without fixing or replacing these devices. And to do so without a license amendment without the prospect of evidentiary hearing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me read from a statement that Southern California statement sent us and read this in part. Southern California Edison has and will continue to make its top priority the safety of its public and the workers the engineers and a team of external experts are currently working on a response to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's confirmatory action letter which will include a thorough understanding of the cause, there appear plan and the corrective actions for unit two. You know, Daniel Hirsch, that new head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told the Senate committee that took your report into its minutes that any plans for restarting reactors could take them months to review. What will the NRC be looking at when they get this information from Southern California Edison?

DANIEL HIRSCH: I'm a bit skeptical that they're going to look very hard. If it looked very hard on the original request to replace we wouldn't have a billion-dollar fiasco in the first place. If that is truly believes that safety is its top priority and the NRC truly believes that is going to take significant time to determine the safety that both of them should not be imposing an evidentiary and adjudicatory hearing to resolve this and both Edison and the NRC staff had vigorously opposed that kind of truth testing. With NRC is going to have to try to look at and I don't think they're going to look very thoroughly is whether Edison's presumed plan, which is to run these crippled steam generators at 70% power of the reactor, roughly, hoping that this reduces the damage inside the steam generators, whether that makes any sense. These are damaged goods and you need to repair or replace them. And instead Edison appears to be planning to propose starting up without doing that. So, in some fashion, this is an experiment that they would be proposing, which is to turn on the damage devices and see what happens. The problem is that there's 8 ½ million people within 50 miles would be involuntary participants of the experiment.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Daniel Hirsch is co-author of report U.S. Senate took into its minuted he's a lecture on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz. President of the nuclear policy organization the committee to bridge the gap. Daniel I must ask you about this committee to bridge the gap. It is an unusual name. Is this an antinuclear organization?

DANIEL HIRSCH: It's not an accurate description of what we are. We look at nuclear policy questions. It's true that we've tended to be critical of specific proposals. But our concerns are always specific. In the case of salmonella free, it has a very troubled record we look at nuclear waste issues, nuclear terrorism issues and try to propose fixes. In the case of salmonella free this is a facility that the NRC said has a chilling environment that workers are too scared to bring forth complaints to management. For the last three years as have the highest number of safety complaints to the NRC by workers of any reactor in the country. There is a period of five years during which the hourly fire watches were not conducted at San Onofre in they fabricated the logs. Not for a week or a month, but for five years. For four years batteries were not appropriately connected to the back of diesel generators, critical generators in case you lose power. So our concerns are specific about the facility. It's a really troubled facility so everything about nuclear power generally. You are for everyone the facility to run well, if you are opposed to nuclear power you wanted to run well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm reading your release about collecting the data that you need to collect in order to do the study of the damaged tubes at San Onofre. I was very interested to learn that nobody seemed to know, you could get any data for medicine or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about what was actually happening with damaged tubes at San Onofre, and so you had to get the data from, you had to collect data from around the country to see how that compared. You had to do it yourself.

DANIEL HIRSCH: It was really very puzzling that's why when one says look at the NRC it will look at it and resulted it doesn't make me particularly satisfied. I continually S&P regulatory commission for the data as to the number of damage at seven a free and they told us they had the numbers but they were going to release them. They were basically covering for Addison. It took Senators boxer's intervention and their staffs intervention before the data were finally released. The data contradict two other sets of data when I asked NRC which of the two sets were right they said that they did not know. Then the NRC told me they believed it was happening at unit two was comparable to what happens another new steam generators and I said San Onofre the data to support that. They said it was anecdotal. Is that you're going to make a restart decision based on anecdote. They said they would check with the headquarters for data the headquarters as we have not compiled the data so I and an assistant had to go through every inspection report for every new steam generator in the country to acquire the data that the NRC ought to have. And with those data showed was that the NRC had said and what Edison had said were clearly not true. This is not a standard thing that's happening. This is extraordinary. 1000 times as many damaged tubes as the typical reactor? Something is very seriously wrong answer soon because NRC didn't have the data and they are still making statements about.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already acknowledged that it will have to look at thethey review and approve steam generators because of the problems with the steam generators at San Onofre and the suspicions waiting for total confirmation that they were to replace the like for like. Do you expect the NRC will actually have to become more critical of these plans in the future because of what's happened at San Onofre?

DANIEL HIRSCH: They should, but won't. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was established in 1970s because there was concerns about conflict of interest in the predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission pretty was both promoting and regular nuclear power but all that happened with the NRC was established is that the names on the doors changed into promotional attitude which is exactly the sickness that led to the Fukushima problem that the regulator in Japan was too close to the and industry to regulate affects the NRC to a very significant degree. So NRC has been reluctant to look at the failure of its regulations in this regard and I think the greatest test will be to see whether they permit their to be a resident Jerry hearing and acquire a license in order to restart. If Edison is wrong and running at lower power does not solve the problem that can be very serious consequences and before we make that decision we should do a thorough review. If NRC insists on basically a closed-door agreement, a handshake between Edison and the NRC staff with no public scrutiny, no independent experts, then I think you'll know that the NRC hasn't learned the lessons of Fukushima.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Us there anything that Congress can do to force an evidentiary hearing that you are hoping will precede any talk of trying to restart either of the steam generators at San Onofre?

DANIEL HIRSCH: Yes, Sen. Boxer chairs to oversee committee for nuclear a guitar commission it could have great influence over them out whether they will be the key be turned without that kind of evidence sharing hearing. And Sen. Feinstein chairs the energy subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee and also has great influence. She is the keeper of the purse. So the question is whether Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Boxer will make it crystal clear that there should not be a restart decision without a follow accusatory hearing and I think that would be a worthwhile thing for people to communicate.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I also want listeners to know that October 9th the joint commission will hold another public hearing, big turnout is expected. We will give you, we will have a show on that at that time to tell you what was announced at the public hearing. I've been speaking with Daniel Hirsch. He's lecturer at UC Santa Cruz and president of the nuclear policy commission, the committee to bridge the gap. If you would like to see the report that Daniel Hirsch co-authored, you can find it on our website at KPBS.org. Daniel, thank you so much for coming in.

DANIEL HIRSCH: Thank you for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Coming up, the San Diego film Festival gets new leadership and a larger mission. That's as KPBS Midday Edition continues. First some world and national headlines to keep you up to date this hour. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is appealing to Muslims not to resort to violence as they protest and anti-Islam film produced in Southern California. Clinton made the comments to the Clinton global initiative on the sidelines of the annual UN Gen. Assembly. The Marine Corps says it will court-martial two noncommissioned officers for allegedly urinating on the bodies of Taliban fighters last year in Afghanistan and posing for unofficial photos with casualties. The two are based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. College courses for the first time were high school students are taking the ACT college entrance exam than its rival the SAT the nonprofit is releasing SAT scores for the class of 2012 today. It's 12:23 and you're listening to KPBS Midday Edition. This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh.