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San Onofre's Future Still Hangs In The Balance

December 19, 2012 1:08 p.m.

John Geesman: Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility and former California Energy Commissioner

Martha Sullivan: Citizen Activist, former staffer California Public Utilities Commission

Related Story: San Onofre's Future Still Hangs In The Balance


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.

ST. JOHN: The Nuclear Regulatory commission held another public hearing yesterday on a question that touches all of our lives in a very significant way: Whether we can safely resume generating electricity at the San Onofre Nuclear Power plant. It went offline in January after a radiation leak. And now federal and stale agencies are considering in parallel whether it's feasible to bring it back online. Here to fill us in on what happened yesterday are Martha Sullivan, citizen activist. Thanks for being with us.

SULLIVAN: Thank you for having me.

ST. JOHN: And on the phone, John Geesman, attorney for the group alliance for nuclear responsibility.

GEESMAN: Pleased to be here.

ST. JOHN: Thank you for joining us. They both are former employees of two state agencies that are closely tied. We did invite Edison and the NRC, if they would be interested in coming on, and neither of them were available. John, the main question on the table right now is whether Edison can restart unit 2 at 70% power. That's the proposal from Edison that the NRC was considering. Did you get a sense from yesterday's meeting where the NRC stands on this?

GEESMAN: Well, my read on that is that the NRC is systematically going through a process that will result in an approval of Edison's proposal. I didn't hear anything yesterday despite several gestures of attentiveness by the inspect ors that suggests they're prepared to reject the plan.

ST. JOHN: Ah, ha. Will there be another meeting before March?

GEESMAN: Yes, they promised a public meeting in mid-February. And several other opportunities for the public to be heard, whatever that means. But the public meetings that they conduct tend to become circuses. And I think looking at yesterday's process, you couldn't ask for a better argument as to why some form of evidentiary proceeding is really necessary.

ST. JOHN: Martha is nodding her head. Why do you think -- why are you agreeing?

SULLIVAN: I totally agree. I listened in on the telephone bridge, the webcast, and thankfully the NRC staff themselves asked some really pointed questions and pointed out some serious gaps and flaws in Edison's analysis. But I agree wholeheartedly with John. What we really need is that third party independent assessment in an adjudicated process where you've got an impartial judge.

ST. JOHN: We'll get to that a little bit later, the fact that there is an effort underway to get that to happen. But just back to what actually was asked yesterday, John, what kind of questions did they ask that you felt revealed any new information?

GEESMAN: Well, I think the most telling one came from the principle inspector, emit Murphy. And he wanted some clarification from Edison as to the impact of adjustments that they're making on tubes connected to the retainer bars. They've plugged a number of tube, they put stabilizers on a smaller number.

ST. JOHN: Of course we should just remind people that the main reason it's offline is because of these new steam generators, that the tubes inside rattled because of the new design and wore down and that was what caused the leak. So sorry, carry on.

GEESMAN: So Mr. Murphy expressed what he called a longer term concern. He said it wasn't really relevant for the 5-month inspection cycle, but once they got into a longer inspection cycle, he was interested as to the impact of tubes that had not been stabilized but that had been plugged. And an earlier NRC staff report had expressed concerns that these plugged tubes next to the retainer bars could actually fall off. To me, it was highly indicative of whether they're headed, that he spoke of the longer term.

ST. JOHN: So you could take that either way. You could say that's a problem so why should we even start it for fire months? Or did you get the impression that, well, five month, we'll go for that, but what about the longer term?

GEESMAN: I got the latter impression very distinctly. And from a regulatory standpoint, that's what you'd characterize as a tell.

ST. JOHN: What do you mean by that?

GEESMAN: I think that was a signal that the 5-month inspection process is likely to go forward, but after we get through that, after your restart is up and running, this is a concern I have regarding your longer operations.

ST. JOHN: Martha?

SULLIVAN: Well, I thought another really pointed, telling remark, not just a question, was by the head of the NRC's instrumentation dean, which pointed out that an upgrade in the monitoring system that Edison has proposed for the steam generator, he said flat out that it wouldn't do what Edison said it would do, which was detect any loose parts. He said flat out, it's not going to increase --

ST. JOHN: Which makes you wonder about whether the five months monitoring period is actually going to be accurately -- they'll have the data they need at the end of that time.

SULLIVAN: Well, the point this gentleman was making is that this monitoring system will have historic data, but it's not going to flag when there's a potential leak about to happen.

ST. JOHN: So we are in the position of not having Edison here to share their perspective. But presumably they came forth at this hearing and made their arguments. What did they say to be more reassuring about their plans?

GEESMAN: Well, they assured the NRC that they would provide the information necessary. The point Martha makes is extremely important because at the heart of this problem with degrading steam tubes is the fact that you don't have any ability prospectively to monitor what's going on, that the best that you can do is look at it through your rear-view mirror. What I was disturbed by was that after Edison indicated, well, they had no intention of trying to misrepresent the capabilities of this new instrumentation, Mr. Steadel, the NRC inspector asking the question said oh, okay. Just clarify that in your submittal. To me, the biggest problem from the Edison standpoint is a compete lack of transparency with respect to the information being submitted. A young woman from friends of the earth stood up in the question and answer period and asked about the availability of much of the Edison submittal to the public, and the NRC said, well, that's a licensee document and it's not our practice to make that public. And Edison folks just sat there, never responded at all. And if you look at what the atomic safety licensing board has been taking up as to whether there needs to be an evidentiary process or not, Edison has been adamant about keeping these documents private. And that's no way to assure public confidence.

