San Onofre Shutdown, One Year Later
KPBS Special Coverage: Tune In To KPBS Midday Edition At 12 Noon For An In-depth Discussion On The San Onofre Shutdown.
CAVANAUGH: Today's story for the full hour of Midday Edition is a look back and a look forward at the complexities of the San Onofre shutdown. Joining me for the hour is KPBS senior metro reporter, Alison St. John. Welcome. ST. JOHN: Glad to be here, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: And we are welcoming listeners' calls this hour. What do you think about the San Onofre shutdown? You can call us with your questions and comments. 1-888-895-5727. Is this what we knew when the shutdown began a year ago: A leak in a steam generator tube in unit No. 3 at San Onofre released a small, nonhazardous amount of radioactive gas. Because of that, unit 3 was shut down. Unit 2 was already offline for maintenance. Southern California Edison said when the problem was resolved, it would take several days for the reactor to be restarted. Alison, you've done an extensive amount of reporting on San Onofre. First we were told that leaking tubes were not unusual. Was there any indication this would turn into the huge problem it's become? ST. JOHN: Well, no, not at all. We all thought, okay, minor radiation leak, nobody hurt, everything shut down, don't worry. And it's developed into this huge, if I may say, a mushroom cloud of controversy! And the problem is that we're a little bit being diverted by this cloud of controversy from the bigger issue than the issue that we're all worried about, could it be another Fukushima. The underlying is can we keep the lights on in California if we don't have nuclear power? Just supposing it goes that way. If it does restart at 70% power, what will that do to our network? CAVANAUGH: The first indication that this was going to open up that kind of a can of worms, that this was more than just routine came last February, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended a follow-up inspection because the failing tubes were almost brand-new. And that set off questions about why these brand-new tubes would leak. ST. JOHN: They were already talk become these new steam generators as early as 2004, 2005, they were talking about them, they bought them. They were installed in 2009-10. They had only been operating for a couple of years, and they were supposed to last for decades. This has raised a storm of different consultants flooding into the area to figure out what's going wrong. Mitsubishi in Japan were the ones who designed it. And it turned out, it's to do with the resign of these steam generators that has caused the tubes within the generators to rub together in some cases and rub against the supports that hold them and cause leaks. So this has caused endless trouble. And we still are -- obviously the company is still unclear as to whether this could be made to work safely again in the future, because they're only asking to start it again at 70% power. CAVANAUGH: Now, going through the timeline from last year, I remember into March, we all began to speculate, oh, my gosh, are we going to try to get through the summer without San Onofre? And there was speculation that there would be blackouts and so forth. How much power does or did San Onofre provide to San Diego? ST. JOHN: Well, it's a significant portion. It's 20%. And it's not just the power, it also plays a key role in the whole transmission system. I understand that the transmission system for Southern California sort of is designed around the two nuclear power plants, so it's not just a matter of what it generates. It's also how it supports the whole system. CAVANAUGH: You referenced something that I want to ask more about. Southern California Edison, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had public hearings in San Diego, and they tried to explain what had gone wrong. It was technical, had to do with how the tubes were tested in Japan. What did they say went wrong? ST. JOHN: Well, point at which I heard gasps in the audience from people behind me who were nuclear engineers from the Navy was when it was revealed that the protocols, the modeling of how this system would function under the new design were off by a factor of 4 or 5. Now, that isn't -- it's not easy to quantify that, but if you see the redesign of the steam generators, putting in more tubes, less supports, and was different enough that the fluid elastic instability is causing the tubes to rattle and rub again each other, the modelling they did was way off. And many people ask, well, how did the system of checking Mitsubishi's modeling fail so badly? CAVANAUGH: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it will decide this spring whether to allow Edison to restart unit 2 at reduced power. And that's 70% of power. As I understand it, there are no plans to restart unit 3. ST. JOHN: It's offline. They removed the fuel from it. There's no talk about starting that again. So a lot of the discussion really is about if both units were designed the same, how can you be sure unit 2 is safe? CAVANAUGH: We contacted Southern California Edison and SDG&E to join us on this program. SDG&E referred us back to Edison, and Edison declined but sent a response. It is now posted on our website, KPBS.org. Yesterday I spoke with Laura Uselding, a spokesperson with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to find out more about their process on deciding whether to allow San Onofre to restart at reduced power. Here's what she said and what she did not say during that interview. CAVANAUGH: Laura, are the problems with the steam generators at San Onofre significantly more serious