NRC Visits San Onofre For Week-Long Inspection
A team of three inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is arriving at the Santa Fe nuclear power station in north San Diego County today. They're here because a whistle blower alerted the public last month to a new accident involving the still highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel being stored on site. Southern California Edison the owner operator of the plant has stopped moving the fuel out of cooling ponds into concrete bunkers until the investigation is complete. Earlier today I spoke with Ted Quinn who is on the Executive Committee of the San Diego chapter of the American Nuclear Society and is a member of the Senate Ofri Community Engagement panel which is a panel set up by Edison to monitor the decommissioning of the plant that was shut down in 2013. So start by telling us about this near miss accident what actually happened and how did you learn about it on August 3rd. One of the casts that was being lowered held up on a ring 18 feet above the final storage location. I was told about it at the S.P. meeting the public meeting that occurred a week later and what happened was that casque normally would be lowered inside what's called a glove it's basically a golf size well it it held up and it was noticed about a while a half an hour or so later but while they were doing radiation readings to see if it was normal in the Kason it wasn't it was it was elevated which is the normal readings that occurred during a transition time. So but it could have fallen 18 feet according to the whistleblower. That's correct. It could have fallen 18 feet. And the analysis was done that it could have fallen more than that and not not have a break to the outside barrier. OK so it's an estimated eight million people live within 50 miles of sand and fray. How dangerous was this. How close did we come to a real catastrophe. My estimate and that of the Union of Concerned Scientists is that it's not a significant event. The NRC is here this week to do an analysis starting today for a week long inspection. There are normal inspections and then there are special inspections. This is a special inspection that's occurring to investigate this and to look at the people procedures and programs that apply to prevent this from happening. A special inspection occurs after an event and the NRC which comes from Washington D.C. but in the regional offices which are in Texas they send a team to investigate the incident to look at the root cause of the incident. What was the. What were the issue that the people were addressing and why didn't they notice it earlier. And can we prevent it from ever happening again. So we had mentioned that it was a whistleblower that revealed this. Edison does not have a very good safety record it's near the bottom in terms of its record nationally for operators of nuclear power plants. Do you think that Edison should have revealed this without relying on a whistleblower to tell the public the decision that needs to be made is was it just an industrial issue or did it have more of a concern for a nuclear and in the decision making process that occurs in the NRC is reviewing the decision making process that will all be part of the investigation and I can't tell you the specifics of whether it was enough. I do feel that dry cask storage is the safest means of storage in the United States. The National Academy of Sciences recommended that dry cast storage be used for spent nuclear fuel and when the storage is complete it will be the safest method possible. I guess what we're looking at is how much we can rely on Edison and this in fact was not the first incident in this process of moving the nuclear waste from the spent fuel pools to the dry storage right. So Edison is the operator and also the company in charge of the decommissioning. And then the nuclear regulatory commission which is about 3000 people in Washington D.C. and outside that I've worked with for many years. They are involved in overseeing the regulatory framework and then others like the Union of Concerned Scientists David Lochbaum looks at the issue and did analysis of it and identified that this this wasn't a significant issue. I'm aware of other people in San Diego who are studying what happened and are not reaching quite such reassuring conclusions. So I mean I need to ask you about what you feel about the relationship between the Regulatory Commission and Southern California Edison. There have been concerns that some of the government oversight agencies are are trying to protect the industry. Do you have any concerns about the relationship between the NRC is it adversarial is it cooperative with Edison. I see the NRC as being the best regulator in the world and I worked in many other countries and find the NRC is not on the side of industry but is in fact on the side of scientific basis for the Nuclear Science and Technology that is applied and the 3000 people in the nuclear regulatory commission are trying very hard in their expertise to make sure that the right thing has done well. Tell us more detail of what the inspectors will be looking at this week. They just finished this summer a full year long inspection. Now the team the NRC is sending in another team and there's lots of experience within the NRC staff to investigate this. But the issue is the NRC is responsible to come up with recommendations to ensure that this doesn't happen again and that the public is safe. Well what is the NRC empowered to do at this point. If the NRC finds that one of the regulations is not met during this inspection then they have the ability to issue notice of violations or other actions that they deem necessary. If there were an accident on a Cosic got damaged. Are you confident as a member of the panel that Edison has a plan for what to do in an emergency. That part of it is still being being analyzed but there is contingency planning there are procedures in place to take care of that. And the nuclear regulatory commission is looking at the procedures to make sure that they're sufficient to perform the recovery efforts. I've seen a lot of studies but I haven't heard anybody specific plans of what would be done in the case of an accident. OK. In the case of an accident and you have to define what an accident is. So an accident could be from you know damage internal to the container to damage external. The analysis that's been performed that is the basis for the regulations today are that a drop of 18 feet would not breach the outside barrier of that container. So there's no risk to the public. So the bigger issue is what could happen to the the nuclear waste the spent fuel rods which are being stored on site and there are a few different options that you have been talking about on the panel which do you think is the most likely option if any of that waste being moved. Very good question. The majority of the S.P. are actually it's unanimous is in favor of moving the fuel and doing everything that we can to help help Edison move the fuel to the Department of Energy authorize facility. Now right now Yucca Mountain is still in an evaluation even though last week I was at meetings in the NRC budget is being increased to help start the licensing again. But in fact there is interim storage sites. Two of them one in Texas and one in New Mexico. To address interim storage as a parallel path. And if the population in those states say no we don't want nuclear waste from somewhere else. What do you think about the idea of moving it across the Interstate 5 to the east side further away from the ocean on the mesa on Camp Pendleton. That's an option that's being considered. However I think in the best interests of a long term solution it's better to have an interim storage site. That's that's that's regulated as a multiple storage sites for plants such as Diablo Canyon or others in Rancho CECO that could all central have centralized storage centralized security. Okay. Finally I'd just like to ask you about the community engagement panel which has been convened by Southern California Edison so it is their panel. What is their role what what actually can they do if they see a problem and their role is to be a conduit. It's not a decision making body is to provide information in exchange and in many activities have occurred as a result of our many many S.P. meetings that have been beneficial to the ongoing operations. Ted Quinn of The San Diego chapter of the American Nuclear Society and a member of Edison's Community Engagement panel at San Onofre.
The regular meeting of the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel last month was routine, until David Fritch, a safety inspector, revealed a near-accident at the plant the preceding week.
A cask of spent nuclear fuel had become hung up while being lowered into a dry storage container. It remained suspended 18 feet in the air for about 20 minutes until the mishap was noticed and taken care of.
This incident, the second to occur at San Onofre during transfer of spent fuel to dry storage, triggered a special inspection from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission team. The inspection begins Monday and is expected to last a week.
Ted Quinn, a member of Southern California Edison's Community Engagement Panel for the decommissioning of San Onofre and an executive committee member of the San Diego Chapter of the American Nuclear Society, discusses the inspection and the potential for a serious accident with Alison St John on KPBS Midday Edition.