WASHINGTON, July 17 – As early as today, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to issue the final report from its Augmented Inspection Team (AIT) investigation of the steam generator crisis at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which has kept the plant shut down since January.
Friends of the Earth, which has released a series of groundbreaking technical reports on the problems at the plant, has identified four crucial issues likely to be addressed in the report. We briefly discuss them below, and notes that our experts – including Dave Freeman, former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates,author of the previous FOE reports– will be available for comment upon release of the NRC report.
1. The “50.59” process. This NRC rule requires that if nuclear plant components are replaced, “like-for-like” equipment and technology must be used or else the operator must obtain a license amendment for the replacements.
• What NRC may say: The most likely outcome is that the AIT report will call for review or reform of the 50.59 process to ensure better compliance in the future.
• Friends of the Earth response: Southern California Edison did not comply with requirements of the 50.59 process. The replacement steam generators included major design changes that compromised the safety of the plant. The severe and unprecedented scale of damage to the steam generator tubes shows that replacement generators should have required a license amendment, and until there is one there should be no restart of these dangerous reactors.
2. Unit 2 vs. Unit 3. Edison maintains that because more tubes are damaged in Reactor Unit 3 than in Unit 2, the problems are most serious in Unit 3 and Unit 2 should be considered for restart.
• What NRC may say: The AIT report could affirm that while there are problems with all four steam generators, the two in Unit 3 are the main concern. As an explanation the report may offer that there are manufacturing differences between the generators in Units 2 and 3, which caused the greater tube wear in Unit 3.
• Friends of the Earth response: The design of the replacement steam generators in both Units 2 and 3 is fundamentally flawed. These components are far more severely damaged then any comparable equipment in the history of the U.S. nuclear industry. The main reason for the damage is Edison’s decision to remove a critical safety feature, the central stay cylinder, to make room for almost 400 more tubes in each generator – a decision driven by the desire for increased profits from the generation and sale of more electricity. About 8 percent of the tubes in Unit 2 are damaged vs. 9 percent in Unit 3. Both remain unsafe, and restarting either would be an irresponsible and unacceptable gamble.
3. Safety violations and fines. If Edison is found to have violated safety guidelines, financial penalties could be imposed by the NRC.
•What NRC may say: The AIT may identify what NRC calls repetitive or multiple “degraded (safety) cornerstones” resulting in a “significant reduction in safety margin,” and the agency would initiate proceedings to assess a fine.
• Friends of the Earth response: It’s good that NRC recognizes that Edison violated safety guidelines and will assess a fine. That’s no substitute for ensuring public safety, which means not restarting either reactor. The severe and unprecedented wear in thousands of tubes shows how close Southern California came to a nuclear disaster, whose human and monetary cost would dwarf any fine imposed on Edison.
4. Mitsubishi. Edison has attempted to defer blame to the manufacturer of the steam generators, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.
• What NRC may say: The AIT report could affirm that Mitsubishi used a faulty computer simulation program that failed to correctly analyze the consequences of making significant design changes to the San Onofre steam generators.
• Friends of the Earth response: The design and fabrication of the replacement steam generators at San Onofre were jointly conducted by a team from Edison and one from Mitsubishi. Edison, not Mitsubishi, stood to profit from the addition of almost 1,500 steam tubes, which would produce more electricity and more profit. Edison, not Mitsubishi, wanted to hide its violation of the NRC’s “like-for-like” rule. The utility’s attempts to blame Mitsubishi is a strategy that looks ahead to a court case in which Edison will try to recover some of the $671 million wasted on this doomed project.