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San Onofre: Still Dirty, Still Dangerous

Hooray!  Summer is “officially” upon us!  The beaches had record numbers of people this past Memorial Day weekend.  The tuna had cesium from Fukushima.

San Onofre is still shut down.  The lights are still on.  But what happens next?

The utility doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything to prevent “rolling blackouts” in the San Diego area this summer, except quietly pressuring — or shall we say strong-arming? — the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the California Energy Commission (CEC), the California Coastal Commission (CCC), key members of the legislature, and the governor’s office to let the utilities CONTINUE to do nothing.

They’ve been very successful at it.  Together, they have about a billion dollars in ratepayer-provided funding for solar projects in California, which is being held up (pun intended) because the funding isn’t being distributed.

Add to that, more than a thousand small (and not so small)  renewable energy projects which have been built and are in use, but are not allowed to “hook up’ to the grid to provide additional energy to the system, because the utility hasn’t come out and approved and completed the hook-up!  Some have been waiting for YEARS!

The people are being robbed of the opportunity to supply hundreds or even thousands of megawatts to our grid, and cut thousands more in energy use.  Because the utilities want to keep there dirty, dangerous nukes.

Each state agency that is charged in some way with protecting the public welfare from something that might harm us at San Onofre — even if it’s only excessive rates — is NOT allowed to regulate on  anything having to do with “safety” at the nuclear power plants.  That’s solely the regulatory jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who’s head, Gregory Jaczko, just resigned after visiting San Onofre — and some of the local activists who oppose it — last month.

Southern California Edison (SCE), San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) are among the largest, oldest, and most powerful corporate monopolies in the state. Each is a larger financial entity than many countries.  All have enormous control of the aforementioned state agencies and many other aspects of state, county, and local government.  Their ex-CEOs and presidents even serve on the commissions sometimes.  The utilities can force anyone out they don’t like, but they hardly ever have to, since they can block anyone from being on the commissions that they don’t like in the first place.

The utilities don’t need to push the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at all — it will bend over backwards to do whatever the utilities need, since the utilities provide 90% of the funding that pays their salaries.  Close a nuke:  Put dozens of NRC regulators out of work.  There is an average of about 40 NRC employees per reactor (2 on site).

So, barely regulated, San Onofre sits quietly on the beach right now doing little more than gathering bird poop.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Fukushima is a snarling dragon (with three heads and a very long tail).  It’s poisoning our tuna right now, but “only slightly”.  It’s reported that tuna caught off San Diego has tested at 3% more radioactive than normal, with about 10 times more cesium than normal.  The majority of the radioactivity is (still…) from natural potassium-40, and the tenth of the cesium they found — the original amount — was said to be from “atmospheric weapons testing.”  (I would bet a lot of it was ALSO from so-called “underground” tests which burst through the ground “unexpectedly” and showered radioactive dust into the air.  Just guessing, but about 15% (roughly one in eight) did that.  I wouldn’t call that an accident.  I’d call it a planned sporadic release.)

We don’t want radioactive releases here — planned or unplanned!  We don’t want Fukushima’s poisons in our tuna, even if the levels are “only” 3% of the total background radiation.  And Fukushima’s not only still spewing, it’s probably going to still be spewing long-lived (and short-lived) radioactive poisons for decades to come!

Fukushima woke a lot of people up.  That’s one reason so many workers at San Onofre have to be brought in from outside the area.  Those that have “drunk the Kool-Aid” go all around the country, from reactor to reactor, making obscene salaries.  Many other plant workers are one-shot, temporary “jumpers” who, for the cumulative risk of a couple of chest x-rays (including a couple of REAL chest x-rays to make sure their cigarettes haven’t already started to kill them, since many of these “jumpers” smoke) they’ll make thousands of dollars for a few hours of “interesting” work inside the reactor, and a couple of weeks of training beforehand.  Nice work if you can get it?  Something’s got to kill you anyway, right?  The car ride on I-5 to and from the power plant is probably more dangerous, they reason, and they might even be right — unless there’s Fukushima-type accident here.  San Onofre’s operators say they won’t let that happen.  But note two things.  First of all, as any nine-year-old can tell you (and some have…): Fukushima’s highly-paid “experts” said the same thing (with dozens of American “experts” on staff at all times at the site, and dozens more in consultation around the world.  None of them knew what to do.  Nobody did.).

And second of all, they don’t really say that.  They used to say that.  And they still say, “they have family here and wouldn’t let them live here if they didn’t think it was safe.”  But in fact, when asked hard questions by people demanding answers, such as mayors of local towns they say: “mitigation” now.

Mitigation is NOT prevention!  I don’t want “mitigation”!  I want prevention!

