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Additional tubes in a second reactor are showing wear. We discuss the issue and look at activists calling for the permanent shutdown of San Onofre Nuclear power plant.

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April 16, 2012 1:06 p.m.


Paul Sisson, North County Time reporter.

Ace Hoffman, anti-nuclear activist

Related Story: Activists Call for Permanent Shutdown At San Onofre As More Tubes Showing Wear


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 Monday, April 16th. Our top story on Midday Edition, we revisit the ongoing repair center at San Onofre. Late last week, the newest wrinkle emerged in the case, Southern California Edison says it's determined that the same type of tube degradation has been detected in unit 2 generators. Before this, it was unclear if the tube problems in unit 2 were the same as in unit 3, which was shut down in late January when a tube ruptured, allowing a tiny amount of radiation to escape. Meanwhile, the pressure from antinuclear groups in California is mounting to keep San Onofre closed perm them. My guests, North County Times reporter Paul Sissin.

SISSIN: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Ace Hoffman is here. He's a longtime activist who lives in Carlsbad. Welcome to the program.

HOFFMAN: Glad to be here .

CAVANAUGH: And Edison declined the invitation. What does this new revelation that the tubes wear -- the tube wear in both generators is virtually the same?

SISSIN: Well, first off, we should realize that what we learned last Thursday from Edison is that the tube wear is similar but seemed to be more severe in unit 3, and that's the unit that was shut down when they detected the leak on January 31st. Now what they've said is that they are seeing tube to tube wear in both of these units. Unit 2 as you may recall was shut down for refueling when the leak was detected at unit 3. So on March '37, Edison corresponded with the nuclear regulatory commission, and it looked at that time like problems were -- with tube to tube wear were not being seen in unit 2, it seemed to open a path for unit 2 to restart more likely than unit 3. Now it electrics like unit 2 is going to have to wait for the overall cause of this tube to tube plugging to be solved.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any way to extrapolate about what that means since both this tube to tube rubbing has been found in union the No. 2 and 3? In that both of these new steam generators are part of that new equipment that came from Mitsubishi? Is it fair to begin to think about a design flaw?

SISSIN: It's -- I think it's certainly fair. I think many activist groups out there are speculating all night and day about that. There are some similarities between these generators that were installed at San Onofre and other generators that have been recently retrofitted at other plants. That the tubes inside that carry the radioactive reactor coolant is made by the same company in some cases. But there have been some design changes at San Onofre that definitely I would have to believe inspectors are looking closely at, and that have been highlighted recently in an activist report that was put out, I think last week.

CAVANAUGH: Now, let me just go back to what you were saying in answer to the first question. When commission chief Gregory Yasko was here, he did suggest that one reactor might be given the go-ahead to restart before the other. But you say in light of this new information that that is now doubtful?

SISSIN: Yes. In his letter on the 27th of last month, what the NRC was clear to say was that Edison must fully understand the cause of this tube to talk wear and come up with a fix before these reactors are going to be allowed to restart. So now they're going to have to find that cause for unit 2, which was not the case back on the 20th of last month. When they made their initial announcement. It department look like this tube to tube wear problem was present at unity 2.

CAVANAUGH: What do we know about the testing that is underway at San Onofre?

SISSIN: Well, we know that they come in with an initial kind of current testing. And they can detect very precisely how much they've thinned as an effect of the water passing through them all night and day. Then if they find the tune walls have narrowed beyond a certain threshold, then they do even more intense testing. They put them under a static water pressure at a very high pressure, to see if they burst. That's what has been done at unity 3, I guess, pretty extensively. I'm not sure how many they've pressure tested there. But eight of them failed that test at unit 3.

CAVANAUGH: And Paul, how unusual is it for a U.S. power plant to be completely shut down for an extended period of time?

SISSIN: You know, I looked into that, I talked to the NRC extensively about that question, I read through some studies that they've done about plants that have had these components replaced. It's a pretty common procedure across the United States. Something like 50 plants have had this procedure done. They're not all the same as San Onofre. And it seem like it's unprecedented for a plant like San Onofre to be shut down so quickly after these components have been replaced.

CAVANAUGH: You've been covering the issues at San Onofre for some time. Did Southern California Edison make a point of emphasizing that there was a new design to these generator when is they were installed?

SISSIN: They didn't. There wasn't much talk in their official communications or interviews, we were all out there, the press to watch them get installed. They had to cut a big hole inside of those 2 domes that you see when you drive by on the freeway. So it was pretty spectacular to see them hoist these things through the hole they made and close it up afterward. And I don't recall any discussion about these designs being significantly different from previous designs of the original equipment. I will say I recall that these were to be more efficient, and could actually make more steam and thus generate more electricity than the old ones.

CAVANAUGH: Ace, you are a longtime nuclear activist, you live in Carlsbad, you've been studying San Onofre for years. What are your major concerns about the ongoing tube problems in the generators?

HOFFMAN: Well, we think the citizens have been lied to, and the nuclear regulatory commission has been lied to. And people keep falling for the lies of the nuclear industry, and here in this particular instance, the lies have really been made clear. The place is bursting with lies. The like for like replacement of the steam generators was billed as an improvement by Edison themselves in their promoting of what they had done in the nuclear industry magazines and trade journals. So why it's being called like for like when it wasn't, and why the NRC missed it, is the kinds of questions that we're fed up with hearing. We know that the plant upon is not being properly run, even the replacements are falling apart. And the waste is piling up.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the environmental group, friends of the earth, released a report recently that claims that Southern California Edison changed the design in these steam generator, creating what they call "unanalyzed flow and stress resulting from excess tubing." Is this the suggestion that you agree if?

