Roundtable: San Onofre To Shut Down, Cunningham Out Of Prison
June 7, 2013 1:31 p.m.
Alison St. John, KPBS News
Amita Sharma, KPBS News
Dean Calbreath, San Diego Daily Transcript
FUDGE: Today is Friday, June 7th. I'm Tom Fudge in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Today we start a new version of the Midday Edition Roundtable. After a discussion on the top stories of the weeks, we'll highlight some of KPBS radio's best features of the week, including the risks of searching for that perfect retirement spot in a foreign paradise.
SAUER: Welcome to the Roundtable. Joining me today are Alison St. John North County bureau chief for KPBS news, investigative reporter, Amita Sharma of KPBS news, and reporter Dean Calbreath of the San Diego Daily Transcript. The big story today is Southern California Edison has decided to close the San Onofre nuclear generating station. The plant has been shut down since January 2011. An estimated 1,100 workers face layoffs with the closing of this plant, and it once served 1.4 million homing in this region.
ST. JOHN: Ted Craver, who is CEO of Edison International, the parent company of Edison who operates San Onofre, had an hour-long media availability this morning and talked about his decision. He gave an indication a month ago that unless they got approval to restart the plant at 70% power, they would have to make this decision before the end of the year. So the question is why now? And he basically said that the company had two scenarios they evaluated. One was restarting at 70% power, and one was shutting down. Since it now looks that the NRC is dragging its feet and was not giving any indication that they would make a decision by the end of the year, they figured it would be better to cut our losses now and shut the plant down.
SAUER: The last position was they wanted to restart the plant on June 1st. What did they say about that?
ST. JOHN: Well, that was the argument, that we're entering the summer season, and the peak demand. One of the things that made the NRC look like it might take longer was the recent decision by the Atomic Safety Licensing Board to agree to approximation with the group, Friends of the Earth, saying the public needs more input on this. When that decision was taken, it looked like oh, this could take a lot longer. And it was the time I think that was the issue. And it looked like it would take longer, so Edison decided we can't afford to wait.
SAUER: And Amita, what have you learned about what workers were told about the closing of the plant today?
SHARMA: Exactly what Alison just said. At 6:40 AM today, Edison's chief nuclear officer, Pete Dietrich, sent out an e-mail to the workers at San Onofre and he cited that decision by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to order a hearing on studying the plant at 70%, and he wrote in his e-mail "the tough reality is that the recent atomic safety and licensing board decision creates significant additional uncertainty regarding our ability to get to an NRC decision to restart unit 2 this year. Is this not good for our customers, our investors, and the region."
SAUER: Okay. Any react from the workers or representatives of the workers?
SHARMA: It's a little too soon. They still are going to need some workers to maintain the plant. Then there's also dismantling or decommissioning the plant.
SAUER: We talked about a net 1,100. But it's complicated because it's in phases and it's going to take time. Alison, give us a brief overview of the problems here? What happened with the radiation leak and what caused it
ST. JOHN: The plant shut down in January. Both units, January of last year, and subsequently it was discovered it was the design of the steam generators. Hundreds of people have spent thousands of hours looking into this. And they discovered that Mitsubishi, the company that manufactured the steam generators used a faulty computer modeling in order to predict the fluid elastic instability, how the steam would come up through the tubes in the generators. And that was what caused rattling in the tubes which caused premature wear. They had a leak in one tube. They had to plug hundreds of other tubes. And the question was could they start it up again or really was it a question of this is not a safe -- these two reactors are not safe to restart? And in fact the company had already said unit 3 was pretty much offline. They had taken the fuel out. It was just unit 2, they argued, they could restart safely at 70% power. And there were a lot of questions around that.
SAUER: And we have had hearings, there's been all sorts of debate over that. And of course a strong advocacy to keep this plant shut. It would seem that this is a triumph for them.
ST. JOHN: Yes. And I think you could say that it was Friends of the Earth petitioning saying this is really an experiment with the people living in a 50-mile radius of the plant. We need more public hearings on this. We cannot rely on Edison and the NRC. They made this mistake, why should we rely on them now? To some degree, I think efforts are vindicated.
SAUER: If you had to assess blame, it is Southern California Edison? Mitsubishi?
ST. JOHN: The NRC, yeah.
SAUER: The overseers?
