VISTA — Plagued with regulatory investigations, community outcries and climbing costs, SCE (Southern California Edison) strove to garner support for the proposed restart of the incapacitated San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) by hosting a community open house in Vista on Oct 30.SONGS has been shut down since January after a leak of scorching hot, radioactive liquid revealed excessively worn tubes within the near-new steam generators. SONGS, which is operated and mostly owned by SCE, has a history of safety violations.
The cost of the incapacitated plant has escalated to over $300 million as of Sept. 30, according to Edison International’s third quarter reports released on Nov. 1.
The public open house took place in the shadow of SCE’s proposed temporary restart of one of SONGS’ units and the CPUC’s (California Public Utilities Commission) announcement of a formal investigation of the plant’s extended shutdown.
“We wouldn’t propose to restart Unit 2 unless we thought it was absolutely safe to do so,” said Peter Dietrich, SCE’s Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer, at the open house.
“This is just an experiment with a poorly designed steam generator that shouldn’t run,” said Del Mar Councilmember Don Mosier, who has been following developments at the plant since its shut down. “All of North County would be affected if there was a significant radiation leak (at SONGS)…We’re within the danger zone.”
SONGS’s Shut Down and NRC Investigation
SONGS was closed after a reactor coolant leak triggered a rapid shut down of one of the plant’s two units, Unit 3, on Jan. 31. The radioactivity released into the atmosphere by the leak amounted to far less than SONGS’ daily allotment of radiological release.
The leak was caused by a tube damaged by excessive wear in one of Unit 3’s steam generators, however further inspections found abnormal tube wear present in hundreds of other tubes in the Unit.
SONGS’ other active unit, Unit 2, was offline due to a scheduled refueling outage when the leak in Unit 3 occurred. Inspections found excessive tube wear in the Unit 2 steam generators as well, and the unit remained shut down.
An investigation by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ultimately attributed the tube damage and subsequent leak to the steam generators’ inadequate design and configuration.
New steam generators manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries were installed in both units between 2009-11.
Before the shut down, Unit 2’s steam generator had been in operation for about 1.7 years, while Unit 3’s steam generator had been in service for about one year. SONGS’ original steam generators were operational for over 25 years.
The NRC’s report warned that excessive tube wear will continue and could cause additional tube leaks or ruptures unless Edison fixes the flawed steam generators.
Working to fix the impaired tubes and prevent further tube wear and leaks, SCE has plugged or reinforced 807 tubes in Unit 3 and 510 tubes in Unit 2. Each unit has two steam generators, and each generator contains 9,727 tubes.
“Plugging tubes is an industry-tested and approved method of addressing steam generator tube issues,” said Maureen Brown, SCE’s project manager of media relations and corporate communications. “Replacing the steam generators has not been ruled out, but it will take years to do so.”
Yet many community members remain skeptical of the effectiveness of tube plugging.
“I know they are going to great lengths to reassure the public … but they can’t just fix it by plugging tubes,” said Gary Headrick, co-founder of San Clemente Green, a community environmental organization that has been speaking out against the restart of SONGS.
“Southern California really has the choice of replacing the steam generators a second time or closing the facility,” said Mosier.
Since January, SCE’s private contractors have conducted over 170,000 inspections of the steam generators, Dietrich said.
Inspection and repair costs since SONGS’ closure total $96 million, while replacing the plant’s power has reached $221 million, according to Edison International’s reports.
Pending NRC approval, SCE has proposed to temporarily restart Unit 2 at 70 percent power. After five months operating Unit 2, SCE plans to shut it down and check to see if the condition of the steam generator tubes has remained in tact.
“This is just an experiment with a poorly designed steam generator that shouldn’t run,” said Mosier.
Headrick expressed concerns that SCE is unable to detect if the tubes continue to wear or experience other damage while a steam generator is running unless another radiation leak occurs and triggers an alarm.
