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Anti-Nuclear Group Seeks to Expose San Onofre Design Flaws

Friends of the Earth demands intervener status to expose safety problems at the idled California nuclear facility to long-avoided public scrutiny.

Jun 22, 2012
Protester rallies outside the idled San Onofre nuclear plant earlier this year.

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif.—A watchdog group intent on permanently shuttering the troubled San Onofre nuclear power station in Southern California has seized on the plant's current crisis to expose the facility's operations to the kind of public scrutiny it has avoided for decades.

San Onofre, a twin-reactor site along the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego, was forced offline Jan. 31 by a small radiation leak from a tube in one of the plant's recently installed steam generators. Experts then found unusual tube deterioration in the plant's other steam generators, a problem that's so tough to solve safely that both reactors will remain idle at least through August.

This week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said design flaws in the modified steam generators played a key role in eroding the tubes. The tubes were knocking against each other, thinning their walls and making the equipment more prone to leaking radioactive steam—a situation an NRC official described as a "significant, serious safety issue" at a public meeting here on Monday.

For Friends of the Earth, an environmental group whose U.S. arm is based in Washington, D.C., the design mistakes and the aftermath represent the organization's best opportunity to force San Onofre operator Southern California Edison to amend its operating license before it restarts either unit.

Every time a nuclear plant operator proposes something that changes existing safety assumptions about the plant, it must get NRC approval for an amendment to its operating license. At that point, affected residents or watchdog groups can seek "intervener" status and take part in the NRC's review—something Friends of the Earth has already requested in this case.

If it is approved as an official intervener, Friends of the Earth would have the right to examine plant records, present and cross-examine expert witnesses, and fully participate in a public, trial-like hearing on the steam generator issues.

Friends of the Earth and SCE disagree about whether the utility should have put more of the steam generator changes through the license amendment process when the project was proposed years ago. The NRC is still investigating the matter. It's clear now, though, that the plant's safety was compromised by the new equipment, and so Friends argues that an amendment is called for before San Onofre is restarted.

The dispute is already having an effect beyond the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, whose tenure will end once his replacement is confirmed, noted last month that whether or not SCE acted improperly, the rule the utility cited to avoid the license amendment process should be revisited to make sure substantive equipment changes don't escape thorough examination in the future.

"If [SCE] did it consistent with our regulations, then maybe we need to take a look at changing our regulations, because I think for a significant replacement of a component like this, we do want to make sure that we are properly reviewing it," Jaczko said. "We really need to take a look at this process one way or another."

The NRC could, for example, look more critically at changes that a plant operator presents as having no effect on the reactor's existing safety analysis. That, in turn, could lead to more license amendment hearings and more public scrutiny.

The problem with the NRC's current system is that utilities are allowed to determine when their proposed changes trigger the license amendment process, said Richard Ayres, the attorney representing Friends of Earth in the NRC case.

"The company has every incentive to say, 'Oh, this isn't a problem,' and if the commission doesn't catch them, then you get something like [this SONGS issue]," Ayres said. "I would hope that if the commission does convene the license hearing [for San Onofre], it would be a message to others that they need to pay attention to that regulatory [rule cited by SCE]."

The typical nuclear plant submits about 15 license amendment requests a year to the NRC, said David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety project. Most of them don't substantially affect the way the plant operates, he said, so they don't provide a realistic opportunity for an outsider to intervene. But many U.S. nuclear plants are now poised to begin projects that could be vetted or challenged by the public, including license renewals and equipment changes to increase power output.

Seeking intervener status can be an expensive process, though, Lochbaum warned. "And the odds are much in favor of the utility company and not the intervener."

Mothers for Peace, based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., has successfully used the process. For decades, it has held intervener status for matters involving Central California's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. "Because Mothers has had that position ... we have been able to keep Diablo Canyon safer," said Linda Seeley, a Mothers for Peace spokeswoman.

As an intervener, "not only do you get to look at the documents that the company sent to the NRC, but you also get to look at their internal files, and sometimes that's a gold mine," Lochbaum said. In the San Onofre case, he added, "you might find out exactly what [SCE] knew about the condition of the tubes … you get all of their records related to the subject."

Friends of the Earth, riding a wave of public concern and outright opposition to the San Onofre plant, announced the filing of their NRC petition on June 18, before the start of an NRC public meeting to discuss the plant's steam generators.

The group accused SCE of dodging the longer, more rigorous oversight process by characterizing the new steam generators as substantially similar to the previous versions.

"They were trying to disguise a Mack truck as a Mini Cooper," said Arnie Gunderson, a nuclear engineer hired by Friends of the Earth to study the San Onofre problems. If the more stringent amendment process had been followed, he said, "I'm sure that the NRC would have caught the design problems that we're seeing today."

But SCE, which is also San Onofre's majority owner, said it used the proper NRC approval process for the steam generator replacement project, a massive undertaking that was completed in 2010 at an approved cost of more than $680 million (2004 dollars). Customers of SCE and San Diego Gas & Electric are footing the bill through higher electricity rates.

SCE spokeswoman Jennifer Manfrè said the utility "was fully transparent with the NRC about the modifications to the design—all of which are allowable" without a license amendment.

NRC officials, meanwhile, have said they were aware of the equipment modifications, and that the commission approved two minor license amendments as part of the project. However, the NRC is still investigating whether the utility should have sought additional, more substantive amendments.

"We're still looking at that," NRC Regional Administrator Elmo Collins told an overflow crowd at Monday's public meeting. "We haven't reached our final conclusion."

SCE has up to 25 days to file a response to the Friends petition, but there is no timetable for the NRC to rule on the group's requests, according to Ayres, the organization's attorney.

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