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Sen. Boxer Lashes Out At Management At San Onofre

May 29, 2013 1:09 p.m.

GUESTS:

Adam Townsend, editor for Patch.com/Orange County

Murray Jennex, SDSU Professor, College of Business Administration, expert on nuclear containment, who once worked at San Onofre.

Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer at Fairewinds

Related Story: Sen. Boxer Lashes Out At Management At San Onofre

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.

CAVANAUGH: Inquiry into the faulty generators at San Onofre was stepped up a notch yesterday by Barbara Boxer. She is calling for an investigation by the U.S. justice department into whether Southern California Edison misled federal regulators about the extent of changes made to the nuclear power plant's new generators.

(Audio Recording Played)

BOXER: So Cal Edison people told regulators one thing and did another. And I've gone over it several times. They self-certified the replacement, and in this letter you see they said it was not a like for like replacement.

CAVANAUGH: She states the letter her office released yet is "clearing a turning point in this situation." Now she is calling for a full licensing amendment and public hearing before the San Onofre power plant is allowed to restart. San Onofre has not been producing power since early last year. I'd like to introduce my guests, Arnie Gunderson is former nuclear power energy executive, now chief engineer at Fair Winds, an energy consulting group.

GUNDERSON: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Murray Jennex is here, an SDSU professor and expert on nuclear containment who once worked at San Onofre. Welcome back.

JENNEX: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Adam Townsend is editor of patch.com of Orange County.

TOWNSEND: Pleased to be here.

CAVANAUGH: We once again invited a representative from Southern California Edison to join us to respond to Senate boxer's allegations, but Edison continues to decline our invitation. They sent us a statement which is linked on our website, KPBS.org. The last we heard about San Onofre was that Edison was urging the NRC to approve a plan for them to reopen the generator at 70% power. Now comes this dramatic move by Senator boxer. What had the NRC been saying about the plans to reopen San Onofre? Were they reviewing the plans?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, the NRC continues to review those plans at the staff level. They've delayed their decision several times. They say it'll come at the end of May, now the end of June. But given all the political pressure and ongoing investigations by several other agencies, even over and above the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it doesn't look like that's going to happen anytime soon.

CAVANAUGH: How does Senator Boxer claim Edison misled nuclear regulators? Arnie, are you with us? Okay, let me put that question out.

TOWNSEND: Well, at issue here is -- what she is claiming and what she is claiming is echoed by activists, they're saying that Edison misled regulators by saying we're going to install new steam generators, but they're going to be basically the same as the last generators so we don't have to go through this long, expensive, lengthy licensing amendment process to do it. Now the activists and Senator Boxer have pointed to different pieces of evidence that they say Edison misled regulators. But Edison and the NRC itself up to this point is saying that Edison complied with all the necessary rules. And assuming there is this potential investigation by the justice department, it's going to come down to a really technical interpretation. The laws and regulations that apply to renovations and rehab.

CAVANAUGH: Arnie, are you there?

GUNDERSON: Yes, I am.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. So Adam laid it out for us. It comes down to this idea of like for like swap of steam generators. And what this letter that Barbara Boxer released yesterday said and what Edison has been saying to regulators all down the line. Why is that such a central part of this debate, whether or not the generators are like for like swaps?

GUNDERSON: Well, part of the federal law, nuclear law part 10 of the code of regulation, 50 covers nuclear plants, but chapter 59 talks about these like for like swaps. And the NRC doesn't want to know about minor changes you're making to a power plant. It's almost like changing your mud tires to your snow tires or something like that, they don't want to know. But when you get a major modification that falls outside of this like for like parameter, they want to know. And there's eight different criteria that they apply to the law. Last year, Edison published a paper in a trade journal and they said that these new steam generators were like for like replacement. Now their executive releases a letter that says, no, they were not like for like. So Edison -- what they said last year is not what they're saying this year. And frankly, friends of the earth has been saying now for more than a year that they should have applied, they should have gotten a thorough NRC review and opened the process up to public involvement back in 2004 when they made this decision.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Murray Jennex, Edison clearly says in this letter that was released yesterday, they used the word it's not like for like replacements which is exactly what it had to be as we just heard not to generate more hearings by the NRC to see whether the license needed to be amended in some way. Now Edison is saying that like for like has a lot of gray areas. Do you agree?

