Council discusses SONGS safety

Council discusses SONGS safety
Earlier this year the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was taken offline after a leak was detected in a steam generator tube in Unit 3. That reactor was shut down Jan. 31.The plant is still offline and is expected to stay remain that way through the summer. Courtesy photo

DEL MAR— Reluctant to officially comment on the safety of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, but recognizing it is a legitimate concern, Del Mar council members agreed on June 18 to address the issue at a future meeting to allow sufficient time for “well-researched” and “very balanced” data. 

The first reactor at SONGS was commissioned in January 1968. That unit was permanently closed in 1992 and is now used to store spent fuel. Units 2 and 3 opened in 1983 and 1984, respectively.

In early January, Unit 2 at the San Clemente plant was taken offline for routine maintenance and refueling. Three weeks later a leak was detected in a steam generator tube in Unit 3.

That reactor was shut down Jan. 31, although officials say the level of the leak didn’t require such action.

An investigation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission indicates incorrect computer modeling used by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which manufactured the steam generators, underpredicted the velocities of steam and water in the generators and manufacturing tolerances left the tubes sitting too loosely within support structures.

The plant is still offline and is expected to stay remain that way through the summer.

“Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of the public and our employees,” Larry Labrado, public affairs representative for plant owner Southern California Edison, said during the June 18 council meeting. “Our employees live around San Onofre. Their families are there.

“We’re not going to restart SONGS until we and the NRC agree it is safe to do so,” he said. “It’s that simple. It’s been five months. We’re not pushing any agenda, any timeline. We’re going to take as much time as we need to make sure that it is safe before any restart is considered.”

Councilman Don Mosier, a research scientist and professor at Scripps Research Institute, questioned Edison’s sincerity.

“You emphasized in your comments Southern California Edison’s commitment to safety and yet San Onofre has the worst safety record of any operating nuclear power plant in the United States and also has a history of retaliation against … employees who complain,” Mosier said.

“I understand that situation is getting better but it does lead to some concern about the commitment to safety.”

Labrado said the company’s safety record has gotten better. “Are we where we need to be? No,” he said. “We want to constantly improve upon that.”

He said there have been two verified instances of retaliation against employees who voiced safety concerns.

“They were dealt with very quickly,” Labrado said. “That’s not acceptable to the company. We take any allegation of retaliation very seriously. We want every employee to voice their concerns freely.”

Edison received a warning letter from the NRC in September stating employees didn’t feel they could report safety concerns. Labrado said Edison took action and the NRC recently sent another letter stating “reasonable progress” was made in addressing the work environment issues.

Torgen Johnson, a Solana Beach resident who provided an opposing presentation, described nuclear power as “sinister” technology.

“It’s even more sinister when it’s run by a for-profit corporation that retaliates against the very people that are reporting safety violations,” he said. “If you’ve ever run a large technical operation you need that safety feedback loop. That’s how you maintain the safety inside your facility. What these retaliations say to me is that this industry and this company (don’t) see health and safety is their No. 1 priority.”

Mosier also cited other safety problems, such as an inadequate sea wall height in front of the oceanfront plant. He said updated scientific methodology shows a tsunami could cause waves up to 20 feet, which is higher than the existing wall.

Labrado said the plant recently partnered with Scripps Institution of Oceanography to perform an advanced one-year technology study slated to begin at the end of 2012 to better understand geology.

“Science evolves,” he said. “We learn new information all the time.”

Labrado also said Edison wouldn’t wait until 2022, when the current license from the NRC expires, to address safety issues concerning the sea wall.

“That isn’t a license renewal question,” he said. “That’s a now issue. If we find information that says … information has changed and we don’t have sufficient protection we will adjust immediately. It’s not, ‘Wait until the end of the license and then determine it.’”

Agreeing the sea wall height is one of many safety concerns, Johnson showed a photo of waves hitting the Tide Park lifeguard tower, located 30 feet above the beach in Solana Beach, during a small storm.

“The nature of these disasters has been seriously underplayed by the industry,” he said.

Johnson said the best model to use to determine how a natural disaster will impact a nuclear power plant is Japan.

That country’s Fukushima Daiichi plant was destroyed after being hit by a tsunami in March 2011. Within hours, three units experienced full meltdown and high levels of radioactivity were released into the air, water and ground.

“You can have 40 … great years of operating a nuclear power plant with minimal problems, but you can have one bad day that can ruin an entire country,” Johnson said.

He also expressed concerns about how the spent-fuel rods are stored and “gaping holes” in evacuation plans should a disaster occur. He noted that SONGS is located on Interstate 5, a major north/south artery, and close to the rail line.

“The (Interjurisdictional Planning Committee), Edison and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission downplay the health impacts also of a nuclear disaster,” Johnson said.

When he Googled “Chernobyl chromosomal aberrations” Johnson said he received 34,100 references.

“If an industry can say that there are no impacts, then why are there so many citations?” he asked.

“Obviously safety has got to be a dominant concern for everybody on the council,” Councilman Terry Sinnott said, adding he was confused if the focus was to shut down the plant or improve its safety.

“That may be one and the same thing,” he said. “I’d be focused on improving the safety if that can be done.”

Johnson said his concern is “hanging onto a Cold War-era, failing technology run by Soviet-style bureaucracies that are really regulated monopolies that don’t engender competition and innovation.”

Mosier and Councilwoman Lee Haydu supported a proposal to write letters to Edison, the NRC and representatives in Washington, D.C., to share the council’s safety concerns.

“There’s an eye-opener here,” Councilman Mark Filanc said. “What I would like to see is a very balanced approach of the pros and the cons. I would be reluctant to just send out a letter right now because I don’t have enough information to say … just shut it or just Band-Aid it.”

Filanc said both sides presented legitimate information, but he wanted more technical details.

“We don’t just say shut it down because we don’t like it,” he said. “The response (letter) needs to be appropriate and well-researched by this council. We need experts on both sides of the issue to come forward. Without the technical data I don’t think we can make a good letter response.”

Mayor Carl Hilliard said the item should be put on a future agenda so more time could be allocated for a full discussion.

Sinnott agreed, saying he and his colleagues need to “talk about how to improve things, how to make it better and how to make it safer. Not just the sky is falling.”

“To me, those are not impressive,” Sinnott said. “They’re scare tactics and I’d rather not have that. Find out the facts. Find out the data. That’s the approach I’d like to take.”

Council isn’t scheduled to meet again until Aug. 6, although members are expected to reconvene by July 13 for a special session to discuss a potential ballot measure for the November election.



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