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Lessons From Fukushima For San Onofre

The former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said plans to restart San Onofre at 70 percent power do not inspire him with confidence. Gregory Jaczko and former Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan spoke in San Diego at a seminar.

The former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Southern California Edison’s plans to restart San Onofre at 70 percent power do not inspire him with confidence. Gregory Jaczko and former Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan spoke in San Diego at a seminar called “Lessons from Fukushima."

Groups worried about plans to restart the San Onofre nuclear power plan sponsored the seminar, which was held in San Diego County Supervisors’ chambers.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Gregory Jaczko, former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, speaking in San Diego, June 4, 2013.

The speakers included Gregory Jaczko, who resigned under pressure last year as head of the NRC, and Neoto Kan, Japan’s top elected official at the time of the Fukushima disaster. Both men said their attitude to nuclear power was forever changed by what happened at Fukushima.

Jaczko said the melt down at Fukushima was a wake-up call that made him realize the industry needs a new way to measure risk.

“What I’ve come to realize,” Jaczko said, “is that the usual ways of analyzing this with risk analysis is not very useful. Because most of the time things don’t happen and don’t go wrong, but when the one thing does go wrong that nobody can predict, the consequences are tremendous.“

Jaczko said the cost benefit approach that says it is not worth investing in something that is unlikely to happen means the nuclear industry is chronically underprepared for accidents. He said he learned from Fukushima that the industry and regulators have to pay much more attention to the economic and personal consequences of an accident.

Kan, who was Japan’s prime minister in 2011 when Fukushima happened, said the experience changed him. Speaking through a translator, he said he started out as a politician thinking he could control nuclear power. Now, he said, he is ashamed that he promoted nuclear technology.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Naoto Kan is the former prime minister of Japan.

Kan said he believes society needs to work toward phasing out nuclear power and cited the example of Germany. He called for groups who have questions about nuclear power to form an international network to stand up to the powerful interests that are promoting the industry.

Arnie Gundersen, a consultant with the group Friends of the Earth said the probability of a nuclear power plant accident is in fact much higher than estimates, becuase five units have melted down in the past 35 years: one at Three Mile Island, one at Chernobyl and three at Fukushima.

“We are dealing with a technology that can have 40 great years and one bad day,” Gundersen said, “and that one bad day can destroy a country.”

Peter Bradford, a commissioner with the NRC at the time of the Three Mile Island accident, said the regulatory agency pledged to become more transparent but in fact the opposite has happened. He pointed out little was done after Fukushima to improve safety at U.S. power plants, whereas there was heightened security after the Boston bombings.

Bradford called for appointing nuclear regulatory commissioners who have a record of protecting public safety, as well as a record of technical experience with the industry.

A question specifically about the proposal to restart the San Onofre nuclear power plant elicited a skeptical response from Jaczko. The plant has been offline since January 2012 after a small radiation leak and the NRC is currently considering a proposal to restart one reactor at 70 percent for five months.

“Just looking at it as an outsider now,“ Jaczko said, “the approach that is being taken is not one that instills tremendous confidence in me because the approach is for operation at reduced power. In principal, what you should see is design modifications and changes that allow operations at the licensed power levels.”

In other words: a fix.

Jaczko said the restart proposal creates doubt in his mind that there’s a complete understanding of what’s wrong with the faulty steam generators at San Onofre.


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