ST. JOHN: Well, let's just look a little bit more about that -- the aspect of the atomic licensing board which is an arm ofs NRC; correct


ST. JOHN: But it's a separate board that's considering these petitions that are asking for an adjudicatory hearing, and for documents to be kept more public. From what we've heard coming out of these hearings, and there's been a couple of them in the last month, do you get the sense that they're likely to be any more stringent in the requirements than the NRC staff is?

GEESMAN: Well, I think they will want an evidentiary record upon. To base their decision. Based on past performance of the atomic licensing board, I would not anticipate a very searching review, and it's likely to be considered unsatisfactory by the petitioners. But that may provide an avenue to get this in front of a court where you've actually got an independent Ajudindicator clarifying who the showings have been.

ST. JOHN: This is supposed to be the adjudicatory agency independent of the power plant. But this suggests that there is some doubt as to how independent they are.

SULLIVAN: I just want to interject that this provides another example of where having an adjudicatory hearing with third parties and a judge would be so advantageous. In this case, there's a judge on this panel who has actually cited a filing that Edison made in another licensing board proceeding that's going on currently where Edison kind of argued the opposite of the point they're arguing in this case.

ST. JOHN: About the licensing.

SULLIVAN: So he's sort of calling Edison on their --

ST. JOHN: Layers upon layers of hearings here. I want to get to something more sort of specific that we can get our arms around, which is the conference between unit 1 and unit 2. The plan is to open unit 2, and according to Edison, unit 3 is offline indefinitely. If in fact the reason that they're offline is because of design problems, what is the difference between the 2 units that allows Edison to be proposing to restart it? What arguments do they make that there's a difference between these 2 units?

GEESMAN: Well, I think that they were successful very early on in persuading the NRC to focus on tube to tube wear, come is what caused the leakage in unit 3 and what caused a handful of tubes to fail their pressure tests in unit 3. By doing that and keeping the focus on that tube to tube wear problem, they were able to limit the area of concern in unit 2 to only two tubes, because it was a very limited amount of tube to tube wear discovered in unit 2. Although it take three inspections to actually get there.

ST. JOHN: But it's a question of degree. It's not like there's any real concrete reason why 1 unit might be safer than the other.

GEESMAN: No. And I think the think the bigger picture, the more pervasive problem relates to all of the other type of accelerated wear on these tubes. Unit 2 had 1,595 damaged tubes. They passed that off as saying, well, it's normal to have that type of wear in new steam generators. But when people went back through the NRC's records for other plants around the country, they determined that the median number of tubes nationally that had shown any wear was four. Unit 2 had 1,595. Yet the NRC focus has been on tube to tube wear, just two of those 1,595 showed tube to tube wear.

ST. JOHN: Okay. In just the few minutes that we have left, something that we're going to have to be keeping an eye on next year, what the state regulatory agency, the public utilities commission, Martha, film us on in on they're doing to represent the ratepayers' interests here.

SULLIVAN: Well, the California public utilities commission has the constitutional mandate to insure that customers receive safe, reliable electricity at reasonable rates. And state law also provides investor-owned utilities with a monopoly. So Edison and SDG&E have a monopoly, they're guaranteed a reasonable rate of return, and the commission now is looking at whether these defective nuclear reactors can provide safe, reliable service at reasonable rates. And they're looking at potentially making a refund to ratepayers. And we actually hope -- it's clear it's not safe power, it's not reliable power because it's been out for almost a year. And certainly not reasonable rates, because we haven't gotten anything. We've spent almost a billion dollars on these and haven't gotten a thing out of them for almost a year.

ST. JOHN: I understand in the past, these kinds of hearings haven't yielded any money back for the rate payer. But there are some new people appointed by Governor Brown on the PUC. Do you foresee they might be more sympathetic?

SULLIVAN: The assigned commissioner for this commission that has just been opened is Mike Florio, and he has spent the bulk of his career as a consumer advocate for a utility rate payer organization. The other two new commissioners appointed by Governor Brown likewise have a record of both energy foresight and consumer protection. So I think there's now a majority on the commission who are very much prone to looking forward with California's renewable energy and energy efficiency goals rather than backwards.

ST. JOHN: There are obviously a lot of eyes on this problem, and next year we hope that there'll be more hearings that are in our local community and in our area so that we can monitor them more closely, and also get some more people from the NRC and the CPUC.

SULLIVAN: And that's really critical.

MAUREEN ST. JOHN: Well, I'd like to thank you both for giving us a bit of a glimpse into where we're at so far.

SULLIVAN: Thank you very much.

ST. JOHN: Thank you, John.

GEESMAN: Thank you, Alison.