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San Onofre's Small Radiation Leak Becomes Major Problem

March 28, 2012 1:11 p.m.


Victor Dricks, spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Jennifer Manfre, spokesperson Southern California Edison

Related Story: San Onofre Nuclear Plant To Remain Shut For Probe


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.

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CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, it's Wednesday, March 28th. Here are the San Diego stories, we're following in the San Diego News Room. Our top story on Midday Edition, the small radiation leak that shut down San Onofre in January has developed into a major problem for Southern California Edison and potentially for San Diego's energy supply. A letter from the nuclear regulatory commission has formally instructed San Onofre to remain closed until engineers figure out why the tubes and the steam generators are wearing out so soon, and they come up with a brand-new inspection plan. Earlier this morning, I spoke about the NRC's letter with Victor Dricks, spokes person for the nuclear regulatory commission.


CAVANAUGH: Victor, why did the nuclear regulatory commission feel it had to issue this formal letter confirming San Onofre's shutdown until the NRC says it can rule operations?

DRICKS: We had been having some discussions with the folks at Southern California Edison regarding the damage to the steam generators, and they had made certain commitments to us, and one of them was we're not going to try to restart either one of the units until you, the NRC, are satisfied that we've taken all the steps that are needed to insure they can be operated safely. And we said very good. We're going to formalize that promise and put it in writing. And we do this from time to time. We call it a confirmatory action letter.

CAVANAUGH: Does that imply that there's something really bad going on at San Onofre?

DRICKS: No. We use it in instances where we want to make sure everything is spelled out in black and white, that the licensee, in this case Southern California Edison, knows exactly what is needed for them to do before they would try to restart the plant.

CAVANAUGH: Is the problem being discovered at San Onofre those tubes that we keep hearing about and the steam generators wearing out too soon? Is that something that is unique to San Onofre?

DRICKS: No, it is not unique. We have seen it at other plants. We've seen it, for example, in some of the steam generators at a plant in Florida. However, that said, it is unusual, and certainly unexpected. And the extent of the wear is unusual. And that's why we, the NRC, are concerned about it.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I have to tell you, Victor, people in Southern California are -- there's a sort of increasing concern about the safety of San Onofre. What will the NRC do to assure the public that when San Onofre is ready to go back online that things are as they should be, that it's safe?

DRICKS: Well, to begin with, we had a team of inspectors there at unit 2 to do a prescheduled of that steam generator when it shut down for its first refueling outage. That's something this we do as a matter of course. And so conveniently, our specialists were there when the problem developed at the unit 3 reactor in one of the tubes leaked. We take these kinds of incidents very seriously because the steam generator, the tubes in the steam generator separate the nuclear from the nonnuclear side of the plant. That said, we have resident inspectors who are there at the plant full-time, they have an office there, they are the agency's eyes and ears at the nuclear plant. And we want the public to understand that neither of those units will be restarted until we have been satisfied that all of the corrective actions that are going to be taken by Southern California Edison will be sufficient to insure that those plants can operate safely.

CAVANAUGH: Is the --

DRICKS: As a further check, there are going to be what we call mid-cycle inspections. And so those steam generators are going to be watched very closely.

CAVANAUGH: Is the NRC actually participating in the repair process?

DRICKS: No. We do not participate in the repair process. We are an independent federal regulatory agency. We monitor the repair process. Our folks are there during critical stages to ask questions to challenge the workers to insure that they're doing everything properly. They review all the paperwork that goes into the repair, they look at the procedures, and then they look at the results of the repair. So we are the public's safety net in that regard.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Victor Dricks, spokes person for the nuclear regulatory commission. And Victor, thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: Joining me now is Jennifer Manfre, manager of Southern California Edison media relations. Welcome to the program.

MANFRE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now, apparently as far as the NRC is concerned, this letter outlining the terms of allowing San Onofre back online is just a formality. But it's made national news today. And I'm wondering, has San Onofre ever received one of these confirmatory action letters by the NRC before?

MANFRE: No, we have not. But it is a serious process, and we have been taking this entire outage as a serious matter and really responding to everything in the safety protocols. And we consider this to be a part of that.

CAVANAUGH: Was this in any way a surprise in the NRC?

MANFRE: Actually, previously SD had submitted a letter to the NRC describing the series of actions that it's taking regarding the steam generator issues, so we had been working with the regulator the entire time, and is this really a part of the formal process that nuclear generators work with the NRC.

CAVANAUGH: One of the big questions, and Victor addressed this too, why the tubes in these 1-year-old steam generators have deteriorated so fast. And I'm wondering, were these tubes test the prior to installation?

MANFRE: There is a series of testing that goes on during the manufacture and also when the installation goes on, so there is that. But is this a generator that during its operations has -- that's different than a tech environment. But we did the inspections during the planned outage, and that's what nuclear safety is with. Of when we take the units down for refueling and maintenance, we do a thorough inspection of that in order to catch any problems that we have. Of and that's what wee seeing.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Y so does that mean when the generator is actually online, being used, that there's more perhaps pressure put on the tubes than in the testing?

MANFRE: Well, are that's when you put the generator in full use.

CAVANAUGH: I see. I see. So in other words the tests don't really test whether the tubes will last very long in actual usage.

MANFRE: Well, you can't test I tube for a year in full operation.


MANFRE: And so that's -- I think that's in any manufacturing process, there's a quality assurance process that goes through, but there is also an operation process. And just so the people know that there are these series of inspections that are planned into the operation process in order to catch any problems that may occur.