than the problems the NRC has observed at steam generators in other nuclear power plants around the nation? USELDING: Yes, the NRC has had several public meetings in the area to discuss what is a very unusual case of steam generator degradation. That's why the plant is currently in an increased oversight capacity called the O351 process, meaning the NRC is doing additional inspections to ensure that the licensees' response to the action items that have been mentioned in the confirmatory action letter are met and that we'll be continuing that increased oversight of this matter. CAVANAUGH: Southern California Edison wants to start unit 2 back up at 70% of the power. The NRC's Atomic Safety Board has questioned whether San Onofre's current operating license covers operating at 70% of power. So would it be not be more prudent to require a license amendment and the full hearing before permitting Edison to go ahead with that plan? USELDING: Right. And so that is something that the NRC's ASLB panel is going to be taking a look at. Also the NRC panel who is overseeing San Onofre is aware of that and also working with the NRC staff to address that. CAVANAUGH: What does the NRC need to know to make the decision that it's announced that it's going to be making in the late spring to allow it to restart? USELDING: The NRC is continuing its increased oversight through a number of inspections to evaluate the licensee's confirmatory action response for unit 2, and they'll be doing a full and independent verification to ensure these type of actions will prevent further tube to tube degradation and that the plant could be operated safely. The panel will be coming out, the NRC staff, and the San Onofre panel will be coming out on February 12th to have a public meeting and will be providing a status update on where they're at with the inspection. There'll be another opportunity prior to any decision being made about this, sometime in April, so the public can expect a couple more opportunities for dialogue with the NRC prior to any decision being made. CAVANAUGH: I guess I'm trying to put it in terms that a layman can grasp. Does the NRC have a check list of things that Southern California Edison has to prove that unit 2 can do before you're going to give it the okay to go? USELDING: Okay, yes. Back in March, the NRC issued what is called a confirmatory action letter. This is a list of action items that the NRC and Southern California Edison have agreed must be taken before there is any decision about restart. So they must ensure that the steam generator tube integrity is maintained, and they have to provide assurances that the unit 2 can be operated safely. Currently that's where the status of things lie. NRC is continuing its inspections. The licensee is continuing to do work needed to address those item, and that's why the February 12th meeting they mentioned will be a status update on where that process is. CAVANAUGH: Are any other nuclear power plants around the country operating at lower power because they have had problems? USELDING: I don't have that information. CAVANAUGH: Do you know if that's a standard response the NRC would use to technical problems? USELDING: I don't know. I work for region 4, so we'd have to give you some information on the national front. CAVANAUGH: If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission permits Southern California Edison to restart the plant at 70% power, what kind of monitoring will continue to go on at the plant? USELDING: I can't speculate. That decision has not been made. Of so I couldn't say. CAVANAUGH: I know you haven't made that decision yet, but if you do make the decision, you don't know if the NRC would continue monitoring it? USELDING: I can't speculate on something that hasn't been decided upon. So I can tell you that right now, the licensee is not going to be allowed to restart with any amount of power, any of the units until the NRC and the actions listed in the confirmatory action letter have been addressed, inspected. So no decision about any kind of restart is imminent. So I can't answer any speculative question about that. CAVANAUGH: Okay. But one would assume that that would come down with any decision, what kind of monitoring might be part of that decision that the NRC makes to allow the plant to restart? USELDING: Yes, the U.S. nuclear regulatory commission's main charge is to oversee safe operation of nuclear power plants. Any power plant that's operating in this country will receive NRC oversight. CAVANAUGH: Is the NRC reviewing its own licensing procedures as a result of what's happened at San Onofre? USELDING: Yes. The previous chairman at public meetings that have been going on in the area, that is something that the augmented inspection team, which was sent out last year and who have been doing work for the steam generators and others have said that yes, of course this is being looked at by the agency. CAVANAUGH: Well, I thank you for your time. USELDING: You bet. CAVANAUGH: That was an interview conducted yesterday: Alison St. John is here with me. Also John Geesman, a former nuclear commissioner, now an attorney with the firm for nuclear responsibility. Welcome. GEESMAN: Hello. CAVANAUGH: Is it difficult getting answers from the NRC on this issue? ST. JOHN: Well, the NRC at least will always call you back, whereas SDG&E and Southern California Edison really are not responding to questions at all. So it is very difficult, really, to cover this issue when you're not hearing from some of the major players. CAVANAUGH: Now, John, what are the things people need and have a right to know about this prolonged closure? GEESMAN: