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San Onofre: Anatomy of a Nuclear Shutdown

by Michael Steinberg
How the recent shudown of the San Onofre nuclear power plant happened, and why.
Shock waves shot across Southern California on June 7, 2013, from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. They didn’t originate at earthquake faults adjacent to this nuclear plant, located above the Pacific Ocean. Rather, they emanated from the facility’s primary owner and operator, Southern California Edison.

The heavyweight utility announced that it was throwing in the towel, giving up its fight to restart San Onofre, and instead permanently shutting it down. This sent strong social and political tremors across California and the nation. It was a heavy body blow to the already beleaguered US nuclear industry, making its future appear even bleaker.

Actually the nuke plant’s two operating reactors had already been shut down since January 2012. Edison’s decision to give up the ghost can be traced to its pattern of extreme mismanagement of plant operations, consequent huge financial losses, and the tenacious opposition that rallied local communities to take action to keep the unsafe plant shut down.
San Onofre is the largest nuclear power plant to be shut down in the US. One reactor was retired in 1992. The other two, just cut loose, formerly generated 2200 Megawatts of electricity to 1.5 million households. Located between San Diego and Los Angeles, the plant supplied power to 1.5 million households. 8.7 million people live within 50 miles of it.
The two reactors at San Onofre had been scheduled to operate until 2022.

In the Shadow of Fukushima

The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima in 2011 created heightened awareness of the possibility of similar problems at US nuclear plants. On the US West Coast, California’s Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nukes, like Fukushima, were operating aging reactors on coastlines subject to earthquakes and tsunamis.
Radioactive clouds from Fukushima reached the West Coast within a week of its meltdowns, and hot stuff came down in rains before continuing across North America.
Subsequent studies by the Radiation and Public Health Project ( indicated at spike in mortality nationally after the radioactive clouds passed, most acutely in infant deaths.
The effects of a nuclear meltdown were no long theoretical. It had happened here.
Long before Fukushima, San Onofre had already been having its own problems.
Reactor Unit 1, started up in 1968, had to be shut down in 1992 after problems with equipment that came back to haunt Edison with a vengeance in recent years at its other reactors.
In 2006 workers found radioactive water under Unit 1 that was 16 times more radioactive than EPA permitted levels for its presence in drinking water. And this was 14 years after that reactor had been shut down.
In August 2008 the Los Angeles Times reported “Injury rates at San Onofre put it dead last among US nuclear plants when it comes to industrial safety.”
Later that year it emerged that a battery system, key to providing backup power to pump water to flood Unit 2’s reactor in case of a potential meltdown “was inoperable between 2004 and 2008 because of loose electrical connection,” the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported.
And also in 2008, the Radiation and Public Health Projec reported, in the European Journal of Cancer Care, that the counties nearest San Onofre, had the highest child leukemia mortality rates, of counties near nuclear power plants studied for the years 1974-2004.

