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Calif. Considering Public Watchdog for Troubled Nuke Plant

An independent committee would get information about San Onofre outsiders rarely see. It would be only the second group of its kind in the entire nation.

Jul 9, 2012
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

Add this to the list of questions surrounding Southern California's troubled San Onofre nuclear plant: Should the state create an independent committee to watch over its operations and keep the public better informed?

It's an idea being pondered anew in the California attorney general's office as criticism mounts over dangerous equipment flaws at the twin-reactor facility. The problems will keep the plant shuttered at least through August—and could eventually force its permanent closure.

Forming an oversight committee would be a bold and controversial move for California on the nuclear front, but not an unprecedented one. The only U.S. nuclear plant already subjected to that kind of independent monitoring is Diablo Canyon on California's Central Coast. Its review panel grew out of a 1988 settlement that resolved a battle over Diablo Canyon's costs.

Staffed by experts and supported by nearly $1 million a year in customer funds, Diablo Canyon's Independent Safety Committee gives state officials and residents the kind of detailed plant information outsiders rarely see.

"Over the years, it's been valuable for the state to have eyes and ears that report to [it] independently," said Robert Budnitz, a nuclear scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and one of three nuclear experts who make up the committee. "California is the only state that has a committee like this, and it only has it for Diablo Canyon."

Thanks to that committee, people who live near Diablo Canyon have access to information about employee mistakes and injury rates, plant incidents, the backlog of needed fixes, industry-wide problems, and the condition of steam generators, safety systems and other key equipment at Diablo Canyon.

At San Onofre, in contrast, details about the causes of plant incidents are usually found only in hard-to-decipher regulatory reports. Performance statistics for the plant are closely guarded and typically labeled by plant managers as proprietary or "For Internal Use Only."

In an effort to boost public scrutiny of San Onofre, the environmental group Friends of the Earth last month asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to hold license hearings and approve the group's participation in them. If the NRC consents, Friends of the Earth would get access to certain San Onofre documents for the hearings, and could assert the same rights in future NRC proceedings.

The San Onofre committee that the attorney general's office is considering isn't likely to seek standing in NRC proceedings—but it would give the public a permanent communications channel and access to important information.

Budnitz said three representatives of the attorney general's office broached the subject of adding a Diablo Canyon-style panel at San Onofre at a meeting with him in March. They included Deputy Attorney General Susan Durbin; Mark Breckler, chief assistant attorney general for the public rights section; and Sally Magnani, senior assistant attorney general for the environmental section.

Budnitz talked about the conversation last month at a public meeting of the Diablo Canyon committee.

"They asked the question, 'How come there isn't a committee just like this for San Onofre?'" Budnitz recounted. "They expressed an interest in the possibility that perhaps the state would appoint such a committee, and asked us whether we thought that if that happened that would be a benefit, and I said, 'You bet it's a benefit. We think it's a benefit here.'"

The attorney general's office declined to comment on the meeting or on any plans it may have for creating a committee. San Onofre operator Southern California Edison did not respond to questions on the subject.

This is not the first time the notion has surfaced. Last year, state Sen. Alex Padilla raised the possibility of forming an independent safety committee for the Southern California plant. And in a 2009 report, the California Energy Commission recommended that state utility regulators determine whether San Onofre would benefit from that kind of oversight. The California Public Utilities Commission never followed up on that recommendation, according to CPUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper.

Renewed interest in the idea was likely sparked by a string of issues at San Onofre, including steam generator design mistakes. It's still unclear whether the equipment problems can be fixed, and if so, at what cost.

The NRC and SoCal Edison say they've traced the problem to a faulty simulation model that was used to predict the velocity of water and steam moving through the plant's modified steam generators.

If an independent safety committee had been in place to review San Onofre's steam generator replacement project, there's no guarantee it would have spotted the design problems that the NRC and SoCal Edison missed. But at least it would have had a chance to weigh in, Budnitz said.

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