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Edison Community Engagement Panel Chair Addresses Safety Concerns At San Onofre

January 9, 2019 1:41 p.m.

GUEST: David Victor, chair, Southern California Edition Community Engagement Panel

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Related Story: Edison Community Engagement Panel Chair Addresses Safety Concerns At San Onofre


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.

Southern California Edison has come under scrutiny for its handling of the spent fuel at San Onofre. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently investigating a near miss accident that occurred while radioactive spent fuel was being transferred from cooling ponds to concrete bunkers near the beach. David Victor of UCSD chairs Edison's Community Engagement panel that is monitoring the decommissioning of the plant. Edison designated him to answer questions about what's happening at San Onofre. Thanks so much for coming in David. That's my pleasure. OK so now the plant is being decommissioned but the fuel will stay onsite indefinitely because Congress has failed to find a long term storage for nuclear waste.

Why did Edison decide to bury nuclear waste on site 100 feet from the ocean.

They didn't have any other choice. They had a license for that site and they had adjacent to the reactors. They had a place to put the spent fuel. So that's where they have a license. And there aren't any operational licenses for them anywhere else and so that's why they are stuck.

Didn't they have some other options they could have explored.

No they would have had to get a new license that would allow them to put the spent fuel at a site for example east of the five. Some people have been interested in putting the fuel out in the desert someplace on a military base. Military doesn't want it. Oliver Erdi in Arizona has a license for this but they have their own spent fuel to put there and so that's why we're stuck with it here and why we're spending so much time in the community gates and people focused on how do we get a change in federal law so we can move it out of here.

The decision to bury it there was perhaps made a few years ago but quite recently predictions of climate change and sea level rise have changed. Is it possible that the speed at which the ocean may be rising makes that decision less desirable now.

My guess is it doesn't make that decision less desirable for several decades or perhaps many decades beyond that. The science is getting stronger about faster climate change but the spent fuel sitting in a highly engineered protected facility so it's protected against terrorist acts protected against the sea seawall against tsunamis it's protected against sea level rise with active management of water. And so the engineering of the facility is designed to make it extremely robust even with those kinds of scenarios in mind.

Now you chaired the community engagement panel meeting and there are people who live around the plant who are very concerned about the thinness of the canisters. About half an inch thick. Why is there design such a thin canister.

Well it's standard in the American industry. Almost every canister in the United States has made it half an inch or five eights inch thick stainless steel stainless steel is highly protective against corrosion. It would be reckless to adopt a technology that is not being used anywhere else in the country and that it would mean the fuel be stuck at San Onofre with no place to go because you couldn't get those canisters taken at any other facility.

Was that decision to use the thin canisters taken before it was known that Yucca Mountain was no longer an option for long term storage. Is it possible that because Yucca Mountain is no longer an option those thin casks are now no longer appropriate.

No I don't think so. The countries that use the thicker casks tend to all have fuel reprocessing systems. We don't have that in this country. We use the fuel in the nuclear reactor. Then we put it in the canisters and it's there until a permanent repository and so the best thing to do is to have it in a highly monitored facility and to weld the top shot as opposed to using these thicker wall bolt adds.

Now Edison had this near miss accident last August and we would not have known about it unless the whistleblower had not stepped forward. Were you aware that it had happened before he revealed it at a community engagement panel meeting.

I had heard that something had happened at the plant that had led them to stop all their offloading actions. When I take a step back from it I think whether or not he had said what he said at our meeting the nuclear regulatory commission would've been focused on this and frankly what Edison allowed to happen at the plant was not acceptable as a nuclear safety culture that has no tolerance for error and they had not followed that culture and so they did stop all their offloading activities take a fresh look. They're in the process now rehearsing a completely new process.

Pretty aggressive oversight a lot of people including from our panel have asked for more oversight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make sure this is done properly and has to be done properly.

If that canister had dropped. Apparently there was an analysis of what would happen if a canister dropped what would happen.

Whole tech the company that designed the canister and operated this process. They did an analysis to look at the potential risks. They found that the canister would not have breached at all.

It was this paper analysis or did they actually drop a canister with some inert material to see how it would hold up.

Well it's done with models that actually the models are more accurate than dropping canisters and that's what the whole tech analysis did is done by computer calibrated to the real world.

Edison has resisted till now taking any of those canisters back out again to see if they might have gotten scratched on the way down. They are supposed to be retrievable according to NRC regular why is Edison so reluctant to remove a canister to see if there's any scratching.

I'm not. I worked for Edison. I'm an independent volunteer on a panel of 18 volunteers who were set up to help Edison talk to the public about what's going on decommissioning public talk to Edison about decommissioning. So Edison needs to say its own things. My understanding makes complete sense to me is that they don't see a reason to pull the canisters back out and take a look at them because they know that as the cannisters age the normal technologies of what's called Aging management in the industry can be used to look at the canister services and so on.

I think everybody knows that there scratches the normal process of putting them in. So there's been another one of these model studies that looked at the most extreme possible form of scratching and that study shows that the worst case possible scratch is a tiny little scratch and that the oxide coating on the steel would reform very quickly within less than a month and so I've talked to a lot of the technical experts and it strikes me that that analysis is correct this idea that the canisters were scratched when they were moved into the final location and that there was not a final final location.

But but move there and therefore they're damaged or need to be sent back to the vendor that just doesn't hold water.

Now the NRC has conducted a special investigation To found no lack of training for procedures and basically really a surprising lack of oversight of the whole process by Edison of Caltech International a company that was engaged in the transfer. Edison says it can correct all this but I think that the public is suffering from a lack of trust. What can be said to encourage the public to trust Edison again after the trust they.

It's astonishing to me that they allowed the oversight that they had that resulted in this canister getting wedged for a while and then not detecting that. That to me is astonishing. And they've got to demonstrate back to the public that they have good procedures in place and rehearsing them part of that is also showing that they've got a mechanism for keeping personnel trained and then they've got to demonstrate this with more scrutiny I think from Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And they're out there and they're crawling all over the plant and they're making sure it's being done properly that they ought to be allowed to do their job.

Our interest in Southern California are to get the fuel into these canisters using completely safe industry robust procedures so that we can start to get the canisters out of here and distracting from that is not helpful.

David thank you so much for coming in. Always a pleasure. That's David Victor who is the chair of Addisons Community Engagement panel for a longer version of this interview go to Cape dot org slash midday.