Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

More Details Emerge About Edison's Actions Before Replacing Generators At San Onofre

A couple stands near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California.
David McNew
A couple stands near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at San Onofre State Beach on March 15, 2012 south of San Clemente, California.

Southern California Edison and Mitsubishi put together an "Anti Vibration Bar Design Team" that held numerous meetings when it became apparent that the new design of the steam generators at San Onofre could lead to the tubes vibrating, causing damaging wear. But the companies decided not to make possible changes identified by the team.

Edison Sharply Denies Knowing About Faulty Steam Generators
GuestsArnie Gundersen, consultant, Friends of the Earth Rochelle Becker, Executive Director, Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility

ALLISON ST. JOHN: At a time when the fate of the San Onofre nuclear power plant appears to be hanging in the balance there's news of information that has damaging implications for the operator. Sen. Barbara Boxer is calling on the new head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to investigate what she calls alarming evidence that Southern California Edison knew of design problems with the steam generators even before they were installed. Boxer chairs the Senate environment committee on environment and Public Works which has oversight over the power plant so it puts her in a powerful position to be raising questions. Edison has put out statements and we invited the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Southern California Edison and the CPUC but none of them agreed to be on the program. So we will refer to statements from them throughout the program to represent their position and I want to say right up top that this statement yesterday says their leadership takes very seriously all allegations raised by the letter. Today they issued another statement saying SCE would never and did not install steam generators that they believed would not perform safely and the meeting is going on this morning as we speak today between NRC and Edison and many of these issues are being raised. In the meantime we do have on the line to talk about the issues Arnie Gundersen who works at the nuclear industry for many years and is chief engineer at Fairwinds Associates. He was an expert witness for friends of the Earth in their efforts to push for the nuclear energy commission to be more transparent. Arnie, thanks for joining us. Do we still have Arnie on the line? Our other guest is Rochelle Becker who is the executive director for the alliance for nuclear responsibility, a nonprofit group that works to educate citizens of California from the danger of radioactive contamination. Rochelle, do we have you on the line? ROCHELLE BECKER: Yes you do, Allison. ALLISON ST. JOHN: Great, okay Arnie, are you back on the line by any chance? We will get started with you, Rochelle. Let's start with the letter from Sen. Boxer to Allison McFarland at the NRC. She writes that the report indicates that Southern California Edison and Mitsubishi were aware of serious problems with the design of nuclear power plant replacement steam generators before they were installed. Further the report also asserts that they rejected any and safety modifications and avoiding triggering a more rigorous rigorous license amendment and safety review process the most serious implication of this information is that Edison might have rejected fixes to the steam generator in order to avoid a license review. Can you help explain why they might have wanted to avoid a license review? ROCHELLE BECKER: Well, yes, they actually had a limit on the project from the Public Utilities Commission. They said if you go over a certain amount we are going to review the costs very carefully and we may disallow some of those costs so Edison have actually an incentive to make sure that when they can go over the amount of money or the time frame that the PUC has set up. We contacted Congressman Markey's office yesterday who cosigned a letter with Sen. Boxer. We were not able to get hold of Sen. Boxer's office of time and wondered if we could possibly get a copy of the report. It sort of leads us to think about something in the dark. We do know that neither the Congress nor the senator would assert these allegations if they worked fairly certain that these had some validity to that. ALLISON ST. JOHN: We are operating in a difficult situation when we don't have access to the documents. ROCHELLE BECKER: Unfortunately Congressman Markey's office said it is something they could not disclose publicly that we could file a freedom of information act on them which we immediately went to her attorney and ask them to do so. So, we will be filing a freedom of information act request to get a copy of the report we have focused of course the Public Utilities Commission and just how much repairs are expected to be responsible for any of the steam generator debacle that's certainly not our fault and we have paid the amount you pay to replace the power all last year. So we only ask for the fire to be filed by the attorney but we went to the Public Utilities Commission and whether they had the document in hand and whether they did we would certainly replace it as well. ALLISON ST. JOHN: This is Rochelle Becker with the CPUC investigation which is the state investigation that is going on, and Arnie Gunderson is more involved with the NRC investigation which is a federal in restitution and Arnie, are you there now? ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Hi thanks for having me ALLISON ST. JOHN: Boxers letter to say that Edison return to safety enhancements because they wanted to avoid the license agreement and set up on the difficulties associated with the potential changes was the possibility that making them to meet the ability to adjust the design. I want to try out that maybe they were not trying to avoid a license amendment for struggling internally with problems with the design. As I read it, and of course none of us have seen the document, so it is a little bit of a guess on everybody's part but as I read it, my belief that the changes were brought to Edison's attention that would have prevented this damage from happening. And to Edison made a decision not to make the changes because they did not want to open a can of work, license amendment. Is that it could have reopened seismic issues, for instance. So when you reopen a license it is very difficult to limit what the public is allowed to look at ALLISON ST. JOHN: I want to read the NRC statement here, we are working on the program with just a Methodist responded by saying we received a letter from Sen. Barbara boxer and Congressman Markey and will respond in the normal course of business. As an independent safety agency they say we will review all available information and make a judgment test whether the plan would be our safety standards if we start work permit. Now, this sort of sounds like perhaps this information revealed is not news to them. Do you think that Edison might have kept the NRC in the dark and therefore the NRC is not to blame or do you think the NRC had the information all along and is continuing with the decision as to whether to restart the plan? ARNIE GUNDERSEN: One of the press reports shows that the NRC has had the document since October. So, someone at the NRC has been aware of the contents of the document perhaps not the right people and hopefully Sen. Boxer's letter will do that. ALLISON ST. JOHN: The NRC appears perhaps in her statement to not believe that the information is a game changer. From your perspective why is it a game changer? ARNIE GUNDERSEN: I have thought all along that this issue was a game changer and it is very