Surfing From San Onofre to Fukushima

by RUSSELL D. HOFFMAN

At a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) meeting about San Onofre held in Dana Point, California on October 9th, 2012, it was the unionists who tried to crowd out our shut-down message.  To entice them to do so, Southern California Edison (SCE) had offered workers all-you-can-eat dinners in the plant parking lot, free tee shirts, bus transport to and from the meeting, and best of all, but tacitly, a chance to be thought of as a team player.

The busses arrived noisily during our press conference, which had to be held outside the entrance to the hotel because they wouldn’t let the press trucks on the property for the live feeds.

The NRC PR person wasn’t any more cooperative: We had set up a literature table at the entrance to the auditorium, but he tried to move us inside because the NRC needed both tables.   “No” I said, and gave them one of them.

When we came back from the press conference, the hall was filled with union members, many of whom had taken literature from the table we had insisted on keeping.  We’d wished we had brought more literature!

The unionists were loud sometimes, but polite, and as the night wore on, we got louder, because while they rode back on their busses, which ran back and forth all evening, a much greater percentage of activists chose to stay all the way through.

At a California Public Utilities Commission hearing in Irvine last Thursday (October 25th, 2012), we were out-maneuvered by the local Chambers of Commerce.  What enticed them to come was the thousands of dollars (of ratepayer money) Edison gives local CoCs each year, so their chapter presidents will speak well of SCE at times like this.  They served up Edison’s line dutifully, one after another.  Nevertheless we “won the day” with a 5-0 unanimous vote authorizing the go-ahead with an investigation into San Onofre’s steam generator problems.

But the public comment period at the CPUC hearing, like at the NRC meeting, was a travesty.  The CPUC promised to probably, maybe, possibly give us (the ratepayers) back every penny since January 31st, 2012 if SCE can’t get the plant up and running again.  That’s more than half a billion dollars, but don’t hold your fossil-fuel-and-Fukushima-poisoned breath waiting for it.

The CPUC was required by law to begin the investigation within a few weeks anyway, and they emphasized that it would be “thorough,” but few of us were given a chance to speak about what it should cover, although dozens of people had driven or carpooled to Irvine thinking they would have a chance to tell the CPUC how they feel.  It turned out our input wasn’t welcome and the decision seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

The local Chambers of Commerce conspired both to use up the public comment period and to give themselves a bad name — with CPUC Chairman Michael Peavey’s help, who didn’t seem to notice the loaded dice.  At the very least, he could have told them to stop repeating each other, and certainly would have told us that, if we had droned on in the same fashion.

Instead, Peavey started the meeting late and let this, that, and the other thing prevent him from hearing the citizens.  Very few of us had spoken amidst the unionists and Chamber of Commerce people, who all professed their love for San Onofre’s supposedly “safe, reliable, affordable energy” as if — as Gene Stone pointed out in the press conference afterwards — they had all got the same memo with the talking points they were supposed to emphasize.

The rules for public comment had stated not to do things like that, and also said that spokespersons for organizations of people present could get extra time (that is, more than one minute).  But suddenly chairman and former SCE president Michael Peavey had heard enough, and announced the last three speakers.  And that would have been that, but Gary Headrick stood up, and with the crowd behind him, forced the issue and was granted three full minutes, which he used to read our group’s statement.  (It was a team effort all the way: His wife Laurie had already “snuck” in some comments with the Chamber of Commerce people, representing a CoC herself (a green one).)

Another small victory for our side was that the very first public speaker had been Martha Sullivan, who worked at the CPUC for 20 years, until 1998, and was speaking for the Del Mar City Council (that’s why she got to speak first).  It was a brilliant move on her part.  She had tried several times to educate us about how the CPUC operates, to varying degrees of success.  When she kicked off the public comment period, we thought things were going to go pretty well, but those CoC people just kept prattling on and on and on…. I stopped videotaping, but wish I hadn’t, just so I could demonstrate the repetitiveness of their claims.  I’m certain that none of them are familiar with the technical details of what’s gone wrong at San Onofre — they only know that it’s “off.”  They aren’t aware of the history of the steam generator replacement project, or of San Onofre’s lingering problems with its workforce, or the used reactor core storage hazards, or that children are far more likely to be harmed by radiation than adults — they just had a basic script to read.  The Chamber of Commerce folks know that Southern California Edison contributes millions of dollars (of rate payer money) to local CoC’s, as well as to children’s cancer hospitals, local nature preserves and so on — anything that looks like community caring.  The media gets millions in advertising dollars from SCE — but not if they run a lot of negative pieces.  Then that dries up.

After Gary Headrick spoke, we could see a staff member say something to Peavey, who then announced that there would be one more speaker.

It would be young Zora, 13, had come all the way in from Idyllwild with her father to speak.  As I was setting up the camera at the beginning of the meeting, she handed me a note with what she intended to say.  (I had met her in August.)  One of her friends had spoken at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing two weeks earlier while Zora and another friend stood by her in support.  This time Zora was alone at the podium, and stole the show.  Here is a link to her marvelous minute in Irvine:, along with Gary’s presentation, the CPUC decision, and the press conference activists held afterwards.

I should note that while I’m spouting off technical terms in the video, I embarrassingly got it wrong:  It’s the tube support plates (TSPs) which were machined wrong, not the Anti-Vibration Bars.  H

Will Falk moved to the West Coast from Milwaukee, WI where he was a public defender.

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