ST. JOHN: Well, even Ted Craver said we as the operators of the plant have ultimate responsibility. And when he was asked why didn't you catch this? Did you ask Mitsubishi about the design changes? He said, yes, our engineers did ask about the design changes. But there is some kind of extra interference that we didn't want to get into, so we trusted their response. And he said basically the core of the problem was that they did not perform as expected. So Edison has to take the final responsibility that they are continuing to work on the legal level to get recompense.
SHARMA: And I wouldn't discount the role that Senator Barbara Boxer played in Edison's decision today. She recently put out letters from Edison stating that they knew that this were potential design flaws with these generators. And the fact that she drilled this out, I think Edison was aware that there may have been a paper trail on what they knew and when they knew it. And they also knew that there was a significant opposition out there that wasn't going to go away. So it's sort of death by a thousand cuts.
SAUER: And she was very adamant in her remark when is she came public with this. And she put out a statement today. Do we have a comment on that?
ST. JOHN: Yes, she basically said she's very relieved and that Southern California Edison may have mislead regulators by minimizing the scope of the change, and she thanks the community groups for their actions coming forward and bringing it to her attention. Just to speak from the point of view of Ted Craver, who was speaking from the industry's perspective, he is pretty much saying that he does not believe -- or he could not guarantee that if there had been extra checking of those designs that that flaw would have been found. And he makes the point that steam generators have always been a bit of a weak spot in the industry.
SAUER: Remind us who he is.
ST. JOHN: The chairman of the parent company, Edison International.
SAUER: Now, SDG&E is a minority owner in this plant. What's been their role all along and what's their reaction?
ST. JOHN: Well, interestingly, SDG&E was dragged reluctantly into this whole process. They were not keen on the idea of replacing the steam generators in the first place. Back in 2004 or 2005. They are a minority partner. So they feel like it's Edison's decision. They have come out with a statement saying we need to take steps to make sure our customers are covered. So you don't have to worry about the summer, unless there are some unexpected fires or some unexpected events. We've got the situation covered for our ratepayers. However, the question is very much still on the line.
SHARMA: With Edison's decision now, do they now move that decision back to the front burner. And if they don't, what happens? And what's the reaction of ratepayers?
TINSKY: One of the arguments of the consumer groups, if they did the 70% revamp by the end of the year, then that would build a better case that the ratepayers would have to pay the brunt of this.
ST. JOHN: You're absolutely right. They argue the whole plan to restart the plant was simply to bring it back into the rate base, make it more legally defensible that Edison should not have to refund a lot of the money. And what Ted Craver said today did not contradict that, although he came up with an alternative reason why they wanted to restart the plant. But I think that reason is still on the table. But he did come up with some very specific numbers today.
SAUER: Yeah, in terms of the costs and the whole debacle.
ST. JOHN: Right. The investment into the plant right now is about $2.1 billion. And he looked at the money subject to refund, in other words the investigations of the CPUC, which is a total of $1.3 billion. And that includes $529 million for the replacement power they have been paying for, and $800 million for day-to-day operations and maintenance. Because they have had to keep the plant maintained in case it was restarted. And that sort of money does not include the $700 million that ratepayers have already -- well, they're actually paying for, for the new steam generators. So advocates might argue that there's $2 billion worth here to be litigated.
SAUER: Wow! And that's obviously going to take quite a while as we move forward here. So it seems to me there's two ramifications, one, the cost you're talking about here and how much ratepayers are going to be on the hook. And also the impact of the loss of San Onofre, especially as we move into the hot summer months. We went through last summer without San Onofre. It wasn't a particularly hot summer. We had some stretches in August, early September that taxed us. What are they saying about this summer? &%F0
ST. JOHN: In terms of SDG&E, they're saying they have gone into negotiations with the Encino power plant, the one in Carlsbad. It was supposed to be pulled offline because it wasn't comply with regulations. But possibly that will have to be looked at because they need that local generating power. Cal iso, the agency responsibility for keeping the lights on in California has said that California as a whole has better reserve power than last year. But there are some concerns in Southern California that if there are some unexpected events such as wildfires, there could be problems.
SAUER: So what is the decommissioning process like? First of all, has this been done elsewhere? There must be a plan when you build this thing, you got to plant to tear it down someday.