Well, are I think that you start from the standpoint the NRC is a taxpayer supported institution. SDG&E and Edison are rate-payer supported institutions. It's pretty clear who's paying for these agencies. Why aren't they more transparent and more forthcoming? I think your interview revealed a number of pretty open-ended problems. I would start with the fact they seem to have taken the snapshot in March of last year as to what they thought was wrong. We have had 10 month pass since then. They haven't learned anything more? Are they still operating on last March's check list in terms of what they're going to require of Edison before the plant is allowed to restart? ST. JOHN: It's my understanding that they subsequently gave them a list in October of 32 more questions, and then in January, they requested additional information. So they are continuing to ask for information from Edison. CAVANAUGH: But the point is -- GEESMAN: But the standards they're driving against are those they set last March. ST. JOHN: Right. CAVANAUGH: John, is this just caution on the part of agencies and utilities or a lack of transparency about what is going? GEESMAN: Before he was elected president, Senator Obama characterized the NRC as a moribund agency that had been captured by the industry it was supposed to regulate. I think he got it right. With respect to Edison and SDG&E, they're simply playing it cautious. Why should they expose themselves when they don't really know when the problem is? They don't have a clear set of answers. How can they allow unit 3 to simply sit there inoperative and still charge their customers for it? CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Of GEESMAN: How does that make any sense? CAVANAUGH: We're going to be talking more about that in our next segment of this program. We have a caller on the line from imperial county. He wants to know whether SDG&E thinks power from the sunrise power link will be enough to offset losses from San Onofre. But Southern California Edison, which goes to the point of our conversation right now, has declined to be with us to answer questions like that. We will have someone from the independent systems operator on later in the show to talk about the power grid and whether or not that will -- what is being done and what will continue to be done to offset the loss of San Onofre. ST. JOHN: John, I wonder, do you have a sense of what it is the players are attempting to keep confidential here? Are there some specific things thoughtful are being hidden from the public? GEESMAN: I read the statement that you've got on your website from Edison. And I can't say that it has any representation of reality at all. I've asked them to provide their root cause elveses for the tube wear problems, and they have declined to do so. I asked why, other and they say it contains confidential information. I've asked them to redact the confidential information and provide me a copy, they've said we don't have a redacted copy. I've asked them to produce one, they've said that's going to take quite a bit of time. CAVANAUGH: Before we wrap up this particular segment, Laura who I spoke with from the NRC talked to us about -- well, she talked about a check list and didn't really go into it in any depth. Is there a check list of some sort? Are there requirements that we know about that the NRC wants Edison to do before it allows it to start up again? ST. JOHN: Okay. They did have this confirmatory action letter in March. And in October, Edison responded. And here's what they have said they're going to do. It plugged some tubes in unit 2, it established a protocol of inspections, are its operational limits, 70% power, it's going to stop after five month, it's got a special monitoring team with safety measures if there are problem, and it has put in place a project team to implement more long-term plans for repairs. Since then, the NRC has pushed back and asked them a list of 32 more questions. Including questions about, well, we think the NRC has said, that your license requires you to operate at 100% not 70%. So can you give us some guarantee that you think you can eventually operate at 100%? And that question has not been answered. CAVANAUGH: I see. And presumably that is the type of thing that will be discussed at these meetings, one of them to be on February 12th, here in the San Diego area. ST. JOHN: Hopefully we'll get more information from there, yes. [[[NEW SEGMENT]]]. CAVANAUGH: Here with KPBS reporter Alison St. John. In the year San Onofre has been offline, customers in San Diego, Riverside, and Orange Counties have been paying the bills for the plant. That cost is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Last October, the California public utilities commission opened an investigation into whether ratepayers should be on the hook financially while San Onofre remains idle. Here to talk about the costs associated with the San Onofre shutdown are Truman Burns, a spokesperson for the California public utility commission's division of rate payer advocates. Welcome to the show. BURNS: Good afternoon. CAVANAUGH: Donald Kelly is here, executive director of the utility consumers action network. KELLY: Thank you very much for having me. CAVANAUGH: And we're welcoming listeners' calls this hour. Now, Truman, you say ratepayers have spent $900 million on San Onofre since it went offline last year. Why would it cost so much to operate if nothing's going on up there? BURNS: Well, are they do have -- a big chunk of that is the utilities recovering their capital investment costs. And a portion of it is the routine operations and maintenance, and they have several employees. I