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Sen. Boxer Lashes Out At Management At San Onofre

Sen. Barbara Boxer speaks during a news conference in July 2011 in Washington.
Carolyn Kaster
Sen. Barbara Boxer speaks during a news conference in July 2011 in Washington.
SONGS shutdown 2
Sen. Boxer Lashes Out At Management At San Onofre
GUESTS:Adam Townsend, editor for Patch.com/Orange CountyMurray Jennex, SDSU Professor, College of Business Administration, expert on nuclear containment, who once worked at San Onofre. Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer at Fairewinds

CAVANAUGH: Inquiry into the faulty generators at San Onofre was stepped up a notch yesterday by Barbara Boxer. She is calling for an investigation by the U.S. justice department into whether Southern California Edison misled federal regulators about the extent of changes made to the nuclear power plant's new generators. (Audio Recording Played) BOXER: So Cal Edison people told regulators one thing and did another. And I've gone over it several times. They self-certified the replacement, and in this letter you see they said it was not a like for like replacement. CAVANAUGH: She states the letter her office released yet is "clearing a turning point in this situation." Now she is calling for a full licensing amendment and public hearing before the San Onofre power plant is allowed to restart. San Onofre has not been producing power since early last year. I'd like to introduce my guests, Arnie Gunderson is former nuclear power energy executive, now chief engineer at Fair Winds, an energy consulting group. GUNDERSON: Thanks for having me. CAVANAUGH: Murray Jennex is here, an SDSU professor and expert on nuclear containment who once worked at San Onofre. Welcome back. JENNEX: Hi, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: And Adam Townsend is editor of patch.com of Orange County. TOWNSEND: Pleased to be here. CAVANAUGH: We once again invited a representative from Southern California Edison to join us to respond to Senate boxer's allegations, but Edison continues to decline our invitation. They sent us a statement which is linked on our website, KPBS.org. The last we heard about San Onofre was that Edison was urging the NRC to approve a plan for them to reopen the generator at 70% power. Now comes this dramatic move by Senator boxer. What had the NRC been saying about the plans to reopen San Onofre? Were they reviewing the plans? TOWNSEND: Yeah, the NRC continues to review those plans at the staff level. They've delayed their decision several times. They say it'll come at the end of May, now the end of June. But given all the political pressure and ongoing investigations by several other agencies, even over and above the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it doesn't look like that's going to happen anytime soon. CAVANAUGH: How does Senator Boxer claim Edison misled nuclear regulators? Arnie, are you with us? Okay, let me put that question out. TOWNSEND: Well, at issue here is -- what she is claiming and what she is claiming is echoed by activists, they're saying that Edison misled regulators by saying we're going to install new steam generators, but they're going to be basically the same as the last generators so we don't have to go through this long, expensive, lengthy licensing amendment process to do it. Now the activists and Senator Boxer have pointed to different pieces of evidence that they say Edison misled regulators. But Edison and the NRC itself up to this point is saying that Edison complied with all the necessary rules. And assuming there is this potential investigation by the justice department, it's going to come down to a really technical interpretation. The laws and regulations that apply to renovations and rehab. CAVANAUGH: Arnie, are you there? GUNDERSON: Yes, I am. CAVANAUGH: Okay. So Adam laid it out for us. It comes down to this idea of like for like swap of steam generators. And what this letter that Barbara Boxer released yesterday said and what Edison has been saying to regulators all down the line. Why is that such a central part of this debate, whether or not the generators are like for like swaps? GUNDERSON: Well, part of the federal law, nuclear law part 10 of the code of regulation, 50 covers nuclear plants, but chapter 59 talks about these like for like swaps. And the NRC doesn't want to know about minor changes you're making to a power plant. It's almost like changing your mud tires to your snow tires or something like that, they don't want to know. But when you get a major modification that falls outside of this like for like parameter, they want to know. And there's eight different criteria that they apply to the law. Last year, Edison published a paper in a trade journal and they said that these new steam generators were like for like replacement. Now their executive releases a letter that says, no, they were not like for like. So Edison -- what they said last year is not what they're saying this year. And frankly, friends of the earth has been saying now for more than a year that they should have applied, they should have gotten a thorough NRC review and opened the process up to public involvement back in 2004 when they made this decision. CAVANAUGH: Right. Murray Jennex, Edison clearly says in this letter that was released yesterday, they used the word it's not like for like replacements which is exactly what it had to be as we just heard not to generate more hearings by the NRC to see whether the license needed to be amended in some way. Now Edison is saying that like for like has a lot of gray areas. Do you agree? JENNEX: Well, it does because -- what Arnie said is partially true but not totally true. What 5059 is about is a way of prioritizing changes so that the NRC focuses on those changes which are -- impacted on safety basis. It never says that a change will be exactly what was before. It allows for modification to some degree as long as there's no impact on the safety analysis. Now, that means that it isn't necessarily going to be a like for like replacement. Like for like means that it has the same overall impact on safety that it had before. It doesn't mean that it's going to be technically an identical component. CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, in the written response we received from Southern California Edison, they say at no time did SCE hide hide the differences from the NRC or seek to mislead. They say they were paying close attention to the design of the generators. Is that response enough, Arnie, to settle this kind of a question which seems to be sort of a glaring contradiction between what Edison told regulators and what they said to Mitsubishi? GUNDERSON: I read that letter and red lights went on as I was reading it. They were into this contract for two month, and they already had really serious concerns about Mitsubishi's ability to -- CAVANAUGH: We are getting some cross-chatter here on the cellphone. A lot of people have been saying, Murray, that this letter is kind of a smoking gun in this inquiry. JENNEX: I don't necessarily see it as a smoking gun. But I see it as Edison saying we want to maintain the safety evaluation. That is our overriding goal. That is what they should have been saying. Also why they say the NRC has seen this before is that they get submitted all changes every two years, so they do have an opportunity to see everything that's happening, regardless of whether or not it's called a design change. They get all the changes. CAVANAUGH: Now, Adam, you covered an awful lot of the public hearings that have taken place here in San Diego and Orange County about San Onofre. Do you feel that there is a smoking gun element, at least public response to the letter released by Senator Boxer yesterday? TOWNSEND: Well, yeah, when you look at the specific sentence saying we're going to treat this as a like for like replacement, I'm paraphrasing, if you're not familiar with the code, that certainly to a layperson would indicate that there's something going on there. But the thing is, if you look at the NRC, the codes that regulate these kind of things, there's all these little exceptions and every subsection of code has "there shall be a license amendment except for." So it's not quite as cut and dry as that. That's something that -- I'm not a lawyer. There's going to be a bunch of lawyers probably from the justice department that will have to determine what that means and if it was a smoking gun. CAVANAUGH: Why do you think Senator Boxer is getting involved in this? JENNEX: Personally, I think she's grandstanding. There is a process working through this, it's got the NRC involved, San Onofre involved, the atomic energy and licensing board involved. That process should be allowed to play out. When that process is done, then Boxer can look at that decision and see whether or not she feels that was the legitimate decision. But to jump in now while people are trying to decide that I think is actually very wrong and almost an abuse of power trying to influence the outcome. CAVANAUGH: We have a cut from Barbara Boxer, explain why she's getting involved in this. NEW SPEAKER: I'm a United States Senator, and I take an oath to protect the people of my country, and to protect their health and their safety. And I'm going to do everything in my power to do that. CAVANAUGH: And that's Senator Barbara Boxer from her news conference yesterday. Arnie Gunderson, are you with us? GUNDERSON: Yes, I am. CAVANAUGH: Why do you think Senator boxer has brought this letter forth in this way? Is this a grandstanding political move on her part? GUNDERSON: No, I don't think it is. The NRC hasn't been doing their job on the San Onofre oversight for years. And I think she has to be concerned about that. Murray said that they are entitled to see the files. What happens is an NRC inspector sits in a room, they pass the files across the table, and you can't take them home. Then he takes possession of them and it becomes the public record. So Edison didn't want this to be a public record. So at the end of the day, the NRC inspector passes the paperback to Edison and he's never taken possession. And I think Boxer was fed up with this game that the NRC has been playing with Edison all along and is trying to tell them that they have a legal responsibility to protect the people in Southern California. CAVANAUGH: Now, Murray, we heard that Edison's parent company had already been doing sort of a cost analysis on the benefits on keeping the plant open or shutting it down based on what happens with the regulators and so forth. How do you think all of this, forwarding this to the U.S. justice department, how do you think that might affect that? JENNEX: I don't know that it should affect it. But I do believe probably unit 3 will not start back up. CAVANAUGH: That's shut down forever? JENNEX: Probably. I think when they analyze it, it'd be just too expensive to try to fix it, unless Mitsubishi offers to do it for free, which they probably won't. On the other hand, unit 2, there is a good technical justification that it is now different from unit 2 that it could warrant starting back up. So Edison has to operate their asset in the best possible why. That's why they're pushing to start it up. Whether or not they really want to, they've said in the past maybe it isn't economical just to operate 1 unit. So to get the best deal, they have to try to start it back up. CAVANAUGH: Right. And Arnie, would a licensing hearing that Barbara Boxer is calling for, would that cost Edison more money as well? GUNDERSON: They can probably be done before the end of the year. So the public part of the process though I really don't think Edison wants to go through now. They want the money but they didn't want the public involvement. CAVANAUGH: Okay, we're going to have to wrap it up there. Thank you all very, very much. TOWNSEND: Thank you. JENNEX: Thank you.

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer said Tuesday that she has lost confidence in the California utility that operates the troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant, as she called for a federal probe into an equipment swap that eventually led to a radiation leak.

The chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee accused Southern California Edison of dispensing "gobbledygook" about a 2004 internal letter that Boxer believes reveals possible criminal misconduct within the company.

