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Hundreds Attend Public Forum On San Onofre's Future

October 10, 2012 1:43 p.m.


Alison St John, Senior Metro Reporter, KPBS

Related Story: Hundreds Attend Public Forum On San Onofre's Future


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.

CAVANAUGH: Hundreds of people gathered last night for a highly charged meeting in Dana Point. Officials from the nuclear regulatory commission called the public meeting on the disabled San Onofre nuclear power plant. Last week, Southern California Edison submitted a plan to restart San Onofre unit No. 2 at reduced power. But the NRC officials there say they are not ready to talk about that. Joining me is Alison St. John who attended last night's meeting. Welcome to the show.

ST. JOHN: Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Give us a sense of the atmosphere.

ST. JOHN: You said charged, I think that's exactly the right word. There was a diversity of opinion there. Perhaps a majority of the people who are very worried about restarting the plant and a concern about safety. There was also people worried about their jobs, people who are worried about future power, and I thought one of the most telling questions was from a woman who said you tell us that your commitment is to safety, but the safety record at San Onofre is one of the worst in the country. So why should we trust you?

CAVANAUGH: Was it a packed house?

ST. JOHN: It was. The room was there to hold 1,000 people, and there were people outside in the hall who could not get in. So yes.

CAVANAUGH: How was the meaning organized?

ST. JOHN: A cross section of people for and against the restart. Some from the union. The chief nuclear officer of Edison was there, and it was all moderated, not by the NRC, but the regional administrator, ELMO, was kind of the key figure there.

CAVANAUGH: We do have a cut from one of the panelists, a resident of Laguna Nigel who wants the power plant back online.

NEW SPEAKER: From my viewpoint, it's simple. It's a technical problem, the people that are involved know how it fix it, we need to get on with fixing it and get our electricity back. Thank you very much.


CAVANAUGH: Fierce applause there. Where is that coming from?

ST. JOHN: There were definitely two lots of applause groups, and that was coming from a lot of the Edison employees who are unionized labor, who came in three buses, and were very much in evidence in their T-shirts, red, yellow, and blue T-shirts. So they were applauding all the people who said the plant should be restarted because they're concerned about their jobs.

CAVANAUGH: Did any of them speak?

ST. JOHN: Yes, several of them spoke. And some of them were sayinging don't blame us, we have jobs and did the best we could. There was also the point of view, look, we built the steam generators that have proved to be so faulty, nobody said they're working properly, and yet no heads have rolled. What's going on here? So you had a cross section of perspectives from the workers.

CAVANAUGH: And many of the workers were bussed in by the company; is that right?

ST. JOHN: That's correct, yes. There was some, I guess, reason to believe that perhaps the company felt they wanted a large block of people at the meeting to counter balance the number of people who were worried about restarting the plant. Of

CAVANAUGH: The restart issue was not delved into very deeply during this particular public meeting. If you could, give us the gist of the restart plan that was submitted by Edison last week.

ST. JOHN: Edison is proposing to restart unit 2 only at 70% power, reduced power, then shut it down again five months later to check and make sure all tubes are okay. The other interesting thing is they will leave unit 3 shut down indefinitely. And the chief nuclear officer said last night that one will probably require extremely expensive repairs. And some people are feeling they haven't really explained clearly enough in order to get the public to trust what is the difference between units 2 and 3. Why is it they can start up unit 2 again and a panel of world renowned experts say that it will be okay to start it up with 70% power whereas unit 3 is going to be down indefinitely. And yet both of them were replaced at about the same time with the same design. So the this obviously sparked some questions.

CAVANAUGH: Has Southern California Edison given any analysis or description about what the difference is between the tubes and what they say the difference is between the tubes in unit No. 2 and the disabled unit No. 3?

ST. JOHN: Well, what they say, and there's a lot of highly technical terms, that the thermal hydraulic conditions around the tubes, which is basically the steam that circulates around the outside of the tubes has caused a fluid elastic instability, which means that the tubes rattle. So the tubes therefore vibrate and rub against either the support structure or each other, and therefore their integrity is compromised and there's a risk of them leaking. So the tube support structures is one of the focuses, is there a difference between the structure of supports in units 2 and 3? The manufacture or the design? That hasn't been clearly defined.

CAVANAUGH: What does, if anything, the NRC, have to stay about this restart plan that they just received from Edison?

ST. JOHN: They didn't have much to say about it last night at all. They said we just got it, it's going to take us months to review it. We'll hold a meeting at an indeterminate date to review the review. This is one of the things, people feel like the timeline is so unclear. At some point, we are reviewing our procedures but we don't know when the meeting will occur.

CAVANAUGH: Just recently an analysis by the Committee to Bridge the Gap said the two were at San Onofre, and they were talking about unit 3 and 2, hundreds of times worse than any other nuclear plant in the region. Was that claim made again last night?

ST. JOHN: Yes. That report was cited. And Daniel Hersh and friends of the earth both feel it's too dangerous to risk restarting the plant, and they were not there. So some were saying this is a dog and pony show just to show that the NRC is taking public comment, but it wasn't what they were looking for which is an adjudicated hearing, an independent hearing to have a look at the whole process by which the steam generators got installed.

CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about that. That is one of the major requests that environmentalists and critics of the procedure are making. They want an evidentiary hearing to be conducted by the NRC before any restart plan is begun or approved or anything like that. What were they talking about?

