A Southern California Edison official speaks to the media during a March 18 tour of the decommissioned plant's facilities. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
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NRC issues final decision, penalizes Edison for incident

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to include an official statement released by Southern California Edison.

REGION — This past summer’s fuel-loading fiasco involving the transport of nuclear waste at decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station won’t go unpunished by federal regulators.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a final enforcement decision to Southern California Edison, imposing a $116,000 civil penalty for two violations of federal requirements.

A four-page letter outlining the proposed sanctions was sent to Edison on Monday, March 25, following a special inspection report and preliminary enforcement conference earlier this year in Arlington, Texas.

A view of Unit 2 and Unit 3 at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

Both violations are related to Edison’s handling of an Aug. 3 incident after a stainless steel Holtec canister containing 50 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods got stuck on a shield ring as it was lowered into its concrete housing.

The first violation involved the lack of “important-to-safety” equipment to help provide redundant drop protection during loading operations at the plant.

The NRC classified the violation at Severity Level II, finding it “could have resulted in a significant safety consequence,” according to the release.

The second violation was a “failure to make a timely notification” to NRC headquarters regarding the event.

Jim Peattie, General Manager of Decommissioning Oversight at Southern California Edison, describes the dry storage process on March 18 at decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

According to the NRC website, the agency may implement varying degrees of civil penalties based on discretion, severity, type of activity and whether a company had a violation within the last two years.

Edison has 30 days to dispute the fine or request neutral third-party mediation.

During last week’s media tour of the storage facilities at San Onofre, Edison officials said they will not resume dry-storage operations without still-pending NRC approval.

Top management officials said they take the violations very seriously and assume full ownership of their mistakes.

Ron Pontes, Edison’s decommissioning environmental strategy manager, told members of the media last week that the company has implemented much more rigorous safety procedures and hired a full-time staff of 16 experienced operators dedicated to overseeing the dry cask loading process.

“We took away a big lesson from that (canister) event,” Pontes told reporters during a March 18 tour of the plant. “The lesson is we need to be more intrusive and we will be more intrusive going forward with all of our contractors.”

John Dobken, Edison’s media relations manager, released an official statement following the NRC’s final enforcement decision:

Southern California Edison accepts the civil penalty assessed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) related to the Aug. 3, 2018, canister downloading incident at San Onofre nuclear plant. The event should not have happened and as the licensee we take full responsibility.

Since the Aug. 3 event, SCE and its contractor have reviewed every aspect of spent nuclear fuel transfer operations and created a more robust program through better procedures, better training, and more intrusive oversight.

The additional cameras and load monitoring equipment will provide valuable information to the teams during downloading operations. We appreciate the NRC’s acknowledgment that we have demonstrated through dry runs our corrective actions are effective.

We continue to work with the NRC as they review design documentation related to incidental contact as canisters are downloaded.

Fuel transfer operations, on hold since Aug. 3, will only begin after the NRC has completed its analysis, we have provided a briefing to the Community Engagement Panel, and SCE is satisfied we can move forward safely utilizing the improvements we have made to the program.

Southern California Edison

Congressman Mike Levin also issued a statement in response to the federal penalty, stating that the agency’s judgment is a step in the right direction but called for more transparency and oversight to ease growing safety concerns.

“The NRC’s enforcement decision is a step toward holding responsible parties accountable for serious safety violations at the plant, but the agency has not done enough to answer all of the legitimate questions about spent fuel safety at San Onofre.

With millions of families living near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and trillions of dollars in economic activity taking place in the region, the safety and security of the radioactive spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre is a paramount concern of mine.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano)

Longtime Edison critic Donna Gilmore wrote in an email that the “thin-walled” Holtec canisters at San Onofre should be replaced before the embattled energy company resumes dry-storage operations.

“Current focus on transporting these uninspectable cracking canisters to consolidated interim storage sites, or Yucca Mountain, will no more solve our urgent nuclear waste storage problems than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic would have stopped it from sinking,” the email reads.

In 2013, Edison shutdown all active nuclear-reactor operations after a replacement steam generator released radioactive steam into the local environment.