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Two Years After San Onofre Shutdown Questions Remain

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January 30, 2014 1:28 p.m.


Arnie Gundersen- Former Nuclear Power Energy Executive and chief engineer for Fairewinds Energy Education.

Ray Lutz, is a member of the Coalition to Decommission San Onofre

We invited a representative of Southern California Edison to join the conversation. They declined and also declined a request for a statement.

Related Story: Two Years After San Onofre Shutdown Questions Remain


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.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, tomorrow marks the two-year anniversary of the tiny radiation leak that eventually led to the complete shutdown of the Senate of free nuclear power plant. The permanent closure announced in June of last year and it speculation about the extent of the damage and potential danger of restarting the plant. It's not the end of the story, state regulators are conducting a meticulous review of how Southern California Edison hand of the failure of the steam generators. Just today a U.S. Senate committee held a hearing on nuclear safety including seismic studies in California. Would like to welcome my guests Arnie Gunderson and Ray Lutz. Welcome to the program. We were invited to a representative of Southern California Edison to join us but they were not available. Arnie, very early on after the initial tube failure in the generator that led to the very first leak, your analysis for the group friends of the years sounds found that the design of new generators was flawed. Has subsequent investigation supported that claim?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Absolutely. We round of writing five reports and international experts from England agreed with us, you are allowed to make changes on a nuclear plant as long as they are like for like. By changing the tire on a car if you go for different blend brand that is okay, but the changes are not the same you need to get regulatory approval and that did not happen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And because the design was so different from the old generators, you said that it should be subject of an evaluation but that Edison had not requested that, in the proper paperwork was not send submitted. Was that supported by the NRC?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: The NRC is in turmoil over that issue and has been for two years, this is likely the most tumultuous issue within the NRC since the nuclear reactor had cracked at ten years earlier, and they don't know how to how to handle this, and Senator Barbara boxer has been all over them to try to get them to resolve this, and I guess the jury is still out on where the NRC wants to go with this.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There's a big investigation now as you know by the company Public Utilities Commission to whether Edison should've known sooner that the generators were virtually unfixable, what is your take on that?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: They did the center. The new in 2005 that they had problem. That is serious world-class problems and differences between steam generator that had gone before, and my way of thinking somewhere that 2004 and 2005 time frame, these generators were not even built in the analysis was indicating that they had problems, but they did not want to tell the NRC, and all of them and the mistakes from 2005 until the time that the tubes broke were all revolving around the issue It if we tell the NRC will slow down the licensing and if they told the NRC they would've caught these problems and likely today the plant would so be running.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: To you are saying that in the design phase, before these generators were actually built, that Edison could see or should have been able to see that there are flaws in this tubing structure that would result in eventually this radiation leak?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: They identified that their problems at the top of the generator and that the tubes were to dry, and Edison and had signed a contract that Mitsubishi would not tell the NRC kind both parties honored the contract and did not tell the NRC, the analysis shows that at least for 2005 perhaps even by 2004 the house and whistles were singing that there is a problem occurring at 70 free.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ray, let's talk about the ongoing investigation. Basically the state is trying to figure out who should pay for the costs involved in the effort to repair San Onofre and for the shutdown, but where do the investigations stand now?

RAY LUTZ: The investigation has a number of phases, therefore phases in the there are four phases in the investigation, phase 1 is regarding the events that occurred in 2012 and the reaction to this shutdown and whether those were approved. Let me first cover the overview. Phase 2 has to do with whether the investors get the money back and make a profit on it, and of course they want to make get their money back and make a profit, if this was completely successful. Phase 3 they will go back in time and deal with what you mentioned, actually investigate whether the redesign and the whole project was prudent and reasonable, and then there's a phase for it which is not that interesting to talk about.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are in phase 1 right now, is that right?

RAY LUTZ: We're actually in the middle of phase 1 and phase 2, phase 1 has completed all of the evidentiary hearing and all of the briefs and they've come out with a proposed decision and just earlier this month they had an all party meeting in San Francisco which is where the CPUC headquarters is located, this is where they have the utilities and all of the parties come together to talk about it and they had the commissioners there and they ask a number of questions and apparently, the commission saw a lot of it our way. We think that the actions that they took were imprudent a lot of times during 2012. They did not take it seriously that this leak was serious and they kept operating as if nothing was happening. They put fuel back into the unit to which they did not need to do, they could've saved some money by not even doing that if they would've taken it seriously.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There's a proposed decision by the CPUC that would refund about $94 million to customers of Southern California Edison and here SDG&E, we have not seen that money yet and I don't know if it's a finalizes decision, is this number going to change?