JENNEX: Well, it does because -- what Arnie said is partially true but not totally true. What 5059 is about is a way of prioritizing changes so that the NRC focuses on those changes which are -- impacted on safety basis. It never says that a change will be exactly what was before. It allows for modification to some degree as long as there's no impact on the safety analysis. Now, that means that it isn't necessarily going to be a like for like replacement. Like for like means that it has the same overall impact on safety that it had before. It doesn't mean that it's going to be technically an identical component.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, in the written response we received from Southern California Edison, they say at no time did SCE hide hide the differences from the NRC or seek to mislead. They say they were paying close attention to the design of the generators. Is that response enough, Arnie, to settle this kind of a question which seems to be sort of a glaring contradiction between what Edison told regulators and what they said to Mitsubishi?

GUNDERSON: I read that letter and red lights went on as I was reading it. They were into this contract for two month, and they already had really serious concerns about Mitsubishi's ability to --

CAVANAUGH: We are getting some cross-chatter here on the cellphone. A lot of people have been saying, Murray, that this letter is kind of a smoking gun in this inquiry.

JENNEX: I don't necessarily see it as a smoking gun. But I see it as Edison saying we want to maintain the safety evaluation. That is our overriding goal. That is what they should have been saying. Also why they say the NRC has seen this before is that they get submitted all changes every two years, so they do have an opportunity to see everything that's happening, regardless of whether or not it's called a design change. They get all the changes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Adam, you covered an awful lot of the public hearings that have taken place here in San Diego and Orange County about San Onofre. Do you feel that there is a smoking gun element, at least public response to the letter released by Senator Boxer yesterday?

TOWNSEND: Well, yeah, when you look at the specific sentence saying we're going to treat this as a like for like replacement, I'm paraphrasing, if you're not familiar with the code, that certainly to a layperson would indicate that there's something going on there. But the thing is, if you look at the NRC, the codes that regulate these kind of things, there's all these little exceptions and every subsection of code has "there shall be a license amendment except for." So it's not quite as cut and dry as that. That's something that -- I'm not a lawyer. There's going to be a bunch of lawyers probably from the justice department that will have to determine what that means and if it was a smoking gun.

CAVANAUGH: Why do you think Senator Boxer is getting involved in this?

JENNEX: Personally, I think she's grandstanding. There is a process working through this, it's got the NRC involved, San Onofre involved, the atomic energy and licensing board involved. That process should be allowed to play out. When that process is done, then Boxer can look at that decision and see whether or not she feels that was the legitimate decision. But to jump in now while people are trying to decide that I think is actually very wrong and almost an abuse of power trying to influence the outcome.

CAVANAUGH: We have a cut from Barbara Boxer, explain why she's getting involved in this.

NEW SPEAKER: I'm a United States Senator, and I take an oath to protect the people of my country, and to protect their health and their safety. And I'm going to do everything in my power to do that.

CAVANAUGH: And that's Senator Barbara Boxer from her news conference yesterday. Arnie Gunderson, are you with us?

GUNDERSON: Yes, I am.

CAVANAUGH: Why do you think Senator boxer has brought this letter forth in this way? Is this a grandstanding political move on her part?

GUNDERSON: No, I don't think it is. The NRC hasn't been doing their job on the San Onofre oversight for years. And I think she has to be concerned about that. Murray said that they are entitled to see the files. What happens is an NRC inspector sits in a room, they pass the files across the table, and you can't take them home. Then he takes possession of them and it becomes the public record. So Edison didn't want this to be a public record. So at the end of the day, the NRC inspector passes the paperback to Edison and he's never taken possession. And I think Boxer was fed up with this game that the NRC has been playing with Edison all along and is trying to tell them that they have a legal responsibility to protect the people in Southern California.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Murray, we heard that Edison's parent company had already been doing sort of a cost analysis on the benefits on keeping the plant open or shutting it down based on what happens with the regulators and so forth. How do you think all of this, forwarding this to the U.S. justice department, how do you think that might affect that?

JENNEX: I don't know that it should affect it. But I do believe probably unit 3 will not start back up.

CAVANAUGH: That's shut down forever?

JENNEX: Probably. I think when they analyze it, it'd be just too expensive to try to fix it, unless Mitsubishi offers to do it for free, which they probably won't. On the other hand, unit 2, there is a good technical justification that it is now different from unit 2 that it could warrant starting back up. So Edison has to operate their asset in the best possible why. That's why they're pushing to start it up. Whether or not they really want to, they've said in the past maybe it isn't economical just to operate 1 unit. So to get the best deal, they have to try to start it back up.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And Arnie, would a licensing hearing that Barbara Boxer is calling for, would that cost Edison more money as well?

GUNDERSON: They can probably be done before the end of the year. So the public part of the process though I really don't think Edison wants to go through now. They want the money but they didn't want the public involvement.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, we're going to have to wrap it up there. Thank you all very, very much.

TOWNSEND: Thank you.

JENNEX: Thank you.