think 80% of the costs are related to employee costs CAVANAUGH: Okay, so they're maintaining their employee, so they have to pay them, and that's why it's costing so much even though the plant is idle? BURNS: Yes. In fact, in filings from the utilities, for example, Edison had been authorized to spend $390 million for operating and maintaining San Onofre. And Edison is 80% owner of the plant. And it turned out in 2012 they spent more like $330 million on maintenance and operations, but then they spent $126 million on trying to figure out what's wrong and fixing things that are wrong. CAVANAUGH: Now, the ratepayers advocate division of the California public utilities commission that you're on, you advised last year that San Onofre be removed from the rate base of Southern California Edison and SDG&E. What does that mean? BURNS: Essentially the way utilities work is that the utility makes a large investment, and then they recover their investment over the life of the investment. So for San Onofre, the life is a 4-year license that the NRC gave them, and they have been recovering their -- if I remember, it was about a $5 billion investment in the plant since they started commercial operation in 1984. Now the plants are not operating, and the technical phrase is used and useful, they're not used and useful, we think rate payers shouldn't be paying for that. So the utilities should not be recovering that investment, and they shouldn't be recovering their profits on the investment. CAVANAUGH: I have been asking for phone calls, let me take one now. Martha Sullivan on the line, CPU C former employee. NEW SPEAKER: Hello, thanks for taking my call. CAVANAUGH: Your question or comment? NEW SPEAKER: My question really is, I was -- I and a lot of other people want to know what it's going to take for the NRC to wait for the state public utilities commission to figure out how much that's going to cost, and who is going to pay for it. It seems like to a lot of us that the NRC is just going to give Edison a blank check. And it'll be years before this is all sorted out. It doesn't make any business sense at all. CAVANAUGH: Thanks for the call. Now, Truman, the advocates wanted the CPUC to stop the rate payments going to Southern California Edison immediately, right? You wanted that to happen last year before a full investigation. BURNS: Yes. CAVANAUGH: Is there any chance of that actually happening? BURNS: Well, the commission recently pout putt out a schedule, and one of the league issues they want briefed is whether the commission has the ability to change rates now. Because the utilities say you can't do that until Edison has its next rate case, which would be for 2015, and we don't agree with that at all. And neither does, for example, the utility reform network. ST. JOHN: Truman, it seems to me the tone of the CPUC meeting has changed a lot since it started this investigate. At the beginning, one of the commissioners even said there's a responsibility that this plant might not ever come back online. We would like to consideration the option or the possibility that ratepayers could start getting rebates as early as 2012. Now they've got their first hearing, and we're hearing maybe we won't even start talking about this until 2015. What changed in the interim? BURNS: I think the main -- what happened here is that the utilities did put up this legal argument that you can't do this, are based on their interpretation of state law. And so the commission is being cautious and asked the parties in put in briefs. And yesterday we noticed that attorney general Kamala Harris decided they would like to be a party to the proceeding. So the commission is being very careful. They also told the utilities to establish accounts to track all the costs so they can capture all the costs and adjust them in the future. ST. JOHN: How significant do you think it is that Kamala Harris is stepping in? They said she's stepping in to make sure things do proceed according to the public interest. BURNS: I think it's an interesting development. I can't remember -- well, I remember the attorney general's office being involved related to diablo canyon, but I don't remember more recent activities. CAVANAUGH: Donald Kelly, this week, the CPUC released a so-called scoping memo, outlining how its investigation is going to proceed. What costs -- what are they going to look at? We know they're going to look at the year 2012, and the amount of money that ratepayers have paid to maintain an idle San Onofre. What else are they going to look at? KELLY: The problem that I have with the scoping memo is that they are only looking from 2012 going forward. And the problem with San Onofre has been an ongoing problem for several years now. If you take a look at the scoping memo, in terms of costs, what they're looking for -- and this is number No. 1, the nature and effect of the steam generators' failures, in order to assess the nature of Southern California Edison's costs and expenditures. So they want to know what Southern California Edison paid for after the generators broke down what. Is disappointing about the memo is that they don't focus on what was promised when they actually replaced the steam generators and whether or not Southern California Edison's actions and consequences and expenditures were reasonable given the consequences when they replaced them originally a couple years ago. They were supposed to be lasting for a couple of decades. That lasted for 1 and 2 years respectively, and nobody is focussing on the issues what was promised to the commission a couple of years ago, what actions did Edison take after they made those promises, were