difficult to get the NRC to even acknowledge the issue exists. I was in Washington two weeks ago and I told them in a petition review board meeting that not only were these things foreseeable, but in fact there is evidence that they were foreseen. And I think that was based on what was on the public record already. And this record from Sen. Boxer actually amplifies the point that not only would a good engineer have identified the problems but in fact good engineers did identify the problems and artist and still chose to ignore them. ALLISON ST. JOHN: I guess the question is whether a license amendment would have revealed the problems. Edison said today that the design specs you followed were complied with industry standards. In fact, they say SCE submitted to licensor ministering steam generator review process which the NRC approved so they are suggesting that we went to apply for to license amendments during the process so we were not trying to avoid a license amendment. How do you respond to that? ARNIE GUNDERSEN: The license amendments they are talking about are relatively minor technical specification changes. But another plant almost a call 270-3128 license amendment process for the steam generator power. Is right next to California increase the number of tubes in the steam generator and they apply for a license amendment. What's interesting here is that the NRC asked all the right questions. They asked about fluid elastic instabilities. If the NRC had asked it is the same questions the same question I asked Palos Verdes, we would have this problem. ALLISON ST. JOHN: You are saying if they had asked the right questions maybe the questions could have been asked even without a license amendment? ARNIE GUNDERSEN: The NRC does not ask questions beyond what the license amendment was all about. And the amendment said that Edison I was talking a relatively minor changes to the plans technical specifications. And, they do not open up the issue of the design of the steam generator. Whereas in Palos Verdes, they did open up the issue of the design of the steam generator and as a result, the NRC asked the right questions. ALLISON ST. JOHN: Let's talk a little bit about the transparency because that's part of what's difficult about the cases there is so little transparency with the documents and that's why there's so much interest in the document that appears to have been provided to Sen. Boxer. We do not quite know how. I talk to somebody who said she worked in the nuclear industry for over a decade inches observed they are being asked to sign Mark nondisclosure documents that she ever remembered in other words the NRC is not operating in a more transparent manner in spite of what the new head Allison McFarlane is promising. Rochelle what do you think Allison McFarlane has to turn around what appears to be a culture at the NRC of nondisclosure. ROCHELLE BECKER: She is one of five votes in the disclosure is a public with the public problem with the Public Utilities Commission as well we are being asked to be close to billion dollars in cost for Edison and Edison and SGP and you have all file petitions for nondisclosure. They both filed motions to seal documents. If they have nothing to hide, then let us see what it was and see what we paid for. The NRC has been since 9/11 has used more and more security issues do not do not disclose information but Edison shared the information with practically every vendor as they reviewed the problems at the plant so why every vendor can see this in the public paying the bills cannot see this is beyond our comprehension and this is something we filed and we prevailed on the protective order and WC, we haven't heard the motion to seal yet, but Edison continually says they are trying to be transparent. The NRC says they are trying to be transparent and on every step of the way we come across protective orders, nondisclosure statements, motions to seal. Why would the public ever believe that this process is supposed to be in our best interest? ALLISON ST. JOHN: What is the legal requirement to keep the documents secret? Surely Sen. Barbara boxer could have subpoenaed information. ROCHELLE BECKER: Yes and I cannot disclose the information so we are going to have to file to get it ourselves in the state of California. This is absurd. This is not a security issue. The fact that the steam generators do not work is only a security issue when it comes to the security of the shareholders dollar. ALLISON ST. JOHN: And you feel that the letter gives Allison McFarland or leverage within the NRC to push for transparency. ROCHELLE BECKER: I think it helps her, yet she is only one of five people to vote on this they are very entrenched in the nuclear industry she's making an effort to make it more transparent and I certainly wish her luck. This is an uphill battle. ALLISON ST. JOHN: Her predecessor Gregory Esco was pushed out so the question is whether she will haveAny more success than he did to push for transparency I guess. Arnie, I just wanted to ask you the NRC is holding a public meeting next week just up the road from here how might the new information affect that? ARNIE GUNDERSEN: I hope it delays the start of until interested parties can get to read the material. It looks to me like the NRC has made up its mind, and that short of this material being made public, it is likely that they will ultimately wind up endorsing this plan. Which is why it is so critical to be able to get the information. You know, Edison can make the problem go away by just agreeing to release it to the public as Rochelle said, you know, this is proprietary, but the entire industry knows everything about how Mitsubishi made the steam generator. The only people that do not are the public. ALLISON ST. JOHN: And the friends of the Earth is pushing for a license amendment which is more detailed hearings and more transparency before the NRC grants permission for it to start up. This appeared to be a good argument for that case. ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Yes it would be critical for the case. And that the information be any experts like me and John Mayer so we can determine exactly how far over the line Edison did go. ALLISON ST. JOHN: So Rochelle, from the repairs perspective that is the site you are following how concerned should they be about the new information and the issue of transparency from the NRC and Edison. ROCHELLE BECKER: I think they should be abundantly concerned when they didn't look at the gas pipes in Northern California and they had an explosion that killed eight people including two people that work for the public utility commission the PUC has to do an independent job of looking at the issues the NRC does not look at costs does not much care what it is going to cost but ratepayers deserve to know this because we are talking about plans designed in 1967. Is this the best way to consider to invest the energy dollars the PUC does not know this right now and I think they are slowly but surely making a concerted effort to do a better job and putting this document in the record and having it in front of ratepayers I think would be a positive step for the PUC and certainly a very positive step for ratepayers. ALLISON ST. JOHN: And in fact CPUC is having another meeting on the 21st of this month so we have meetings coming up in the next few days from the NRC and CPUC. ROCHELLE BECKER: And we are also requesting that the CPC hold the meeting in San Diego we pay 20% of the rates we deserve to have our voices heard as well. ALLISON ST. JOHN: As of now it is not. We make it more news out of the meeting that is happening right now between the NRC and Edison and Mitsubishi. So I'd like to thank our guests Arnie Gunderson and Rochelle Becker thank you very much for being with us and we will no doubt be talking to you again soon. ROCHELLE BECKER: Thanks, Allison.