SHARMA: Two dozen nuclear plants have already been decommissioned. So there is a model for this to happen. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to do. But there's a process to do it. And one of the things that works in Edison's favor is that it's been done so much. If you want the specifics on the process, the spent fuel rods are put in dry casks because there is no way to actually dispose of them. And they're basically stored at the site. And then a survey is done -- would be done of San Onofre to see where the radio activity is. And those portions would be loaded up and taken to a licensed nuclear dump site like the one in Utah. And I think there's one in Texas. And then the other parts that are not radioactive would be demolished and either carted off to a landfill or refused.
SAUER: Do we know anything at all about the timeframe on how long this whole process takes?
ST. JOHN: Yes, well, when asked that question, Ted Craver said that basically it will continue to remain on-site until the federal government reaches a decision about a long-term solution for spent nuclear fuel. In the meantime, he said it'll a few months for the active fuel to be removed from unit 2. Weeks or months. Unit 3 has already had its fuel removed. He said there's in terms of the money they've got for decommissioning, which we're looking at decades in the future,
SAUER: And that's been put into a fund all along.
ST. JOHN: Right. Of the cost of nuclear is at the back-end. So here is where the big costs come. They have $2.7 billion in that fund, and it's about 90% funded.
SAUER: So looking at a long period of time as we're talking about here. This is obviously a coastal plant. Global warming at some point may be a curve ball in the midst of all of this, if the oceans do rise. And you've got a seawater situation there. There's all sorts of things looking forward you can think of that are a tremendous challenge to actually take this thing apart.
ST. JOHN: Yes. And what they say is they're going to be done to about 400 employees who are going to be on-site maintaining security. Which is apparently what they reckon is enough by NRC standards. But you have to ask yourself just because it isn't a functioning plant, there will still be fuel sitting on the plant. And Fukushima, it was the fuel that created the problem rather than the functioning plan. So the problems are not over at this point.
SAUER: You don't just close the doors, take it apart, and send it to the landfill.
ST. JOHN: It's the beginning of the process.
SAUER: The former prime minister of Japan was in San Diego Monday for a seminar. What's he have to say about nuclear power in general?
ST. JOHN: That was so interesting. He said when he first got into power, he was under the impression, and in fact his goal was as a politician, to control the risks of nuclear power. And he said following Fukushima, he was the one who actually was in charge. He had a lot more responsibility during that meltdown than politicians in this country would have had. He made sure the company did not pull the employees out, leaving the thing to melt down even more. So he had very personal experience with this crisis. And he said his whole personal approach to nuclear power has changed as a result of that. He now feels that society around the world needs to figure out a way to operate without nuclear power.
SAUER: All right. We're going to wrap it right there regarding the San Onofre nuclear plant.
SAUER: We'll move to a case new that generated huge headlines years ago. The case of Randy Duke Cunningham. He was a hero once, a flying ace in Vietnam, achieved at least five aerial victories as a daring fighter pilot. He used his war fame to land a seat in a decidedly Republican district in North County. Dean, you won the Pulitzer for exposing his breathtaking crimes, that earned him the title of most corrupt Congressman ever. Tell us about that reporting and the stories. Give us an overview for those of us who don't remember eight years back.
CALBREATH: Sure. The way the story happened, Duke Cunningham as a very key figure of the house appropriations committee, in terms of defense, as a key figure overseeing the CIA budget, which is a "block budget" that you can't look into, he had a lot of control over a lot of money in Washington DC. And he got a lot of political contributions because of that, which is pretty normal. People would give you contributions to advance their cause in Washington. But he also got a free house for about $2.4 million, access to a Rolls Royce, antique furniture, prostitutes, dinners, fancy vacations, and a wide range of gifts from contractors. One of my colleagues in Washington DC, Mark Stern came across this story by wondering about Cunningham's house deal, which was with the head of that contractor, gave Cunningham great profit on the sale of his house. And the buyer took a great loss when he sold it six months later.
SAUER: So that's how it all started. Something funny, something set up a red flag to Marcus Stern.
CALBREATH: Exactly. And the ball got rolling from there. When Marc wrote his first article on that, the day he wrote it, federal prosecutors said we should be looking into this. And within a week, they called a grand jury.
SAUER: And that's a good old newspaper scoop! Very rare. We don't see them much these days. And it led to the Pulitzer Prize. So a number of reporters then teamed up, and we started chasing that story here in San Diego, as well as in the Washington bureau of the Copley News at the time. So what's it like digging up that information?