SCE has addressed the conditions that caused the tube wear by preventatively plugging the effected tubes and by running Unit 2 at limited capacity, according to Brown. Furthermore, the plant has also added monitoring equipment to detect sound and the slightest variation in steam conditions.
Dietrich said it is too early to say if Unit 2 will ever run at full capacity again.
SCE has not proposed to restart Unit 3.
In late October, CPUC opened a formal investigation of the extended shutdown of SONGS. The investigation will determine if customers will continue to pay SCE and SDG&E for SONGS and if customers should receive a refund for the SONGS rates paid since the plant’s outages in January. The investigation will also consider the necessity of SONGS and if the plant is capable of providing safe and reliable electricity at reasonable rates in the future.
“This investigation will allow us to address issues related to the outages as part of our responsibility to keep the lights on and keep rates just and reasonable. We will look very critically at the utilities’ financial responsibility for the prolonged outage and who should bear those costs,” said CPUC President Michael R. Peevey in a press release.
SCE has a “sense of apprehension” about the CPUC’s investigation, but intends on being transparent and open with the commission, according to Dietrich.
“We (Del Mar City Council) think that’s a needed investigation because the ratepayers continue to pay…for a nonfunctioning plant,” said Mosier about the CPUC’s investigation.
But Mosier also expressed concern about the impartiality of the CPUC, pointing out that Peevey, the commission’s president, is the former president of Edison International and SCE. “This is an industry of insiders,” said Mosier.
Plant’s Safety Record
On top of the plant’s tube wear issues, SONGS has incurred a number of safety violations in recent years.
In August 2011, the NRC cited SONGS for allowing an employee to make core alterations at the plant while his license was inactive.
From January 2008 to September 2012, the NRC substantiated 62 safety allegations made against SONGS by non-NRC sources, more than any other nuclear plant in the U.S.
Susquehanna Steam Electric Station in Pennsylvania, which had the second highest sustained allegations during that time, had 38 sustained safety allegations. Diablo Canyon, the only other operating nuclear power facility in California, had 18 sustained safety allegations during the same period.
Preparations for Power without the Plant
The California Independent System Operator Corporation (ISO), which runs California’s power grid, announced in September that is was preparing to operate without SONGS for summer 2013. The ISO Board of Governors approved converting power units in Huntington Beach into condensers in order to fill the current and anticipated voltage support void left by SONGS.
At the open house SONGS experts stationed at booths presented on the plant’s steam generator design, tube detection techniques, emergency planning, radiation, environmental impact, and how the plant works as a whole.
SCE is planning to host another open house in San Clemente this month.
Sixty people attended, most of who were there to learn more about the plant and its proposed restart.
Cliff Kaiser, who came in a close third for Vista City Council, attended the event in support of the limited restart of Unit 2. Kaiser used to be a nuclear engineer for the navy and wanted to learn more about the condition of the tubes within the steam generators. “It would be a disaster if environmentalists shut (SONGS) down for illogical reasons,” he said.
Not all attendees were in favor of Unit 2’s restart.
“(SCE has) a lot of nice booths here…but what they’re suggesting sounds like more of an experiment than a solution,” said Headrick, who attended the open house with about a dozen other San Clemente Green members.
North County Concerns
Over the past year, North County city councils and residents have raised concerns about the safety of SONGS.
Most recently, the Del Mar City Council approved a resolution that urged the NRC to require a public license amendment hearing before SONGS is permitted to restart.
Del Mar City Council also sent a letter to the CPUC asking that the commission look into the costs of reduced-power generation, the costs of a prolonged shutdown of SONGS and the original costs of installing the broken steam generators.
The Solana Beach City Council sent a letter to the NRC asking for improved safety measures at SONGS. Residents have pressed the Encinitas City Council and the Oceanside City Council to address safety concerns about SONGS at future meetings.
Upcoming NRC Meeting
The NRC will meet with SCE representatives to discuss how the company has addressed SONGS’ tube degradation problems at a public meeting Nov. 16 in Dana Point.