Citizen group questions San Onofre nuclear safety

A public interest group, the Committee to Bridge the Gap (CBG), has questioned if the San Onofre nuclear plant, operated by Southern California Edison (SCE), is safe enough to return to service.

The Edison International (NYSE: EIX) subsidiary recently announced that it has responded to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s confirmatory action letter (CAL) issued in the aftermath of the dual-unit plant’s January shutdown in the wake of tube wear problems at two relatively new steam generators. SCE said that it will ask for NRC permission to restart Unit 2, which has sustained less damage, for a period of five months.

Any restart requires NRC approval, however, and that might take a while.

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane has said the NRC review won’t be rushed and the process could take months. Macfarlane and the NRC are also under pressure from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who recently sought reassurance from the nuclear regulator that San Onofre won’t restart until the units are safe.

The Committee to Bridge the Gap released a study in September that contends that critical safety components in both reactors at the San Diego County plant are in far worse shape compared to typical U.S. reactors than previously admitted by federal regulators and the plant’s operator.

“San Onofre Unit 2 and 3 are both very ill nuclear plants. They are far, far outside the norm of national experience,” writes Daniel Hirsch, report co-author. “Restarting either San Onofre reactor with crippled steam generators that have not been repaired or replaced would be a questionable undertaking at best.”

Hirsch is President of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, the nuclear policy organization that prepared the report, and a lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“Unit 2 cannot be said to be acceptable for restart, any more than Unit 3,” writes Hirsch. “Unit 2 has hundreds of times more bad tubes and a thousand times more indications of wear on those tubes than the typical reactor in the country with a new steam generator, and nearly five times as many plugged tubes as the rest of the replacement steam generators, over a comparable operating period, in the country combined.”

During a recent rally outside the San Onofre complex, CBG officials questioned whether San Onofre could become “the next Fukushima.” The group also criticized the utility’s safety record at the plant. Officials said evacuating the heavily populated area near the nuclear plant “is a fiction” given the state of highly-congested Southern California roads.

A video of the CBG presentation at San Onofre is available at the organization’s website, http://committeetobridgethegap.org/.

Founded in 1970, CBG describes itself as a non-profit nuclear policy organization focusing on issues of nuclear safety, waste disposal, proliferation, and disarmament. CBG is devoted to “bridging the gap between nuclear dangers and a safe, sustainable future.”

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, CBG became a vocal advocate of requiring “beamhenge” shields around nuclear plants. These would be massive steel I-beam, cage-like structures that would be designed to absorb the impact of an aircraft. CBG even produced a video featuring the voice of actor Martin Sheen to advocate for this measure.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.