CALBREATH: In San Diego -- in Washington they were covering MCM, come is where it was based, as well as Duke's activities. I was looking into ADCS's activities. The head was a best friend of the third highest person in the CIA. So I covered the CIA. And they are hard to get information from! They have don't take freedom of information act requests. And when I first started reporting on it, it would have been illegal for me to even mention this guy's name. They hadn't rolled back his security. But I sort of convinced them that this might be something they want to take a look at, and they rolled back the security and we were able to do some reporting.
SAUER: And the paper was owned by the Copley press at the time.
SAUER: But they were very supportive of the reporting
CALBREATH: Yeah, it was forever a very Republican publisher, editor. But the reporters were pretty free to follow whatever leads they had. We had endorsed Duke Cunningham eight times I believe for his elections to Congress. But the day that Marc revealed his story, the editor said we have to look at this aggressively. And she assembled about 15 team --
SAUER: That was Carn winner.
CALBREATH: The editor at the time. It became mostly me, Marc, and Jerry Tammer in Washington DC. But she really wanted to go after this story. And she told us to look at our other Congress people too, but none of them were involved in the kind of activity Duke was.
SAUER: He's got the label most corrupt Congressman ever. As you go over the high points, is that a fair assessment?
CALBREATH: That comes from the $2.5 billion figure. That's the most in bribes that anybody has been known to have taken. Maybe some people have taken more surreptitiously. But that's the biggest bribe ever.
SHARMA: Was there ever a sense about what made him become corrupt in your research, in your reporting?
CALBREATH: I think he was always a person -- and this goes back to his days in the airforce -- or in the Navy, flying for the Navy, I think that he was always a person felt entitled. He felt entitled to be getting fancy gifts from the government. He was offered the Navy Cross, which is the highest they could give. He wanted to reject this and go for the congressional medal of honor, which usually is given to dead people because it comes with a stipend! And his boss told him no, you take this award or I will remove some bodily parts.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: So he's done his eight years. Does he actually show any signs of remorse? Do you think that he feels like he did anything wrong?
CALBREATH: No, no. The word we got was that when he gave his -- yeah, he pleaded guilty. He gave a very tearful guilty plea, talked about betraying his -- the voters, betraying his family, etc. As he was walking out the courtroom, we heard, he told the bailiff, listen, they got this all wrong.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CALBREATH: So no, I don't think he has ever come up -- ever felt the guilt.
SHARMA: And he actually said he regretted ever pleading guilty, and that he had done so because of pressure from his attorneys.
SAUER: Right. And that was more recent in his prison stay, right?
ST. JOHN: So basically in spite of the prison stay, his mind has not changed.
CALBREATH: Not at all.
ST. JOHN: He still feels like a wronged man.
SAUER: He's been out a couple of days now. He was in a halfway house in New Orleans, I believe. He's going to move in with his family, mother and brother.
CALBREATH: Yeah, a year ago he said that he was going to go to Arkansas, live nearby his mother and his brother. And he was going to make a living hunting and fishing and stuff like that. But he has since apparently changed his plans and wants to go to Florida to be close to some Navy buddies. But the one thing he doesn't want to do, apparently, is come back to San Diego.
SAUER: Now, we mentioned hunting and fishing. Wasn't there a point in the news this week where he wanted to be able to shoot weapons again?
SHARMA: Yeah, he wanted to be able to posses a gun again.
CALBREATH: Absolutely. And he told the federal judge in this letter about possession of guns, he said, you know, I used to fly a plane that could take out your building in half a second! And now I can't own a .22-caliber. You know, that's the way to impress a federal judge. And the federal judge did not back his claim.
SAUER: So he's not going to be able to have a gun.
CALBREATH: Not for at least three years during his probation.
SAUER: We'll have to wrap it there for this addition of the Roundtable.
SAUER: And this is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Tom SAUER. Stay with us now for some of the most interesting feature stories of the week, including a story about one big shark that's right at home in San Diego waters, and the perils of planning your retirement in one central American paradise!
This week on KPBS, reporter Megan Burks told us the story of how community clinics in San Diego are trying to attract more doctors. Patient populations are expected to soar as the Affordable Care Act, AKA, Obamacare goes into effect. But primary care doesn't pay as well as specialty care. So one program is looking to lure new doctors to community clinics where they're really needed.