HOFFMAN: No question. There's enormous numbers of changes to the generators from what were originally in the reactor for 20 or 30 years that failed long before they should have, have been replaced with ones that had 400 extra tubes out of 9,500. So almost ten thousand tubes. This was a support in the middle of the reactor that had been removed to put the extra tubes in, and it looks like that support allowed increased virabrasion which caused the many, many tubes to be banging into each other. They've made a lot of little changes.

CAVANAUGH: And why would you want more tubes in these generators? Does that actually create more electricity?

HOFFMAN: Not by itself. But over the course of 20 years of operation, the tubes break, and they're allowed to plug up to 21% of the tubes. Here they're put in 5% of additional tubes, that gives them 30% that they can plug up over time, but they're failing so rapidly, that they're not going to last that lock.

CAVANAUGH: And let me ask you, Ace, are you one of the activists who would like to see San Onofre remain shut down? Permanently?

HOFFMAN: Always. I've always wanted to see that plant closed down permanently. So if this is a good excuse for everybody to see that it should be, that's fine with me.

CAVANAUGH: So before this problem with the steam generator, you were working toward a permanent shutdown of San Onofre. Why?

HOFFMAN: One of the main reasons is the waste that's piling up at the site. Just without of site from the highway are dozens and dozens of dry cavings where they're moving the waste to. And those are expected to stand on our coasts for hundreds and hundreds of years. And the waste inside them is every bit as deadly as what could beery leased in the reactor itself.

CAVANAUGH: We were told we could have rolling brownout fist San Onofre isn't back online over the summer. Where would you suggest our region get power from if they do shut down San Onofre, either over the summer or permanently?

HOFFMAN: Well, you mentioned 20%. A couple years ago, California wanted everybody to reduce their energy usage by 20%. So it seems to me that we could find 20 &%F0 just backing off. But besides that, there are interties that come into the San Diego area, and the Southern California area so that the energy can be found as far away as hydro electric power in Canada. There's really no shortage. And they have to have lines coming into the area because San Onofre needs off-site power in order to operate. So there has to be an enormous amount of power coming into the area. The IKR SO cannot prove that there cannot be enough power to light our lights and run our air conditioners during the summer. Any talk of a blackout and just threats. It may happen, but it would be like it was around 2000 when Enron was creating artificial blackouts.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds as though what's happening at the ISO, people are really scrambling, trying to figure out what they will do if indeed San Onofre is offline this summer.

>> Absolutely, yeah, that came up at the press conference with Mr. Yasko. And an Edison spokes person said that they are accelerating some interconnects that they had on the drawing boards to take up some of that slack. It seemed like most of the focus was up north.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Ace, speaking of NRC chief Yasko's visit to the plant, you met with him with a group of other activists. What was that meeting like?

HOFFMAN: It was unprecedented to have a chance to talk to the head of the nuclear regulatory commission. We had a dozen activists and a dozen elected officials joined us for the meeting.

CAVANAUGH: And what was it like? Can you tell us what kind of questions and answers there were?

HOFFMAN: Well, he certainly is a very affable person, and we were given the impression that he cares very much about what's happening here. One thing that bothered me a lot was that at that time, he was trying very hard to separate the unit 2 from the unit 3 problems, and was basically suggesting that there would be a way to open unit 2 without finding out what was wrong with unit 3. We argued that no, unit 2 hasn't been looked at enough, and in the weeks since then, they looked a little harder, found the same problems that are happening in unit 3, and now they're saying they're going to keep both the reactors shut.

CAVANAUGH: Paul, have you been able to report on anything concerning how much this problem at San Onofre is costing Southern California Edison or how much it may cost rate payers?

SISSIN: I put that question to some Edison folks a few weeks ago. And you have occasionally since January 31st. They've never come out with a solid answer. Some years ago, when they had a refueling outage at the plant, there was an estimate of $6,000 a day. I have no idea whether that's true. KPBS trial had an expert on from SPSU a few weeks ago, and he was estimating $600,000 to $1† million a day.

CAVANAUGH: Now, this whole incident at San Onofre has made a lot of people in our region who are already leery of nuclear power after Fukushima, very concerned about these reactors. I know that you personally want to see this reactor shut down, permanently. But is there any way the Southern California Edison could restore confidence in the majority of San Diegans?

HOFFMAN: Not if they're going to be paying closer attention than they have been to that reactor. There's nothing good about it, and there's no reason to keep it open. We can replace the fuel. We can't solve the waste problem. And if they have been paying any attention the all to what's going on in Fukushima, reactor No. 4's spent fuel pool is about to fall over, or could fall over. And people are predicting that that would be 85 times worse than Chernobyl. San Onofre has spent fuel pools that have even more dangerous fuel than what is at Fukushima. Our reactors run the fuel longer, and they build up more fission products. I don't think there's any way San Onofre can get a clean bill of health for such a dirty product.

CAVANAUGH: Well, everyone is paying a lot more attention to what's going on at San Onofre these days than they have been before. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

HOFFMAN: Thank you.

SISSIN: Thank you.