SCE Addresses Congressional Letter
SCE Addresses Congressional Letter
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

That's according to information from Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. Markey joined California Senator Barbara Boxer in sending a letter to the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week, calling for a federal investigation after uncovering documents that she says suggest Edison and the manufacturer of the plant's ailing steam generators were aware of design problems before the equipment was installed.


Markey quotes from the document that the only specific reason for the decision not to implement the potential design modifications was the desire to avoid a more lengthy license amendment process that would have involved adjudicatory hearings.

One day after U.S Senator Barbara Boxer accused Southern California Edison of knowing its steam generators at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station were flawed before they were installed, SCE sharply denyied that it knowingly installed the faulty equipment.

In a statement out Thursday, SCE says "it would never, and did not, install steam generators that it believed would not perform safely."

Edison says that is simply not accurate" and pointed out the equipment carried a 20-year warranty against defects.

The NRC responded to Boxer/Markey's letter with a statement that the agency will "review all available information in making a judgement as to whether the plant would meet our safety standards if restart were permitted."


An NRC meeting is set for next Tuesday evening in Capistrano Beach to share NRC'S progress in considering San Onofre's restart plan. However NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said the letter from Boxer and Markey will not be discussed at that meeting.

A hearing on Thursday at which industry experts testified before the NRC about the restart plan made no mention of the issue raised in the letter from Boxer and Markey.

The NRC is scheduled to make a decision in April or May on whether to allow Edison to move forward with its plan to restart the plant at reduced power.

San Onofre has been shut down for more than a year after unusual damage was found in steam generator tubes that carry radioactive water.

Corrected: June 15, 2024 at 4:07 AM PDT
NRC Meeting is from 6-9 pm, Capo Beach Church, 25975 Domingo Ave Capistrano Beach
KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.