RAY LUTZ: One thing that is important to remember about this whole thing is the repair right now is continuing to pay for this plant as if it's operating in good condition, we are all paying for it. This plant really is not economically viable and it has not been for years. They did an analysis of the California Energy commission and they found that when it was shut down even when it was shut down, this plant was only viable for six times during 2012 had a bit operating it would've beat the market, it costs about fifty-seven dollars per megawatt hour for power for that plant, and the going rate is somewhere around thirty-four. Pictured this thing on and running at full blast even though they note the power produces is not cost-effective than they continue to spend about an average of about $115 million a year to add and fix things in it, and the utility loves this. They're making a lot of money on these capital improvements and running the plant even though it is not liable.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: See what there is an essential argument that I think Southern California Edison is making and that is saying that there should be some rebate to the customer. They say that they now are investors of them think the whole heads, there won't be an investment made in utilities, there will be an energy resources, and to the repairs should be on board with this because this is in a way a collective enterprise to try to maintain Southern California's energy grid.

RAY LUTZ: That argument barely even passes the giggle test because you can make so much money investing in these utilities and their return is up around between 7 to 10%, you cannot make sent to 7 to 10% without any risk and they wanted to be completely risk fully, risk-free, despite is a very small part of solid Southern California Edison and the investors lost their money just as they would a regular investment. Would not really change the complexion of Southern California Edison that much.

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: They mentioned the term prudent, and that means that the investors are already protected, if they make a stupid mistake they get their money. This went beyond a stupid mistake. This there was some maliciousness here, they knew that the things they were doing over risky if five or six years before they ever turn it on, and the utility investors are normally protected by that prudent see that Ray was talking about, this goes the on the issue of prudency, they knew that they had problems.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Recently it has been said that Southern California Edison will submit its commissioning plans to the NRC in a few months including updated cost estimates, but does decommissioning involve and how long would it take?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Deconditioning can be done in ten years or less, it basically removes all of the radioactive pipe and then of trip to a radioactive license landfill, and the remainder of the plant that is not radioactive would get shipped off to a standard landfill, the process can be done within ten years if the money is available, and I think with the question about what is going on at 70 free is, when will the money be available? It is about $1 billion a unit but they are sitting on almost 2.6 right now, to my way of thinking that the site can be the connect decommissioned within ten years and get your oceanfront back.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Even the earliest estimate it's ten years that radioactive serial will be at seven no free, so. Stay in Washington about nuclear safety still applies to us in San Diego, tell us about the concerns over earthquake whisks in California.

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: I have to give a lot of credit to Barbara Boxer in California and also to party standards in my state of Vermont, because they did not let the NRC agreed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the worst place in the country for the magnitude of an earthquake is in California, but in fact the California plans are also build more robustly, the East Coast plants actually have a higher court image frequency and both Boxer and Sanders did not let the NRC get away with relaxed standards.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This committee hearing is about requisitions regard to the come out after the Fukushima disaster Japan. There any other limitations that might apply to safety etc. until the decommissioning process is underway?

ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Will the fuel poor still has to be cool for about five more years, and the pumps on that are right along the ocean are unprotected, so if there were a major tsunami, you can have the same problem incentive free that they had in Fukushima. If you pulled begins to have fires and explosions, that the NRC focuses on that, we caught the loss of the opening heatsink, and the plants comes along the ocean need to be better protected.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: See what you say that the CPUC is ending phase 1 and they are getting started on phase 2, is there any timeline as to when we might see a resolution of this? Again the CEO of Southern California Edison wants to see this process could be did by the end of this year. Is that a time frame that you think is attainable?

RAY LUTZ: Only if they suddenly before they go through the process, I don't see any way that they could finish it this year. They have a proposed decision and we have the meeting and they put that on hold for review because they came down kind of hard on the utility and they said hey we want to come back and talk about this more so we can pay less, they put a lot of that aside and we heard about $94 million for phase 1 and most of his what was put aside because they said we cannot decide this until we decide whether was to do the replacement project to get with To get everything out of order and they should of done phase for you first to determine whether they should have even done the project and then do wanted to but that is not the way the proceeding and sends a gives with a hunch that maybe they never really wanted to get in to phase 3, because this is a very dirty business of talking about what the utility did wrong and CPUC are friends with the head who used to be the CEO of Edison and all of his friends worked there. It's a revolving door they thought they could be buds with the utility, there are chances that it goes through the whole process and heir of all of the dirty laundry and my guess is they want to it, but I think they should it should be done and for the whole industry to go through the process in which of the six are put into place, there is another whole proceeding that I should mention called the nuclear decommissioning costs radio proceeding, that is in the middle of this process as well, happens every three years and unfortunately Edison did not have these cost estimates that you mentioned yet, they are still do in the middle of this year, but they are still asking for over $200 million to get started before they've even said how much it will cost. Opposition is to see the cost versus see the plans, then withdraw the money based on those costs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We all might be meeting again on the third anniversary of the shutdown. I do want to reiterate that we didn't fight a representative of Southern California Edison to join us in this conversation and they were not available at this time. I've been speaking with Arnie Gunderson and that Ray Lutz, thank you very much.