those actions reasonable in light of what they knew, and should we trust them to do it again? Southern California Edison is asking the NRC for permission to run these plants at 70% power. And they want -- excuse me, and they basically are asking that the commission allow them to spend lots of rate payer money to conduct these tests and to restart the generators. At some point in time, the commission has got to consider whether or not it is more appropriate for -- to remove San Onofre from the rate base to examine the costs of replacing the power that San Onofre was generating to secure the grid, and to make sure that the ratepayers are not going to be throwing good money after bad. CAVANAUGH: I have to put this in. The CPUC declined our request for an interview saying they cannot comment while the proceeding is open. We also once again contacted Southern California Edison to join us on the program, they declined. We've posted their response on our website at KPBS.org. ST. JOHN: I think this question that you're saying about the cost, and it's interesting, Martha's point about the catch 22 between the NRC and the CPUC, because the CPUC is for us ratepayers: Is it cost effective? The NRC: Is it safe? And the question arises, does it make sense to start it again at 70% power? It's probably going to take as much resources to run it at 70% at 100%. So is this a cost effective thing for the rate payer even if they did give it permission? KELLY: Are the problem is that we're not simply looking at this in a vacuum of if we do this one action, is this one action cost effective? You still have the same management of the plant. You still have the same problems with the personnel in the plant. You still have the same plant which broke down before, and we still have the same bad management -- or if you want to assume -- ST. JOHN: The worst safety record in the nation. KELLY: If you want to assume those are to be factored into, do we give them another $900 million or so to do it again, are we going to get a better result this time? CAVANAUGH: Jeff Stein Mets is on the phone from San Clemente. What is your comment? NEW SPEAKER: To follow up on something that Martha Sullivan had said. My understanding is that the CPUC already issued a statement of fact that it's not economically viable to run San Onofre with one reactor. But you've already stated in your show that reactor 3, there's a very low likelihood of it ever coming back. CAVANAUGH: Let me go to Truman Burns on that. As the CPUC already decided it's not cost effective to run San Onofre with one reactor? BURNS: I'm not sure what the caller is referring to. I don't remember seeing that. When there was -- when the commission decided to approve Edison and San Diego going ahead with replacing the steam generators, they did look at various operating scenarios, and for example, if it didn't run for a long time, and gas costs were really, really low, it was pretty marginal to continue. But I don't remember a 1 unit versus 2-unit scenario. CAVANAUGH: Let me ask some questions that might be on people's minds even if they're not deeply involved in this issue. Why does the CPUC need to determine who's accountable before they can make a decision on these rates? It certainly isn't the ratepayers who's accountable. BURNS: The legal question has been presented to them of whether rates can be changed or not, and the commission has been cautious is decided at the present times to address that first. ST. JOHN: Is there any history of situations -- obviously nothing quite like this, but the CPUC making a decision where it shares the costs between rate payers and investors? BURNS: When San Onofre unit 2 was shut down in 1992, Edison got its costs at a much reduced rate of return. CAVANAUGH: What would be a reasonable reason from Edison that they shouldn't refund the money? BURNS: I wouldn't want to speak for Edison on that. I think they feel they have operating costs they have to cover, especially for safety-related items. And for basic maintenance, spending a decision from the NRC. KELLY: In my opinion, I don't think there is a reasonable argument to be made that the ratepayers should not be refunded money and that this plant should not be removed from the rate base. The rate payers didn't cause this problem. The ratepayers are paying for this problem. The ratepayers are being asked by Edison's -- or by the OII, that they be on the hook for all future costs and past costs. And from my perspective, I don't think that Edison's bad decisions in putting in a steam generator that was -- well, the one that broke. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Yes, yesses. KELLY: Is the ratepayers' fault! It's not the ratepayers' fault! They should be getting the money charged for the services that are provided and not charged for an idle plant. CAVANAUGH: I want to close on the idea that we all acknowledge that we are as we spoke still paying for San Onofre, and it is still not producing any power. ST. JOHN: An average of $10 perhousehold. KELLY: And if I could just have a second, I just wanted to inform your listeners that there is a public participation hearing being put on by the California public utilities commission in Costa Mesa to talk about and listen to the public on February 21st at the Costa Mesa community center at 1845 Park Avenue in Costa Mesa. The zip is 92627. CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that. [[[NEW SEGMENT]]]. CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh here with KPBS reporter Alison St. John. The biggest question for most San Diegans when it comes to San Onofre is is it safe? The original leak of radiation last