Public Demands Bigger Role in Deciding Fate of Troubled Calif. Nuke Plant

Regulators still weighing options seven months after safety problems triggered the shutdown of San Onofre nuclear plant.

Representatives from Friends of the Earth and local community groups announce the filing of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission petition seeking a formal public hearing on the equipment problems at the San Onofre nuclear power plant. The announcement took place on June 18 in San Juan Capistrano, just before the start of a lengthy public meeting on San Onofre hosted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Credit: EON - Ecological Options Network

Two more Southern California city councils voiced urgent concerns about the crippled San Onofre nuclear plant this month, but hopes are dimming that those communities and others near the troubled plant will have any role in deciding its fate.

The Laguna Beach and Santa Monica city councils joined a growing list of local officials imploring federal regulators to conduct trial-like public hearings on San Onofre's problems. The cities also called on the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to launch—without further delay—its recently postponed investigation into the plant's lengthy outage and mounting costs.

The twin-reactor power plant, located on the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles, hasn't produced any power since the end of January, when a small radiation leak triggered a shutdown that has already lasted seven months. Investigators subsequently found unprecedented deterioration of the tubes that circulate radioactive steam inside San Onofre's new steam generators.

Experts at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission blamed design flaws in the heavily modified steam generators for causing what an NRC official called a "significant, serious, safety issue" at San Onofre. It's unclear if or when either of the plant's two reactors will be restarted, and the debacle's price tag keeps rising in the meantime. Adding to the turmoil, operator Southern California Edison this week said it would cut more than 700 employees—or about a third of San Onofre's staff—because the plant's payroll and expenses are "significantly higher" than those of similar facilities.

So far, federal and state regulators have resisted calls from elected officials to deviate from regulatory norms to accommodate an increasingly worried public. Instead, both the NRC and the state public utilities commission have clung to the plodding procedures and legalese of their respective that agencies—processes affect the lives of millions but offer limited opportunity for public scrutiny or input.

The ramifications of that lack of public accountability are particularly acute at the NRC, which holds exclusive authority over most aspects of this country's 104 nuclear power reactors. Critics have accused the commission and its staff of being too secretive, too cozy with the industry it regulates and too indifferent to the views of outside experts and the public.

"The NRC would like to have the public's trust, but they don't care, because it's not a factor in what they do," said David Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety program and a former NRC employee. "Ultimately the NRC wins, because the federal law gives them almost sole jurisdiction over nuclear operations."

The NRC declined to respond to questions from InsideClimate News about the criticism. But the agency has made concessions to the region's growing unease over San Onofre by taking a series of unusual steps. It has hosted a series of lengthy public meetings, released extensive data about the plant's damaged steam generators, and ordered that Edison's damage report and plan for restarting the plant be made public shortly after they are filed with the NRC. Edison has not said when it will file those reports.

The NRC's recent overtures, however, fall short of what elected officials and many in the public say they want, which is to have a representative at the table as the NRC and Edison analyze the causes of San Onofre's problems and decide whether the reactors can be safely restarted.

In June, the environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE)  filed a petition with the NRC arguing that the events at San Onofre have caused such drastic changes at the facility that the plant's operating license should be amended. As part of the amendment process, the group said the NRC could be forced to hold public evidentiary hearings on the safety of the redesigned steam generators. FOE also asked that it be allowed to represent the public in those hearings and that the NRC grant an "emergency" stay to prevent San Onofre from restarting before the hearings are complete.

The NRC has yet to act on those requests.  However, the agency has said the plant will not be restarted until Edison's report and plans have been submitted and approved and both the NRC and Edison are satisfied that the public's safety is ensured.

Critics are not comforted by that pledge.   

As it stands, "we're leaving a decision about whether to restart these [reactors] up to the same people who caused the problem in the first place," San Clemente Green  founder Gary Headrick told the Laguna Beach City Council earlier this month.

"If we go with a license amendment [process] ... we'd have independent nuclear energy experts consider the decision being made and giving input that's very important," said Headrick, whose group wants San Onofre closed. "Without it, I'm afraid the NRC is just going to rubberstamp the approval as soon as they get word from Edison."

The prospects for the FOE petition—and for a formal public hearing—turn on the arcane rules surrounding when an operating license must be amended. Typically, plant operators must apply for a license amendment any time they propose something that changes the facility's established safety profile. 

