Skip to main content
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

Safety Inspector Describes Near Accident During San Onofre Community Panel Discussion

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available.

August 10, 2018 1:17 p.m.

Safety Inspector Describes Near Accident During San Onofre Community Panel Discussion


David Victor, chair, San Onofre Community Engagement Panel

Related Story: Safety Inspector Describes Near Accident During San Onofre Community Panel Discussion


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.

Our top story on Midday edition the decommissioning of the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant is continuing even as controversies still rage over the storage of spent nuclear fuel. A regular quarterly meeting of the San Onofre Community Engagement panel took place in Oceanside last night the subject. Southern California Edison presented was current practices in the transportation of used nuclear fuel. The problem is it's still not known where when or if ever the spent fuel being buried behind a seawall at San Onofre will be moved. Joining me is David Victor a UC San Diego international relations professor and chairman of the community engagement panel. David welcome back to the show. It's great to be back. Let me ask you about one question that was posed to the panel last night by David Fritch who's an OSHA inspector at the Center for Nuclear Power Plant and he said there had nearly been an accident at the plant when operators were transferring a nuclear cylinder into a vault. It apparently got stuck on a ledge about 18 feet from the bottom of the vault without operators noticing. Here's what he said. There is something to the. Extent. That. Is a canister ETG. It's. A.

Bad day. Have. You ever heard. That story.

From public safety first. I've been around for many years.

It's not quite like it's so David how did Southern California Edison address that incident.

Yes I can. So that kind of warning is that in the end needs to issue their own statement. We've asked for that last night. They're going to get up to the entire panel. We're going to make it public. And I know they're working hard on this issue. It's very hard when somebody says something like that in a public meeting that involves also personnel issues for somebody for Edison to respond on the spot. You know he made various claims about other workers of the site. They have rights. He has rights. And so mindful of all that. Here's what I know from the substance of this which is that this is a workplace safety issue. There was never at any time in question of any danger on the nuclear side because the canisters are designed to withstand much larger drops than what was contemplated. I think it's actually not 18 feet more than that. But but the point is that the design base the cancer much larger than that. So but it's a workplace safety issue and that's a really important issue because like any big construction site people using cranes misusing cranes workers make errors. There has to be a system in place to discover that those errors have been made. What I understand is that the workers who were lowering the canister didn't know that the canister wasn't going down. The workers at a different part of the site who were monitoring the canister and monitoring that radiation levels which would change the canister goes down. Didn't see that changed and so that's actually how they discovered this problem and then told the workers they lifted the

canister back out they saved it put it back in. We're going to get a full report from medicine about this but I think the key point that I take away from this is that this isn't this is one of any of many workplace safety issues that arise in a normal construction site. And they're working on it. I was concerned about the allegations that there isn't a safety culture. I've seen no evidence to suggest that that's correct. I was concerned that the allegations that implications that there was a kind of cusp of an accident. I see no evidence that that's that that's actually true. But I don't know exactly where he works on the plant. And we need to get that information Edison within the bounds of what they can talk about. On a personal matter.

So Dave what was the protocol of disclosure for instance like this at Southern California Edison at San Onofre because obviously even if the canister is designed to withstand a drop of 20 25 feet if that happens what I'm dealing with you know great you see are absolutely always so absolutely.

So my understanding is that this is comes from my having done a lot of work in the last 24 hours 12 hours since her meeting last night to understand what happened who's talked to whom and so on is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions required reporting process probably would not have formally kicked in because this was an industrial safety issue and not in any scenario a compromised nuclear safety. What I do know is that Edison called up the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They've done some detailed hope. I think they are to have detailed conversations about that. And that's where the process stands as of this morning Friday. And my expectation is that Edison is going to get a statement out. They've got to get a statement out quickly and and then regularly update that statement and my guess is that the nuclear regulatory commission given the public attention to this not so much because of the engineering concern will want to pay close attention.

Speaking of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the former head of the NRC Greg fiasco's spoke to PBS recently saying no more canisters should be buried at the site now used by San Onofre. He said the chances are if they're buried they will be forgotten about. He said there's actually a term used in the industry Barrie. And forget what's your reaction to that state.

I read that interview I was surprised by that frankly. He may have been head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission some time ago but I thought the opinions that he offered in that interview were just completely untethered from reality. First of all I've not heard anybody in the industry talking about Barry and forget this whole panel process that I chair and lots of other things are all about not forgetting they're all about working on the problem. He said in that interview that he didn't think the Nuclear Regulatory Commission implied was not qualified really to regulate this. That's just completely disconnected from what the NRC is actually doing right now. There's a huge amount of work in the NRC huge amount of work in the industry a lot of work on Congress and so on and so I thought that interview was really unfortunate if people didn't say what they think. But for somebody who's occupied that position to be offering opinions that are so grounded in reality I thought was unfortunate.

There's also the potential problem of sea level rise undermining the structural stability of the dry cask storage buried just above the high tide line. So how is that potential problem being addressed.

Yes so that sea level rises is built into the engineering of the project and then built into the environmental impact assessment is actually underway right now. The review of that process there were meeting earlier this week from the state process that's urging the environmental impact assessment and so on. So they have looked at the consequences of sea level rise. I think when we look closely at that analysis to me as someone who also studies climate change and studies the sea level rise in part in my in my day job as it were. I'm a volunteer chairing this panel for Edison. To me the bigger issue is actually what happens after the spent fuel pad is removed because while the spent fuel pad is there there's every incentive in the world to treat that as a hardened industrial facility that it is. It's a giant concrete monolith sunken anchored into the cliffs with these canisters embedded in the monolith and a giant sea wall and all of that is built to protect it. And so that's what it's doing when we are successful in moving the spent fuel out of here. All of that stuff will be removed at which point then the normal processes of erosion on the coastline are going to operate. And that's actually an issue not just for and offered but it's the entire California company as a debate we're having right now about managed retreat of of other things.

So considering the problems though of no permanent storage site the potential for sea level rise potential accidents in the storage process. Why is it reasonable to ask Southern California Edison to stop the process of burying these casks where they're burying them and re re-evaluate this waste storage plant.

Yes some people have asked for that including Greg Jusco going your interview with a number of people make comments similar to that last last night. I think the reality is there are two places to put the spent fuel right now. One is to leave it in the pools where all of the fuel assemblies are sitting right next to each other underwater or to take them out of the pools dry them and put them in units of 37 and each of these individual canisters. This question has been looked at by a whole bunch of independent experts including a very important set of studies by the National Research Council which is the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering and the conclusion from that work very clearly is the safest place for the fuel to be is in canisters if people are worried about terrorist attacks they're worried about insider threats they're worried about earthquakes and so on to get the fuel into the spent fuel storage facility which is extra hard for the seismic conditions here in Southern California is hands down the best thing to do. And it also means that we're most likely earlier in line to then get the fuel out of here. And so if you were to leave the fuel in the pools then you are adopting an option that's probably the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls that also safe but an option that is not as safe and an option that has a much larger footprint on the bluffs because you have to maintain the pools and all the infrastructure on the pools and doesn't get us ready to do what we want to do which is to get the fuel

out of here.

I've been speaking with UC San Diego professor David Vektor chairman of the San Onofre Community Engagement panel. David thank you. My pleasure. We reached out to Southern California Edison for their response to the statements made at last night's Community Engagement panel. We did not hear back from Edison by air time.