"I don't have confidence in Southern California Edison, given what I now know," the California Democrat told reporters in a conference call, referring to the letter. "They ought to just tell the truth. Start now."

Boxer's statements reflect mounting tension around Edison's proposal to restart one of two reactors at the seaside plant, while the company faces a tangle of regulatory steps and federal and state investigations.

The twin-domed plant between Los Angeles and San Diego hasn't produced electricity since January 2012, after a small radiation leak led to the discovery of damage to hundreds of tubes that carry radioactive water in nearly new steam generators.

Meanwhile, Edison released a copy of a June 2005 letter that also shows the company had concerns about key aspects of the generator design, which appear to foreshadow eventual problems with tube wear.

Both letters were written to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which manufactured the generators.

The state Public Utilities Commission, which is conducting a separate probe into costs tied to the long-running shutdown, said a preliminary review showed Edison failed to provide either letter to the agency or parties involved in its investigation.

"We are considering whether Edison had a duty to disclose the letters earlier," commission executive director Paul Clanon said in a statement. "More importantly, we need to investigate whether Edison took unnecessary risks, or tried to evade regulatory oversight, when the steam generators were replaced."

Edison said the letters show the company "exercised responsible oversight" while the generator designs were being developed. It said both letters were given to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in April.

"We believe that the determination for restart must be made based on technical merits," Pete Dietrich, SCE senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, said in a statement.

"SCE's own oversight ... complied with industry standards and best practices," Dietrich added. "SCE would never, and did not, install steam generators that it believed would impact public safety or impair reliability."

Boxer said the 2004 letter, written by a senior SCE executive and obtained by her office, suggests "Edison intentionally misled the public and regulators" to avoid a potentially long and costly review of the generators before they went into service. The contents of the letter were first reported by The Associated Press.

Anti-nuclear activists trying to block the restart have long argued that Edison duped the NRC about extensive design changes to avoid a lengthy, trial-like review, known as a license amendment, that in some cases can take up to two years to complete.

The 2004 letter goes to a central issue at San Onofre, where Edison is seeking federal permission to restart the Unit 2 reactor and run it at reduced power in an effort to halt tube damage.

The replacement generators were different than the originals — they were 23.6 tons heavier and hundreds of additional tubes were added as part of design changes, for example. Edison installed the equipment in a $670 million overhaul in 2009 and 2010 without an extended NRC review after concluding the new machines met a federal test to qualify as largely the same as the ones they replaced, requiring little or no changes to safety systems or components in the plant.

Such equipment swaps, sometimes referred to as "like-for-like" replacements, are common in the industry.

But the Nov. 30, 2004, letter from SCE Vice President Dwight E. Nunn states that "although the old and new steam generators will be similar in many respects they aren't like-for-like replacements."

Edison "told regulators one thing and did another," Boxer said.

The company said "at no time did SCE hide the differences from the NRC, nor did it seek to mislead the NRC."

It's not clear is what, if any, design changes were made after Nunn's 2004 letter.

The 2005 letter, released by Edison and also written by Nunn to Mitsubishi, warne d about dry steam that could damage tubes and the potential for wear in an area where the tubes make a U-shaped turn.

The "industry's experience with tube wear in the U-bend region of the large steam generators is not encouraging," Nunn wrote. "This is of a great concern to Edison, because our steam generators are one of the largest in the Industry."

It's not clear is what, if any, design changes were made after Nunn's letters. Excessively dry steam in the generators and damage around the U-bend tube area both factored in damage at San Onofre, investigators found.

Boxer also raised questions about transparency at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is considering Edison's restart plan.

She said her office asked the agency months ago for copies of correspondence between Edison and Mitsubishi, but never received the 2004 and 2005 letters. She did not say how her office obtained them.

She also said she was alarmed by equivocal statements from the NRC about whether it will conclude ongoing investigations at San Onofre before a restart decision.

The NRC has previously disclosed that its Office of Investigations and Office of the Inspector General are conducting probes into "allegations of willful wrongdoing," but provided no details.

"I don't appreciate the way this has been handled," she said.

NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner declined comment.

Gradual wear is common in steam generator tubing, but the rate of erosion at San Onofre alarmed officials since the equipment is relatively new. Federal investigators last year concluded that a botched computer analysis resulted in design flaws that were largely to blame for the unusual tube wear.

Nunn said in 2004 that designing supports for the tubes would be tricky since larger generators appear more susceptible t o tube wear, and added that he was "concerned that there is the potential that design flaws could be inadvertently introduced into the steam generator design that will lead to unacceptable consequences," including tube damage.

"This would be a disastrous outcome for both of us," he said.

Costs for the long-running shutdown have topped $553 million.

Last month, SCE's parent, Edison International, raised the possibility of retiring the plant if it can't get one reactor running later this year.

Corrected:
KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh, Patty Lane and Amita Sharma contributed to this segment.