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San Onofre: How Did It Come To This?

Above: The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is seen from the beach along San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California.

Aired 6/3/13 on KPBS News.

San Diego is heading into its second summer without the San Onofre nuclear power station. We take a look at what has led up to this point, as questions swirl over whether the plant will ever restart.

It all started with what was billed as a small radiation leak in one of two reactor units at San Onofre. But after hundreds of experts have spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars studying the matter, that small leak has turned out to be a telltale sign of a giant problem.

Three months after the shutdown, the then head of the Federal Nuclear Regulator Commission (NRC), Gregory Jaczko, visited the plant, an indication the problems were serious.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is we have to have assurances of safely before we will allow the plant to restart.”

The cause of the problem was explained at an NRC public meeting soon after. New steam generators had been installed in both reactor Units 2 and 3 about a year earlier, but the generators’ tubes were rattling and rubbing against each other, causing one tube to rupture and hundreds more to wear dangerously thin.

Southern California Edison

The tightly packed steam generator tubes that are at the root of San Onofre's problems

“We have determined the cause of the unexpected tube to tube wear,” Peter Deitrich told the audience.

Dietrich is Chief Nuclear Officer of Southern California Edison, the plant’s operator. There were audible gasps when it was revealed Japanese firm Mitsubishi had made a major mistake in its computer modeling program while designing these -- the largest steam generators they had ever built.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental watchdog group, called for public hearings more than a year ago, alleging the company never revealed how different its steam generator design was.

“Bottom line is Edison decided to make these radical design changes and they sought to mislead the regulators about how serious that was,” said Damon Moglen of Friends of the Earth in the spring of 2012. “The public needs to be involved in a transparent and fair process.”

Those suspicions were recently vindicated when the Federal Atomic Safety Licensing Board agreed with the Friends of the Earth petition, calling for a public hearing. And Senator Barbara Boxer recently produced evidence the company knew as early as 2004 that the new steam generator design could be a problem.

But Edison and the NRC continue to maintain that Edison followed correct procedures.

Last fall, Edison’s Peter Deitrich proposed a temporary plan to restart one of the units, not the one that leaked, at reduced power for five months.

“Here’s why it will be safe to restart Unit 2 at reduced power,” he said, ”Detailed vibration analysis have been completed by several independent experts. These experts have concluded that operating Unit 2 at 70 percent power will eliminate the thermal hydraulic conditions that caused the tube to tube wear in Unit 3.”

But that prompted howls of protest from people who said the restart proposal amounts to an experiment with the lives of 8 million people living within 50 miles of the plant. They point out the same faulty steam generator design was used in both Units 2 and 3.

The restart plan was officially presented to the NRC this spring, but the regulatory agency showed little sign of acting on it by Edison's requested start date of June 1st.

Rochelle Becker of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility believes the motivation behind the restart plan is that, under state law, ratepayers should not be charged for a plant that is offline more than nine months.

“All they have to do is operate this plant for 90 days,” she said, “and they will be allowed to start charging customers again.”

State regulators are currently considering how much is reasonable for ratepayers to pay of the hundreds of millions of dollars the fiasco has cost. Becker said Edison should cut its losses.

“There is no permanent solution,” she said, “There’s absolutely no permanent solution. It is looking less and less likely that San Onofre will ever restart. “

And at an investor teleconference 0n April 31st of this year, the chairman of Edison’s parent company, Ted Craver of Edison International, signaled the uncertainty cannot go on much longer.

“Without a restart of Unit 2, a decision to retire one or both units would likely be made before the end of 2013.”

Nuclear engineer Murray Jennex worked for Edison more than two decades ago, back when the decision was made to decommission another reactor at San Onofre: Unit 1. He said Craver’s decision today is similar.

“This is like what happened to Unit 1 back in the ‘90s. They got a lot of tax breaks to shut it down at that point and not fix it. And they say, ‘OK, you don’t want us to start. OK fine, then make it worth our while not to.’ He’s waiting for a good deal.”

The public and political wrangling going on now is likely part of an elaborate chess game, adding leverage to the real negotiations going on behind the scenes.

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