Regulator Vows Full Accounting of Tube Failure at San Onofre
Â Â After touring the San Onofre nuclear power plant with federal lawmakers Friday, the nationâ€™s top nuclear regulator vowed complete accounting and accountability for why a key radiation barrier at the facility degraded far more quickly than expected and caused a minor radioactive leak earlier this year.
San Onofreâ€™s two reactors have been idle since January, when excessive wear to generator tubes in Unit 3 caused a rupture and a minor radioactive leak. A small amount of radiation escaped into the atmosphere but presented no health risk to workers or the public, officials say.
After visiting the plant, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko described the rapid deterioration of San Onofreâ€™s generator tubes as â€œa very unique phenomenonâ€ and said his agency will ensure the plant is safe before allowing it to operate again.
â€œThe NRC wants to get to the bottom of why [San Onofre] is having trouble with relatively new steam generators,â€ said Jaczko.
â€œIn the end, we will hold the licensee ultimately accountable for actions of the vendor,â€ he added later, referring to design changes that were made to the tubing.
Environmental groups say those changes caused the excessive wear.
Jaczko declined to comment on the cause of the rupture or estimate when the investigation would be completed.
Meanwhile, anti-nuclear activists continued to raise concerns Friday about the plantâ€™s safety culture, the reliability of information provided by the plantâ€™s operator and the willingness of federal regulators to hold the owner and operator, Southern California Edison, accountable for safety issues.
They insisted that regulators allow an independent analysis of why tubes wore down at such a rapid pace.
â€œWe cannot trust these people,â€ said Ray Lutz, national coordinator of Citizens’ Oversight. â€œThey canâ€™t even keep the batteries hooked up,â€ he added, referring to a recent four-year period when a battery for backup safety systems was disconnected. The NRC found that poor maintenance was to blame, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Among the nationâ€™s 104 nuclear reactors. San Onofre has had the highest number of safety complaints to federal regulators in the past five years, according to NRC statistics.
NRC spokesman Victor Dricks on Friday declined to discuss the statistics behind San Onofreâ€™s safety rankings.
Dricks instead emphasized recent improvements in the plantâ€™s safety record.
â€œSan Onofre has an unusually high number of allegations brought to us by workers,â€ though â€œitâ€™s not as high as it once was,â€ said Dricks.
Edison also acknowledges past safety problems but says the situation has improved.
â€œThere were some safety culture issues,â€ though the plant has also seen â€œtremendous improvement,â€ said Edison spokeswoman Jennifer Manfre.
The activists also accused the news media â€” in particular television news â€” of slanting its coverage in favor of Edison and minimizing concerns about the plant due to the utilityâ€™s spending on advertisements.
Jaczko toured the plant Friday with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), amid a recent surge of concern from environmentalists and several local officials about the tube break.
At a recent Irvine City Council discussion on the issue, City Councilman Larry Agran called for San Onofre to be shut down. No council member expressed support for the plantâ€™s continued operation.
The environmentalistsâ€™ concerns were also bolstered last week by a report from nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen. He concluded that when Edison installed new generators, it made major changes to the tubing but misrepresented the new generators to the NRC as a â€like-for-likeâ€ replacement to avoid a thorough review by regulators. The changes are the likely cause of the rupture, Gundersen wrote.
Both Edison and the NRC, however, say the Edison notified regulators about the design changes before approval was given for the new generator.
â€œWe notified them of all changes,â€ said Manfre, who said she couldnâ€™t immediately provide details of the timing.
The NRC sees no intent by Edison to mislead it, Dricks said.
He declined to say what consequences would result if a nuclear plant operator provides incorrect information to regulators about major design changes to a steam generator.
â€œWe depend on our licensees to provide complete and accurate information to any significant design change that theyâ€™re making to the plant,â€ he said. â€œThere would be consequences if they didnâ€™t, but that does not appear to be the case.â€