CAVANAUGH: A new report was headlined today, it was commissioned by the environmental group friends of earth, and in that report, it claims that the design changes to the steam generators were not properly described to the NRC before being installed and going online. I'm wondering, how do you respond to that claim?

MANFRE: Well, that report actually came out university.


MANFRE: And so -- but as we've stated, at all times during the steam generator replacement process, and during the ongoing outages in unit 2 and 3, Southern California Edison has provided open and transparent information to the NRC as always our top priority is the health and paste safety of the public and our workers, and as is standard practice in the nuclear energy work, we're conducting tests and inspections as part of an in-depth analysis.

CAVANAUGH: Would you be in a position to release documentation perhaps showing that these design changes were submitted and that the NRC kind of back and forth like this letter you just got from the NRC, confirming the steps that you're going to be taking before San Onofre goes back online? Do you have any kind of that paperwork documenting those design change and the approval of them?

MANFRE: Well, I think that the NRC probably is the best way to address that. And to ask the NRC those questions.


MANFRE: We do submit everything to the NRC, and they have that as our regulatory agency.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. So you wouldn't be in a position to release any documentation like that?

MANFRE: Not at this time. But we -- you know, we have been fully transparent with the NRC. And I think that the -- they're the best people to answer that question.

CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. Okay, well, in the NRC letter, it says that you found that the tubes are wearing out. One of the reasons is that because there are vibrations, are and the tubes are rubbing together. Now, it kind of -- that kind of sounds like it's a design flaw, and not a problem with the tubes. And I'm wondering is that a consensus that's developing about what's going on up in San Onofre?

MANFRE: I think it's important for people to know that the testing and analysis that we do is extremely thorough. And it has a lot of steps to it. And we've actually been talking to people and talking to the media about that, and letting people know where we are in that process. But one of the things that's very important to do with an issue that is this serious is not to jump ahead before you have all the information. So right now, we've completed what we called our NC2 pressure testing in unit 3, we've collected a lot of data. We're really in the analysis period. But before we make any conclusions and start to jump ahead and try to come up with a hypothesis, that this is what it is and trying to find data to support that, it's really look at the data so that we can understand what it is. We do believe that what we're seeing is we do know and the facts are that some of the tube wear that has occurred in unit 2 is related to the support structure. But let's find out, and let's not jump to any conclusions about why that is happening until we can fully analyze the data.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, if we step back from time to time, I mentioned that these steam generators are new. They're about a year old. A little bit more than a year old. Why was a change in design needed in the steam generator to begin with?

MANFRE: The steam generators were replaced for efficiency purposes. So that's -- that was the -- throughout the life of a steam generator, we do as you've seen us do in this one, tubes wear out, and we plug them. So we actually had come to the point where it wasn't as efficient to run because of the number of tubes that had been plugged in the old steam generators. So it was time to do an upgrade. These original plants were built in the '80s. And there's been technology upgrades and efficiency upgrades that have happened in the industry. It's a normal process to upgrade your equipment, and we always want to be able to provide the safest, most technologically advanced equipment that we can.

CAVANAUGH: You've been describing to us the fact that these repairs are being made step by step, nobody is jumping to any kind of conclusions and so forth. So it's going to be taking its time. San Onofre will be down until these repairs are made. I'm wondering who is assuming the costs of these repairs? And will that be passed on to customers?

MANFRE: Well, I think that's all too soon to tell right now. We're not going to project that. We're really focused on doing the safety protocols for this, and not only are we focused to getting the repairs done, but it is as many people have talked about, it's really about being satisfied that it's safe to return it to service.

CAVANAUGH: But there must be some sort of cost valuation you're beginning right now. Can you absorb the cost of these repairs or are you going to be asking the customers pay for it?

MANFRE: It's really too soon to tell what the repairs might look for. I think we're too early in the process to look at that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what's the timeframe? Do you have any predictions about that?

MANFRE: You know, we get asked that question a lot. What's the timeframe, when are these units going to be going back on, and it's just really important and we do want people to know the timeline, there is no timeline, there is no deadline on safety. And that's really what it is, and we will not return these units until we're satisfied it's safe to do so, and until the NRC is satisfied that it is safe to do so.

MANFRE: We have heard concerns that there will be rolling blackouts, if San Onofre is not back online when we have peek usage during the summer months. Are you working now in some way to find replacement energy if that is indeed the case?

MANFRE: Well, the responsible thing to do to do contingency planning, so that is what we are doing. Safely providing reliable service to our customers is part of the mission here at Southern California Edison. So we are doing that contingency planning. We are actually looking at transmission upgrades, we're looking at a transmission line that we'll be upgrading before June to help with this issue. We're looking at the manned response planning, we're looking at energy efficiency, and consumer programs. It's really the responsible thing to do.

CAVANAUGH: Considering you don't know when these repairs are going to be made yet?

MANFRE: Exactly.


MANFRE: Exactly. It is contingency planning. We hope to have units 2 and 3 online, but again, that's really the timeline there is safety. So let's -- we always think of our customers and their needs. So we are doing that contingency planning.

CAVANAUGH: My last question to you, are the city of Irvine confirmed an advisory vote on decommissioning San Onofre. And I'm wondering, can you understand the level of concern over this shutdown? And the continuing safety of the plant?

MANFRE: I think that we're showing through this thorough process that we are committed to safety. The public health and safety of the community and of our workers is always our top priority. And we definitely hope through the amount of transparency that we've given on this process that we do talk about these issues, that we are taking it seriously, really shows the community how committed to safety we are.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you. I've been speaking with Jennifer Manfre of Southern California Edison. Thank you very much.

MANFRE: Thank you.