January was tiny, it did not endanger the community, but this incident has started many thinking what if? It's reignited debate about the safety of nuclear power in general, and San Onofre in particular. I'd like to welcome my guests, Arnie Gunderson, is former nuclear power energy representative. He wrote an in-depth report for friends of the earth. GUNDERSON: Thanks for having me again. CAVANAUGH: Murray Jennex is a professor here at San Diego state university, an expert on nuclear containment, and he once worked at San Onofre. Welcome back. Of JENNEX: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me back. CAVANAUGH: And Gary Headrick, with the environmental group, San Clemente green. Welcome. HEADRICK: Thank you very much. CAVANAUGH: Again, we contacted Southern California Edison to join us. They did not want to be on the program. They posted their response on our website, KPBS.org. And we are taking your calls today. 1-888-895-5727. Arnie, it's your strong belief that the steam generators that failed at San Onofre were significantly redesigned, and that the NRC should have been informed and held a hearing to determine if that redesign was safe. Southern California Edison says that is not the case. Have we gotten an answer to that question? GUNDERSON: No, actually I had a meeting with the NRC last week, and I've got some testimony that's going to be filed next week on that very matter. No, I still stick to my guns that in 2004, the critical and imprudent decisions by Edison to not involve the NRC in the regulatory process set in motion all the problems that we encountered in 2011. The root cause is way back seven years earlier. CAVANAUGH: Now, Murray, Southern California Edison wants to restart unit 2 at 70% power. To your understanding of what's going on at San Onofre, what those steam generators are like, has the original problem been fixed? JENNEX: The original problem isn't fixed, but by operating in a different power level, you negate the problem. So that's why they want to go to 70% power T. Reduces the flow characteristics going through the tubes and changing the vibration. CAVANAUGH: Even though there is still this problem with this elasticity of the tubes, by not going to 100%, none of the tubes will leak? JENNEX: That's what they believe. That's why they're going to stop after five months and check, to verify and validate that that is the case. CAVANAUGH: Arnie, you produced several reports for friends of the earth. One of them shows that restarting the plant even at 30% power wouldn't help. GUNDERSON: Yeah, these tubes are like the strings on a violin. And by changing the length of the tube, you get a different vibration. And so that's what's happening inside San Onofre, if they were to start back up. The vibrations aren't going to go away. You're just going to get different vibrations. This is the most damaged nuclear component in the last 12 years throughout America. And like Murray said, they didn't fix it. They're just trying to do a little work around here and run it at a lot less power. My position is that the vibrations are going to show up at another spot in the steam generator and likely cause another leak. CAVANAUGH: Let's take a phone call. Josephine from Clairemont. We are taking your calls. NEW SPEAKER: Thanks for taking my call. I'm mostly concerned about San Onofre restarting because from what I understand, there were design changes that were are made without initially pulling some kind of licensing amendment for those changes because they claimed that they weren't real change, they were the same. But now after all that's occurred, come to find out that they were in fact pretty major design changes. So before they reopen, shouldn't they pull a licensing amendment? CAVANAUGH: Okay. Great question. Let me did you to, Alison, because you've done so much reporting on this. We've heard so much about design changes, and you referenced design changes. How big a design change does it have to be before it is required to go to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission? [ LAUGHTER ] ST. JOHN: Okay. That is the $64,000 question. I don't know whether Murray might have an opinion on it. But it seems like the people like Arnie feel like definitely! It's gone way beyond what it -- the NRC should have woken up and take a look at the designs and said, hey, this is not a like for like steam generator at all but quite eye new design. We should maybe do a balanced amendment to checkup on it. But both the NRC and Edison say we did everything according to the book. JENNEX: I would agree. I did a lot of the training up there for engineers on what they call a 5059 analysis, which is deciding when you need to do a licensed amendment. And I got to agree that this probably would not have required one. CAVANAUGH: And yet you disagree, Arnie? GUNDERSON: Yeah, the decision that it didn't need a license amendment was made in 2004. But the actual analysis to determine that was made while the steam generator was being shipped across the Pacific. In other words they built the sucker before they actually analyzed to see if it qualified. So when you do the paperwork after the product is built, I think you're going to get the answer you want to hear. CAVANAUGH: Murray? JENNEX: Well, the one point I would make is that the analysis Edison did or the decision they did in 2004 was given to the NRC, and they reviewed it also in 2004 in doning. So had they thought there was a problem, they had ample time to raise that issue. ST. JOHN: But Murray, you thought this was going to be resolved earlier, by the end of 2012. Are you surprised it's still going on? Where do you think something