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Safety Inspector Describes Near Accident During San Onofre Community Panel Discussion

The shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shown on May 9, 2017.

Photo by KPBS Staff

Above: The shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shown on May 9, 2017.

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The decommissioning of the shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant is moving forward, even as controversies continue over the storage of spent nuclear fuel.

A regular quarterly meeting of the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel took place in Oceanside Thursday night. The subject Southern California Edison, the operator and majority owner of the plant, 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.

But a whistleblower who is a contractual employee at the plant stood up at the meeting and shifted focus for a time.

David Fritch, who is an Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector at the San Onofre Nuclear Power plant said, there had nearly been an accident at the plant when operators were transferring a nuclear cylinder into a vault. He said a canister got stuck on a ledge about 18 feet from the bottom of the vault without operators noticing.

RELATED: State Lands Commission To Hear Public Input On San Onofre Decommissioning

"There were gross errors by two individual operators, and the rigger, which are inexplicable. So what we have is a canister that almost fell 18 feet. Bad day. Bad. And we haven't heard about it, and that's not right," Fritch said. "Public Safety should be first. I've been around nuclear for many years. It's not behind that gate."

Edison issued a written statement on the incident:

Southern California Edison has directed its contractor, Holtec, to take corrective actions, including additional training, after evaluating performance errors discovered during the loading of a spent nuclear fuel canister on Aug. 3 into dry cask storage at the San Onofre nuclear plant. At no point during this incident was there a risk to employee or public safety, and immediate lessons learned have already been integrated in our processes.

Holtec was loading the spent fuel canister into the Cavity Enclosure Container (CEC) on the dry cask storage pad when the canister got caught on an inner ring that helps to guide it into place. There is a very snug fit in the CECs, and it is not unusual for it to take the downloading team a few manipulations to get the canister aligned appropriately.

The crew performing this work did not initially recognize that the canister had stalled while caught on the inner ring. However, SCE’s oversight team determined the canister was not sitting properly, and the canister was repositioned and safely placed on the bottom of the CEC.

SCE also directed Holtec to review the incident with the fuel handling and downloading teams and discuss lessons learned regarding the potential for the canister to become wedged in the process of lowering the canisters into the storage facility prior to loading the next canister. Additional actions and training were added to the loading processes, which is a part of our ongoing efforts to continuously improve our work practices. We do this routinely to ensure we are continuously evaluating our performance, communicating with the crews, and incorporating best practices – all of these steps were discussed at the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel meeting last night.

SCE is committed to protecting the safety of the public and takes these incidents very seriously as we progress through our decommissioning process. In addition to working closely with Holtec, we also discussed the performance concerns with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

KPBS Midday Edition also spoke with David Victor, a UC San Diego International Relations professor and chair of the Community Engagement Panel, about the incident.

"This is a workplace safety issue," he said. "There was never a question at any time of any danger on the nuclear side because the canisters are designed to withstand much larger drops that what was contemplated, and I think it's actually not 18 feet it's much smaller than that."

"I was concerned about the implications that there was the cusp of an accident, I see no evidence that that was actually true," Victor said.

Editor's note: this story was updated to include a statement from Southern California Edison.


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