They never used to talk about things like “mitigation” (I’ve been attending nuclear hearings for decades).  They would stop the conversation with “well, we’re not going to let that happen.”  Now, after Fukushima, they admit it might, but feel they will “mitigate” the consequences.  One example of “mitigation” is “shelter in place”.  This refers to expecting residents who are caught downwind of a nuclear disaster at a nuclear power plant to duct tape their doors and windows (and chimney flues, bathroom fan vents, cracks in floors, walls, and ceilings, etc.).  But of course, they know you can’t really do a very good job of it and if you did, you’d run out of air long before the radiation levels outside had dropped to “tolerable” amounts.  Long before the “hot particles” had dissipated somewhere else.  Here, in our tuna, for instance.

A lot of people want San Onofre closed permanently, and many more voices are being added to the call for shutdown each week.  And it’s not just “environmentalists” or “greens” this time.  San Onofre, we’ve learned from Fukushima, is bad for business.  It’s not a Republican or a Democratic issue.  It’s only connection to Communism is that they do it too — only worse.  It’s not a political question at all.  It’s a question of survival, and businesses like to survive, too, just like people do.

San Onofre must be completely dismantled so that it can never run again.  They drilled holes in the Huntington Beach (gas fired) boilers specifically to prevent them from operating ever again. Now they are repairing and restarting that power plant and upgrading/building several others (Carlsbad and Santee, for example), all on the flimsy excuse that San Onofre will be down for the summer.  Most likely San Onofre will be down a  lot longer than that, until new steam generators are built, tested, installed, and tested again … unless the NRC let’s them run at reduced power/pressure, and increase power and pressure bit by bit until something blows again.

Of course, it’s always possible that the lame-duck, lap-dog NRC will hold its ground and refuse to let SCE restart SanO, a dubious thing to hope for, even if it’s been happening so far.

The operators might keep the plant closed or running at half power (or more… or less…) for a couple of years while Mitsubishi Heavy Industries works 24/7 to build NEW steam generators to the OLD design except with the “new” Inconel 690, which is an industry-wide replacement for Inconel 600.  Inconel 690 is also used in the aviation industry, aerospace, and several other specialty industries.  But Inconel 690 also embrittles, and steam generator tubes leak on a regular basis.  That’s presumably why SCE tried to add hundreds of extra tubes in the first place.  Spare parts, as it were.

However, even if Inconel 690 isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (because it cracks too easily), that’s not the biggest problem at San Onofre.  It appears more likely to be a design flaw introduced when they added those extra tubes.  The “fatal flaw” was apparently the introduction of a new bracket shape near the top of the steam generator, that blocked water but let steam through.  That allowed there to be too high a percentage of steam and not enough water near the top of the tubes.  This allowed the tubes to experience excessive rattle, and that’s why they wore out unexpectedly early. (A water/steam mixture is a much better dampening agent than just steam.)

According to the record, San Onofre didn’t even check the tubes for wear the first time they shut down after replacing all four steam generators (two per reactor) despite having introduced dozens of design changes — and slipping those design changes under the NRC’s nose by calling it a “like for like” replacement!  When they shut down the first unit, SCE didn’t even check to see if anything was amiss in their new reactors (or at least so they say).  Instead, the other reactor sprung a leak: A burst of radioactive water flashed to steam as it flowed from the ~2200 PSI primary loop into the ~1200 PSI secondary loop.  Then the steam was condensed and the radioactive noble gases escaped into the building, and set off alarms.  The pressure in the primary loop dropped a little as a couple of gallons an hour was being lost.  The rate of loss was increasing when they shut the reactor down, about a couple of hours after realizing they had a problem.

Suddenly the billion-dollars SCE made the ratepayers spend to upgrade their reactor became a billion-dollar boondoggle.  New reactor pressure vessel heads, new turbines specifically redesigned for higher output (and perhaps higher input) all were rendered useless because the steam generators leak like sieves now!  Reportedly more than a 1,00 tubes have been plugged, but it’s rumored that the actual number is in the thousands, and if they are allowed to run at all, it can’t possibly be at anywhere near full power.  And not only that, but …

There’s no place to put the waste.  The proposed new head of the NRC was on Obama’s essentially-useless “Blue Ribbon Committee” (BRC) on nuclear waste management, a committee of about a dozen people, mostly from the industry, who were charged with solving the same puzzle that tens of thousands of scientists (you read that right) at Yucca Mountain were charged with solving: What to do with the nuclear waste?  The Yucca Mountain team couldn’t solve that puzzle, the BRC couldn’t solve it, and now she’s supposed to run the agency that’s in charge of making more waste that no one knows what to do with.  But I don’t think she’s explored the idea of not making more waste in the first place!  A perfectly logical idea no one seems to be able to accomplish!  But San Onofre accomplished it all by themselves — temporarily.  We just want to make it permanent, and we think we have a lot of good reasons.

Russell D. Hoffman lives in Carlsbad, California. He is an educational software developer and bladder cancer survivor, as well as a collector of military and nuclear historical documents and books. He is the author and programmer of the award-winning Animated Periodic Table of the Elements. He can be reached at: rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com

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