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Edison: ‘We could have done a better job’ handling canister incident

REGION — Nearly eight months after a canister incident delayed storage operations at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, the message from Southern California Edison’s management team was clear: The company is committed to regaining the public’s trust and prepared to safely finish dry storage operations.

Edison officials spoke directly to several local reporters about the company’s new safety procedures and oversight program during a March 18 walking tour of the decommissioning facility, which today houses a cache of spent nuclear fuel in reinforced concrete tombs.

“Quite frankly, we didn’t do our job here,” said Ron Pontes, Edison’s environmental decommissioning manager. “Believe me, we’ve taken a lot of heat, not only from the community, but from senior executives in this company, that are not happy with what happened here. We could have done a better job.”

Ron Pontes, Decommissioning Environmental Strategy Manager at SCE, explains how spent fuel is stored and cooled in above-ground storage units. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

Dry storage efforts were interrupted on Aug. 3 after a stainless steel Holtec canister containing 50 tons of spent fuel rods got stuck on a shield ring as it was being lowered into an 18-foot concrete cask.

As support slings on the transporter went slack, the canister hung precariously in the air — a situation that went unnoticed for roughly 45 minutes before operators fixed the mistake.

After walking through the incident step-by-step, Edison identified five areas of improvement — a joint effort with Holtec — including better training programs and retraining crews, installation of new load-monitoring cameras and alarms, more detailed procedures and specific oversight of operations.

A Southern California Edison employee measures radiation levels from a Holtec HI-STORM UMAX dry storage container. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

“We took away a big lesson from that (canister) event,” Pontes said. “The lesson is we need to be more intrusive and we will be more intrusive going forward with all of our contractors.”

Longtime Edison employee Jim Peattie, General Manager of Decommissioning Oversight, said he was brought in to help revamp and improve the current safety structure and supervision protocols.

Since December, Peattie implemented a number of corrective actions required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, demanding more integrated training between employees and contractors and increasing the number of oversight attendants.

“There has been some leadership changes,” Pontes said. “Some people don’t work here anymore. And it’s not to say we’re hanging this on them but we wanted new leadership in place to see this thing through.”

Peattie has a full-time staff of 16 experienced operators dedicated to overseeing the independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI) and dry cask loading process.

Ron Pontes explains the changes that have been implemented at Southern California Edison since a canister incident halted plant operations. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

“Now, we have more people in oversight that have done dry fuel transfer activities before,” Peattie said. “These people know what they are looking at right away.”

In order to resume dry storage operations, Peattie said Edison is waiting for the NRC’s final report which is expected to be released next week during an online public meeting.

But Edison’s beefed up oversight and safety procedures hasn’t mollified Charles Langley, executive director of Public Watchdogs, who said he is skeptical that the the culture has changed at San Onofre.

“We think it stinks like a Bolivian fish barrel,” Langley said. “(Edison) violated federal law twice when they didn’t immediately report the unsecured load incidents on July 22 and Aug. 3. Frankly, somebody ought to go to jail.”

Jim Peattie, General Manager of Decommissioning Oversight at SCE describes how the cask transporter loads canisters into long-term storage. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

Langley said Public Watchdogs was not invited to the media event.

Peattie acknowledged that while Edison did receive criticism for failing to immediately report the Aug. 3 canister incident to the NRC, they fully communicated with the federal agency about the issue and have taken ownership of their violations.

Peattie added that while a July 22 canister event never posed any danger of falling, the NRC considered it an “unexpected condition” that should have been put in the corrective action program for further analysis.

“Maybe that could have helped us put better barriers in place before the August 3rd event,” Peattie said.

A scale model of a fuel assembly in a conference room at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Each of the 236 fuel rods in a fuel assembly is about 13 feet long and contains hundreds of uranium pellets. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

Members at Public Watchdogs believe that if the July 22 event had been reported as required by federal law, there never would have been a problem on Aug. 3.

Langley believes there should be criminal penalties for those violations.

“(Edison) violated federal law,” Langley said. “They have a disastrously bad design, deeply flawed engineering problem and they are trying to blame it on worker training. The problem is that the system is defective and you can’t fix that with training.”

In the face of bitter criticism, Pontes maintains that the Holtec Hi-Storm Umax dry storage system is reliable and that Edison is moving forward in its primary role as a transmission and distribution company.

“There’s nothing wrong with the system,” Pontes said. “We want this off our plate as soon as practical and as soon as it can be safely done. That’s the objective here.”

Coming Up

Thursday, March 21 at 9 a.m.: California Coastal Commission considers environmental impact report on decommissioning proposal at QLN Conference Center’s Exhibit Hall in Oceanside.

Monday, March 25 at noon: Nuclear Regulatory Commission will issue final enforcement decisions for the Aug. 3 event and share its findings from several inspections conducted at San Onofre. Registration available online at NRC website.

Thursday, March 28 at 5:30 p.m.: Edison will host its Community Engagement Panel providing updates to the public at Laguna Hills Community Center in Laguna Hills.

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