When Edison embarked on the steam generator replacement project years ago, it sought and received license amendments for two minor technical changes. The company told the NRC that San Onofre was exchanging 'like for like' equipment, though, so it didn't need amendments for a host of more substantial alterations to the generator design.

Those changes, however, were based on grossly inaccurate modeling and led to tube deterioration not seen at any other nuclear power plant, according to NRC investigators. FOE's petition argues that Edison should have sought additional license amendments because it has been proven that the defective steam generators changed the plant's safety profile and were not 'like-for-like' replacements. What's more, the safety assumptions underpinning the plant's license are likely to be further altered by any fixes the NRC may prescribe, the group said.

Although the NRC commissioners haven't issued a response to the FOE petition, the NRC staff has filed papers opposing it. The staff said the petition must be denied because, in procedural terms, FOE's request must be considered as part of a pending San Onofre licensing proceeding at the NRC—and no such proceedings are pending. "There simply is no proceeding in which FOE may seek to initiate hearing rights," the staff wrote.

The staff argument, also cited by Edison in its filing opposing the petition, reveals an administrative catch-22: There is no applicable license amendment proceeding largely because Edison opted not to seek amendments for the changes at issue. FOE argued that it could not have sought such hearings years ago, because the design alterations at issue weren't revealed to the public until this year.

"We weren't overly surprised by the responses," said Kendra Ulrich of FOE. "But it's very circular reasoning. Our position is that we are entitled to a public hearing."

The NRC staff acknowledged that the commission has the power to dispense with such regulatory wrangling and simply initiate a proceeding itself.  But that step "is only appropriate where substantial health and safety issues have been identified," the staff said. The commission should not take that step, it argued, because FOE's petition doesn't identify any specific health and safety issues that aren't already being addressed by the NRC.

While the NRC continues to deliberate, Southern California cities and a host of consumer groups have been pushing the California Public Utilities Commission to take action. The CPUC controls how much money flows to the electric utilities through customer rates and ensures that the state has a reliable power supply. The groups want the CPUC to investigate San Onofre's troubles and protect utility customers from footing the bill for its faulty generators and other outage costs.

The CPUC approved ratepayer funding for the nearly $700 million steam generator replacement project, and it is obliged to work out the financial ramifications when such big-ticket projects go awry. In addition, state regulators must decide who will pay for the replacement electricity that must be purchased while San Onofre is out of service, as well as the still-mounting expenses for the extra testing, analysis, repairs and regulatory oversight stemming from the failed equipment.

State regulators have the authority to impose penalties on the utilities they regulate, and they can deny customer reimbursement for costs deemed "unreasonable."  State regulations also allow the CPUC to halt ratepayer funding for power plants that remain offline for at least nine consecutive months—a benchmark San Onofre will hit at the end of October.  

In June, the commission proposed launching an investigation into the problems at San Onofre, but the agenda item was postponed twice. Commission President Michael Peevey later dropped the item from the agenda, saying the investigation could wait until after the nine-month review gets triggered.

"I want to assure people ... that this commission is engaged and will be very active in this. It's just a matter of the exact timing," Peevey said at the CPUC's Aug. 2 meeting. He said the CPUC has formed an interagency task force to prepare for the possibility that San Onofre may not return to full service.

Consumer and watchdog groups objected to the delay, arguing that the public interest demands that the CPUC move forward with its probe and immediately start the process of cutting off customer funds for the shuttered plant.

"The commission has ample evidence that [San Onofre] Unit 2 will not be online anytime soon and that Unit 3 may never return to service," Joseph Como, acting director of the CPUC's independent Division of Ratepayer Advocates, wrote in a recent letter to the commission.

"The cost to ratepayers if the commission does not act soon is significant," Como said. Based on recent Edison disclosures, that utility's customers alone are paying $54 million a month to operate San Onofre, even though the plant isn't producing any power, he noted.

John Geesman, who is representing the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility in CPUC proceedings, complained in an interview with InsideClimate News that the CPUC "has decided to hit the snooze button until the statute forces them to look at whether customers ought to keep paying for this comatose plant."

Meanwhile, "the NRC has denied that there should be any kind of proceeding whatsoever, and said, 'Don't worry, we'll take a look at whatever Edison sends us and determine if it's sufficient or not,'" said Geesman, who is a former member of the California Energy Commission. "The message that sends to the public? Pound sand. That's the message from both agencies."

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