ST. JOHN: Well, my understanding is that they believe the changes in the design were so significant that the company should not have been given permission to go ahead and's place the steam generators as though they were the old ones. And they want a licensed amendment which would require a much more stringent hearing, an independent hearing. And the question is should it be something that the NRC designs or something that is independent of the NRC? There was some question as to whether even the NRC's procedures can be trusted. They continue to say we are reviewing our procedures, but there's no evidence yet that they are going to accept an independent assessment of what they did so far and what they're going to do next.

CAVANAUGH: I want to bring you back briefly to this timeline you were talking about, are and the lack of it, and how frustrating that is to try to get a handle on what's going on. Now, it's my understanding the NRC has not completed its own analysis into the tube failure at San Onofre; is that right?

ST. JOHN: That is ongoing. In fact they mentioned last night that they do have inspectors over in Japan inspecting Mitsubishi heavy industry, who are the people who manufactured the steam generators. It's been months, it's been since January, March, I guess since they issued the letter asking for Edison to take steps. And they still have not completed this investigation. So that is still ongoing at the same time as they're going to start reviewing now the restart plan.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Then this was a problem actually for me when I was trying to write what this meeting last night was about! Is it an update on what's going on at San Onofre? A discussion on the restart plan? And the answers kept coming back no, no!


CAVANAUGH: So what was it?

ST. JOHN: It was not an update on the restart, not a response to the restart plan, although there was some discussion about that. It was officially a level 3 public meeting, which means something in the NRC's vocabulary. It's a level of meeting whereby the public is given an opportunity to express its questions and doubts and fears and get them aired. So that is one of the big questions, is it the meeting basically just a way of the NRC making the public feel like it's included while it continues on its own path?

CAVANAUGH: One event that was different about this meeting I believe is that there were members of the California public utilities commission at the meeting. And that's significant.

ST. JOHN: Yes, yes. Of the state regulators haven't really weighed in on this at all yet. They have been hanging in the background waiting to see what the NRC would do. Now at the end of this month, the California public utilities commission is due to vote on where the two start looking at whether Edison can continue to charge ratepayers for energy that is not being generated. And whether in fact the company might end up having to refund some of that money to ratepayers.

CAVANAUGH: We have another cut. This one is from a panelist, the head of the alliance for nuclear responsibility, Rochelle Becker.

NEW SPEAKER: The guys that want to restart the steam generators, their share holders can pay for it. They want to replace them, the share holders can pay for them. If they continue to lay off workers, their share holders would be responsible for this.

CAVANAUGH: That is the question. Will share holders bear the responsibility of this?

ST. JOHN: Right, and she said we are the ratepayers of California and we are tired of paying for Edison's mistakes, and that got the big evaluate clap of the whole night. So we've been talking about safety, but the next step is to talk about safety, but at what price safety?

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. The California energy commission was also represented last night. And there was talk there about how they're going to keep California powered up without San Onofre. We have a put from Robert Oglesbee.

NEW SPEAKER: Right now we're looking forward to the summer of 2013. Hour planning process doesn't assume that the San Onofre plant is up and going in any manner. We have to make a contingency plan that assumes the power is not there.

CAVANAUGH: I don't think anybody has been thinking about next summer without San Onofre except Robert.

ST. JOHN: Yes, and the CPUC, correct.

CAVANAUGH: So this is what we're looking at. A long-term time without come power from San Onofre.

ST. JOHN: Well, I don't think we can conclude that, to be honest. That may be what happens, but nobodies has said that yet. And cal iso, who is in charge of keeping the lights on around here, has already said we've got to plan as though it may not come back online as one of the options. To not plan would be irresponsible. So it's not a done deal either way, but the planners are saying we've got to start looking ahead as though it might not be back online.

CAVANAUGH: And in the meantime, would it be possible for the public utilities commission to look at the situation and rule in one way or another? Even for a lemon law or for another reason rate payers do not have to pay?

ST. JOHN: There's a state law that says if a power plant isn't producing energy for nine months, the rate payers shouldn't be responsible. It'll be interesting to see on what grounds anyone might argue that ratepayers should pay. Because at this point it really doesn't look as if ratepayers should be paying. One of the problems is the CPU C doesn't not what they're going to pay until the demands of the company.

CAVANAUGH: What did you take away from this meeting?

ST. JOHN: I really think this question of the lack of trust is what's bubbling up, and the demand for an independent review, which the NRC says that it's going to consider, but what agency is going to consider voting for an independent review of itself? At this point, I think it really is up to some outside agencies, either Barbara Boxer who is at the federal level and is overseeing this, could perhaps take a step and demand that, or a state agency like the CPU C could put more pressure on and say at this point we don't think this is going to be feasible for our ratepayers. But I don't see the NRC and Edison agreeing to an independent review of their own processes at this point.

CAVANAUGH: Has there been any movement toward an independent review of the agencies that oversee the NRC?

ST. JOHN: No demands. Barbara Boxer has met with the chair of the NRC and said I'm holding you accountable. But this issue of another independent review, she has not demanded that. And the CPUC has not weighed in very much yet.

CAVANAUGH: What is the next step in this process?

ST. JOHN: We're looking for the end of this month when the ratepayers will hear whether the California public utilities commission will decide to start reviewing and of course this is all very long and we get complaints, whether ratepayers should be asked to pay for this plant or whether in fact they should be refunded at this point.

CAVANAUGH: Whether they'll decide to start reviewing.

ST. JOHN: You got it.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much.

ST. JOHN: My pleasure.