Shut Down

All this led to 2009 and 2010, when Edison found it necessary to replace the four massive steam generators in San Onofre’s units 2 and 3. The original steam generators lasted over a quarter century, though they were supposed to last for the life of the reactors, 40 years.
Steam generators facilitate the creation of steam to turn turbines to generate electricity,in the type of nuclear plants most common in the US. Water pipes run through reactors and are heated by nuclear fuel. But this water also picks up lots of radioactivity. The steam generators have tubes that pass on the heat to another set up pipes that make the steam, while not passing on the radioactivity, which otherwise would escape into the environment and contaminate it. Thus the steam generators are key to keeping these nuclear plants running safely.
Edison reportedly spent $680 million on the replacement steam generators. Since the plant was not originally designed to need replacements, the utility had to cut huge holes in buildings to get them inside.
And then they turned to junk in just a few years.
In a March 2012 report , Arne Grundersen, of Vermont’s Fairewind’s Associates, a former nuclear industry engineer, described the decisive moments when San Onofre’s shut down began in January 2012:
“Unit 3 was operating at full power and experienced a complete perforation of one [steam generator] tube that allowed highly radioactive water from inside the reactor to mix with non-radioactive water that was turning the turbine. As a consequence, an uncontrolled release of radiation ensued, andSan Onofre was forced to shut down due to steam generator failure.”
Subsequent investigation in both Unit 2 and 3’s steam generators revealed that over 3000 tubes in both units were showing signs of premature wear. In July 2012 the Los Angeles Times put the number of deteriorated tubes at 3401.
Neither Edison nor the NRC could pinpoint the cause of the tubes rapid degradation. Yet Edison continued to press for early restart, and the NRC wasn’t automatically denying the utility that opportunity.
But each of the utility’s projected dates for restart was pushed back.
As the total shutdown at San Onofre dragged on through the spring and summer of 2012, Edison’s finances began hemorrhaging badly. It had to spend millions on work at the nuclear plant, and millions more to buy replacement power for its customers. And even though Edison’s ratepayers weren’t getting anything but bills from San Onofre, the utility kept on charging them for the plant’s ever increasing costs.
During all this time, there were no brown outs or black outs in Southern California. People were starting to realize they could get along just fine without San Onofre operating.
Information began to surface as to possible causes of the steam generator debacle. There had bee design changes in the replacement steam generators by Edison’s contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. These had caused vibrations inside the new steam generators, which in turn resulted in decades-early wear and tear on the tubes.
The Associated Press reported on July 19, 2012, that Edison admitted the replacement steam generators “each weighed 24 tons more than the original ones” and added 400 tubes to each one.
Edison was supposed to have notified the NRC of changes in the design of the replacement steam generators. But it didn’t, because that would have necessitated more scrutiny from the NRC, and cost the utility more time and money.
That issue went viral in early February 2013, when Senator Barbara Boxer of California and House Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts went public with a letter to NRC Chief Alison Macfarlane. The letter read, in part:
“Southern California Edison, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries were aware of a series of problems with the design of San Onofre nuclear plant’s replacement steam generators before they were installed. Further, SCE and MHI rejected enhanced safety modification and avoided triggering a more rigorous license amendment and safety review process.”
Boxer and Markey cited a 2012 MHI report as their source of this information, but refused to make the report available to the public.

Just Saying No To Nukes

As Edison continued to push for restart at San Onofre while revelations of its duplicity continued to surface, people started to mobilize and take action to keep themselves safe. Opponents of restart, disturbed by the utility’s reckless plans, organized with community organizations such as San Clemente Green in Orange County, home of Disneyland.
They marched on the nuclear plant to express their displeasure with Edison’s disregard for their safety in its mismanagement there. They turned out in force and spoke out en mass to voice their concerns about Edison putting “profit before people” in its response to the crisis at San Onofre.
They went to local school boards and other municipal bodies, persuading them to ask the NRC to delay giving Edison permission to restart San Onofree until it could guarantee its safe operation.
Perhaps most notably in this respect, the Los Angeles City Council voted 11-0 in late April to make such a request.
That action came not long after Edison proposed restarting Unit 2 in June, at 70% power. This “experimental” startup would have lasted two years, during which time the reactor would likely have shut down a number of times.
In response to that move, the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which had been actively opposing the utility’s unprincipled actions, issued a report in which it asserted that if the NRC granted Edison’s request, ”the unrepaired tubes will vibrate, suffer further wear and potentially burst in 6-13 months.”
Also in the report, the group quoted “renowned nuclear engineer John Lodge, “ who stated ”Edison has yet to provide convincing evidence that it knows the full reasons or root cause of the severe damage to its steam generators. The problems remain unresolved and unrepaired.”
Subsequently the NRC granted Friends of the Earth’s request for the “more vigorous license amendment and safety review process Boxer and Markey had referred to, exactly what Edison had been trying to evade all along.
And so, as it turned out, June brought forth, instead of the restart Edison so desperately wanted, San Onofre’s complete and irrevocable shutdown.

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