went horribly wrong? JENNEX: I think it is resolved. They're just trying to decide whether or not the resolution is adequate. ST. JOHN: Okay. So you think basically just the wheels are moving toward restart? JENNEX: Well, yes, San Onofre has said 70% power is reasonable. I haven't seen the analysis to know whether or not that is. But I'm assuming that that's the justification they've given to the NRC. And I think what's being decided now is is that justification sufficient. ST. JOHN: And is it possible to run that plant at 70% power and still make it cost effective? JENNEX: That's an interesting question because all equipment has efficiency curves. And I figure, personally, I believe they chose 70% because that's at the bottom of the efficiency curvy where it's still efficient to run the equipment. ST. JOHN: Okay . JENNEX: Going in at 50% power, I would not have agreed with. CAVANAUGH: Hairy Headrick with the environmental group, San Clemente green, you are in the community closest to San Onofre, what are you hearing from community members about their feelings of the restart of San Onofre and its safety? HEADRICK: Well, we're terribly concerned because what we're hearing is an experimental proposition where the company and the people that were responsible for the problem originally are the same ones that are telling us to rely on the computer models that are saying it's okay to run at 70%. And there's a few problems that really concern us that you don't have to be a nuclear expert to understand. One is that the computer modeling was 400% off, and that's why the generators are not functioning properly. And they've damaged the tubes that they're trying to just start again without fixing. You don't know if there's a problem with these tubes when it's operating. You have to shut it down and inspect the tubes. A year ago today, when we had a pinhole leak, and everyone is minimizing that risk, what really happened is they found after they did the inspections they put worn tubes under pressure that eight of them actually burst under pressure. And had they burst, we could have had a catastrophic effect. CAVANAUGH: Now, let me ask you, was your group, San Clemente green, are environmentalists in San Clemente, were you sort of leery about nuclear power even before that event? Or has this reignited or sparked a new concern about what's going on in San Onofre? HEADRICK: Well, to tell you the truth, we started San Clemente green to create a sustainability action plan for San Clemente. And we purposely avoided this issue about nuclear power because it wasn't our concern so much at the time. We just had a very narrow focus. And we wanted to make sure that passed and not get into some controversy. Then our group was contacted by people who actually work at the power plant. And you might call them whistle blowers. I call them heroes. They risk everything to make sure the public knows about things like the generators being installed improperly. And they were telling us way back at the end of 2010 that they were concerned about the testing not being done that they thought should have been done. And these are nuclear operator licenses. CAVANAUGH: So it became a growing concern for your group. HEADRICK: Absolutely. When I started hearing from people who actually work there, it got my attention, got a lot -- we went from 500 members to over 2,000 now, just because it's such a pressing issue. CAVANAUGH: You raised a very important question early on, Alison, and that was we're very concerned about safety. But how do we keep the lights on? Joining us now is Steven Greenly, public information officer with the California independence systems operator. That manages California's power grid. Back to the program. GREENLY: Thank you very much for having me. CAVANAUGH: Now, with the shutdown of San Onofre, where is our energy coming from? How are we making up that energy? GREENLY: Well, just as we did last summer, the ISO is coordinating and counseling with other state agencies, including the California energy commission and the public utilities commission as well as other utilities on ways that we can support Southern California without San Onofre. CAVANAUGH: What are those ways, Steven? GREENLY: Well, they come in a few different ways. The biggest one right now that we would like to see is to convert the 2 units at Huntington beach into what we call synchronous condensers. These are not power generators. What they do is they produce electricity that supports the voltage on transmission lines. And what that does is it helps us import electricity from farther away into Southern California. CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting. Now, will that be available to us, let's say, this summer if indeed we have to -- if San Onofre does not get the go-ahead to restart at 70% of power? GREENLY: Well, we do have an agreement with the Huntington beach unit owners to convert those turbines over into synchronous condenser, and our federal regulators approved that agreement just recently, January 4th. Now, there are still contractual limitations despite the rulings from the federal regulators. And so the Huntington beach unit owners, those are business decisions now they have to make, and they are still in the process of making those decisions. So that's why we here at the ISO are considering what our alternatives could be. ST. JOHN: So you are planning for another year without San Onofre? Does that mean sleepless nights for you or are you pretty confident? GREENLY: Well, the ISO contends with events on the grid every day. And this is a big one, because we no longer have the 2,200-plus megawatts that San Onofre gave