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The Nuclear Waste Dump Formerly Known as San Onofre?

Southern California Edison, the operator of the (non-operating) San Onofre Nuclear Waste Generating Station, is running out of options.

Even the federal regulators are coming down hard on them.  The public remains deeply skeptical, while local elected officials continue to press for further investigations into the problems at the plant.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over, but yesterday SCE took a couple of hard blows.

First, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent Pete Dietrich, Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer at Southern California Edison, a letter requesting 32 clarifications regarding SCE’s risky — some would even say CRAZY (I would say that) — plan to restart San Onofre Unit 2 at 70% power as a five-month test.  And if that wasn’t enough, the NRC is also saying that SCE must prove that the plant could be operated safely at 100% power before approving a restart plan.  SCE’s proposal to prove they could operate safely at 70% power simply isn’t good enough.

This is exciting.

Edison felt they could show that operating for five months at 70% power was safe using “conservative” benchmarks, retraining the staff, adding additional monitoring equipment, and crossing their fingers for good luck.  The NRC’s demand will be virtually impossible to fulfill, considering that the plan to operate at 70% power was full of holes to begin with (resulting in the 32 points of clarification in yesterday’s letter from the NRC).

The U-tubes in Unit 2’s replacement steam generators are highly damaged, and they only ran for 22 months out of a planned 60-YEAR life expectancy (60 years was truly a pipe dream).  Unit 3’s new U-tubes only ran for 11 months before one of them burst, and the plant has been shut down ever since.

During the 22 months that Unit 2 operated successfully with the new steam generators, Fukushima happened, to warn Southern Californians of the consequences of failure at San Onofre.  The consequence would be the loss of our communities, our jobs, our families, and our lives.  Lost to cancer, deformities, heart disease, inflammation and many other ailments, the effects of radiation poisoning.  The lesson of Fukushima has not been forgotten among the populace, even if it’s been largely forgotten by the media.  But even the head of the NRC admits 100,000 families in Japan cannot return home because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  We don’t want that here.

What happened at Fukushima — or even far worse — can happen at San Onofre in a matter of seconds.  It can happen the instant they restart the reactor.

Every knowledgeable nuclear energy expert has been forced to admit that such disasters, once claimed to be impossible due to their extensive “defense-in-depth” technology, are not only possible, but cannot be prevented in some circumstances.  Foreseeable circumstances, even inevitable:  Earthquakes happen.  Tsunamis happen.  Valves stick open (or closed).  Pipes burst.  Operators make errors.  Oh, do they ever!  The combination will bring down a power plant somewhere, and it might be San Onofre.  Every expert now has to admit what they used to deny:  That accidents are possible.  In fact, they’ve introduced a new term into their vocabulary: Mitigation.  But that just means “move, quickly, and never come back.”  But we live in paradise here!  We don’t want to be forced to move!

One wonders, after Chernobyl and Fukushima — and a thousand near-misses here in America — why does the NRC allow the plants to operate at all?  How is that possible?  The answer is:  They are playing the odds.   Large accidents are deemed unlikely, such as a meteor crashing into it (or an airplane).  The NRC doesn’t require the power plants to protect themselves against earthquakes larger than a certain size, they deem them too unlikely to have to worry about.  Similarly for tsunamis higher than a certain size, or terrorist actions involving airplanes, or even numerous innocent operator mistakes.  Such events are deemed too unlikely and are considered to be “beyond design basis” and the utility company doesn’t have to plan for them at all.  The plant is built for a 7.0 earthquake, for example, not because an 8.0 is impossible, but because the possibility of an 8.0 is considered “remote.”

All other events, however, the utility must plan for and prove they can handle.  Southern California Edison is in a tight spot on that right now, because operation of Unit 2 at 100% power IS surely very risky.  They’ve even so much as admitted it in their request to operate at 70% power — they said that was what they could “conservatively” estimate was safe.  So now what can they say?

A brief history of steam generator problems at San Onofre:  Unit 1 was put down in the early 1990s for steam generator problems very similar to what happened in units 2 and 3.  New SGs were put in the two operating units, but one of Unit 3’s new SGs failed on January 31st, 2012, after only 11 months of operation, and that unit cannot be returned to service without replacing the SGs with an unknown design — which would presumably include a lengthy and unpredictable license amendment process.  Unit 2’s new replacement SGs are of identical design to Unit 3’s failed SGs and experienced unprecedented wear due to excessive vibrations in the 22 months they operated, but not as much wear as Unit 3 experienced.  The amount of wear in Unit 2 was extensive and well outside industry norms, but in many ways similar to the wear in Unit 3.

So it appears that the NRC has demanded the impossible of SCE, for how can SCE possibly prove that Unit 2 can be operated at 100% power safely?  (In this writer’s opinion, they cannot assert it at 70%, either, but they were trying.)  At 100% power it’s not only possible but probable that the problems that occurred in Unit 3 could occur in Unit 2.  And even if that doesn’t happen, they could occur during “design basis events” such as a “main steam line break.”

So is the game over?  Will SCE announce that they’ll decommission the reactor, permanently shutting it down?  Maybe, but it hasn’t happened.  One person suggested to me that the NRC’s “top guns” are handling San Onofre’s problems now, not just the NRC Region IV guys, who have been coddling the corporations, ignoring the activists, and failing in their duties here for years.  (Management retaliation problems against the workers have persisted at the plant, even as it is unable to get back on its feet and start making money for its owners.)

Yesterday’s letter from the NRC does not force decommissioning.  It does not force SCE to move the used reactor cores to a “safe” storage place.  None exists — the last viable option for SCE, the “Private Fuel Storage” (PFS) facility proposed for the Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah, has been cancelled (as it should be — it was a terrible idea).  Yucca Mountain, the nation’s former proposed repository, is unworkable politically and geologically.  Transportation of nuclear waste is extremely difficult and there’s nowhere to go with it anyway.  Dry cask storage is not “hardened” in any way.  Spent fuel pools are full and expensive to maintain.  There are no good options for the waste.

Mining the raw uranium is a health hazard to the miners who dig it out of the ground, but used reactor cores are millions of times more dangerous, pound for pound, than fresh, unused reactor fuel.  It stays that way for hundreds of thousands of years.

It’s time to stop making more and more of this deadly waste.  It’s time to stop risking a Fukushima disaster in Southern California.  It’s time to demand now, more than ever, that SCE shut San Onofre forever.

Tomorrow SCE might announce that they are going to decommission San Onofre, but a nuclear reactor license is a multi-billion-dollar asset, so don’t hold your breath.  If SCE can rebuild the steam generators over the coming years — and better yet, bill the ratepayers for the delay — that’s exactly what they’ll do. (They’ve made that clear in a recent filing with the California Public Utilities Commission, who normally gives SCE all the money they say they need to operate the plant at a profit, including $5 billion dollars in rate increases earlier this month.)

So even with the NRC’s letter demanding so many things of SCE, and even with so many other problems, the battle is not over.  It’s only over when the plant is demolished and the waste removed, the land restored, and the licenses to operate have been revoked forever.  Only then is it over for the local residents — but someone will still have to mind the waste for thousands of generations.  The smaller the pile we leave them, the better.

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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