us, plus the voltage support that helps us with imports. So we're concerned about it. And I guess I would say it this way, we may have some sleepless nights, but you folks out there will not. CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, we appreciate that. Steven Greenly, with the California independent systems operator, thank you very much for joining us. GREENLY: You bet. CAVANAUGH: I want to take a phone call. Kathy from Solana beach. Welcome to the program. Of NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for having me. CAVANAUGH: Has to be real short, if you would. NEW SPEAKER: Well, I would just, if I could express the importance of -- I evacuated from Japan in April of 2012 after working and raising my two daughters there for 27 years. And I cannot stress enough that the three nuclear reactors in Fukushima continue to melt down, releasing tons and tons of radioactive runoff into the Pacific ocean every day for the last year and nine months. And I think that a lot of us, contrary to popular belief, this disaster is nowhere near being over. While the Japanese government and the company owning it, the entity responsible for the meltdowns, the same contamination. They're still too hot to cap because doing so would cause huge explosions. CAVANAUGH: Words of warning, I have to end it there because I have to ask one final question if I could. Thank you so much for that phone call. In light of that phone call, Arnie, if San Onofre is restarted at 70% power, what will you be watching for? GUNDERSON: The San Onofre site is the worst in the country, as far as emergency planning goes. My concern will still be tube vibration, excessive tube vibration, not just a little pinhole leak. The NRC admitted that a tube can fail catastrophically with no prior warning. So I'm concerned about a rapid pipe rupture. CAVANAUGH: And we have to leave it on that scary note. I'm very sorry, but I think it's been a very good discussion. I'd like to thank my guests.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has been offline since a small radiation leak in January last year led to the discovery of excessive wear on hundreds of steam generator tubes that carry radioactive water. Southern California Edison predicts running the plant at low power will stop tube damage. Environmentalists argue the plant cannot run safely.
A Look Back At Key Events
- When San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was shutdown a year ago, we knew that a leak in a steam generator tube in unit 3 of the nuclear power plant released a small, non-hazardous amount of radioactive gas. Because of that, unit 3 was shut down.
- Unit 2 was already offline for maintenance. Southern California Edison, which operates the plant, said once the problem was resolved it would take several days for the reactor to be restarted.
- The first indication that this was more than a routine shutdown came in February when the Nuclear Regulatory commission recommended a follow-up inspection -- because the failing tubes were almost brand new.
- Edition had installed Unit 2 steam generators in 2010 and unit 3 steam generators in 2011.
- Meanwhile, ratepayers continue to pay for running the disabled San Onofre nuclear plant. Customers in the San Diego, Riverside and Orange County regions pay about $64 million dollars a month to run San Onofre.
- In October, the California Public Utility Commission opened an investigation into whether customers should pay to operate the plant while it remains offline, and whether ratepayers should be reimbursed for what they've spent so far.
- Earlier this week, the state regulator released a memo outlining the timeline of the investigation and what will be considered.
Southern California Edison says its plan to run the San Onofre Nuclear Plant at reduced power will stop tube damage. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission won't make a decision on Edison's proposal to restart the plant until April or May. But critics say the plant can't run safely. What are some of the top safety concerns over restarting San Onofre?
KPBS invited representatives from Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric, the City of Riverside and the California Public Utilities Commission to be on the program, all declined.
Statement From Southern California Edison:
Southern California Edison is confident that exhaustive research by global experts demonstrates the safety of SCE’s conservative plan to restart San Onofore Nuclear Generating Station. SCE welcomes the opportunity to review this independent analysis at public meetings next month, including a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) meeting on Feb. 12 in Capistrano Beach, CA. The NRC scheduled the meeting to review SCE”s plan to address steam generator tube degradation at San Onofre. In addition, SCE will share its tube wear insights at an NRC meeting and webcast Feb. 7 in Rockville, MD regarding nuclear industry steam generator tube wear experience.
In addition to participation in public meetings, SCE has demonstrated its transparency by giving the public easy access to more than 170,000 inspections and analysis that confirm the safety of the Unit 2 restart plan. SCE’s restart plant and supporting documents, including ongoing replies to the NRC, are available at www.SONGScommunity.com
SCE has continued to emphasizes that a critical review by the NRC of the company’s plan to restart Unit 2 is important to both the public and SCE. Safety remains SCE’s top priority and we are confident that when implemented, the Unit 2 restart plan will get San Onofre Unit 2 back to providing reliable and clean energy to Southern Californians.