Worst Week Since Fukushima: 4 Major Setbacks in 3 Days are Latest Stumbles for U.S. Nuclear Power Industry

Statement by 
Daniel Hirsch 

Rather than the nuclear revival hoped for by the industry, the gearshift has been thrown hard in reverse.  Instead of a proliferation of new plants, existing reactors are getting shut down long before their licenses expire.  And this is due largely to short-sighted safety shortcuts by the industry and its compliant regulators.  They have been their own worst enemies.

The poster child for this revival-in-reverse is San Onofre, located between Los Angeles and San Diego, with 8.5 million people living within 50 miles.  Last week, Southern California Edison announced it could permanently close both units if the NRC didn’t soon grant its request to allow restart of the crippled Unit 2 without a prior hearing to determine if it is would be safe to do so.  Ironically, it was precisely the same effort to bypass full safety review that led to the failure of the steam generators in the first place.

San Onofre’s original steam generators were supposed to last 40 years, but failed in about 25.  Edison decided to replace them with a substantially different design, but, in order to avoid triggering NRC safety review and the prospect of an adjudicatory hearing, it told NRC that they were a “like for like” replacement and should be permitted to bypass that review.  NRC, as usual, acquiesced.

In less than a year, the steam generators in Unit 3 failed, with a tube bursting, releasing radioactivity and triggering a shutdown.  It was then discovered that hundreds of tubes in both Unit 2 and 3 had become damaged.  Although Edison has claimed that Unit 2 is less bad off than Unit 3 our research has shown that the damage is pretty comparable—1600 damaged tubes in Unit 2 and 1800 in Unit 3.  That is 400 times the norm for new steam generators nationally.  More tubes have had to be plugged at San Onofre than in all new steam generators in the country combined.

Edison recognizes that the steam generators need to be repaired or replaced, but that would be very expensive and take many years.  So it has proposed restarting Unit 2 at 70% power for 5 months – and hope for the best.  Its own analyses show that even at 70% power the reactor can’t run for more than 16 months without an unacceptable risk of tube burst.  But it wants to start up anyway, and limp along.

To do that, it must repeat the mistake that caused the problem in the first place – avoid a full hearing as to whether what it proposes is safe.  So it has asked the NRC to give it a license amendment now, and hold any safety hearing after the fact.  That is like the Old West judge saying, “Hang ‘em now; we’ll give ‘em a fair trial later.”  It is clear that Edison is not confident that its restart proposal can withstand scrutiny.  Rather than come up with a safe plan forward, it is trying to bypass that needed hearing.

Edison seems incapable of learning from experience.  The effort to bypass a safety hearing is what led to the billion dollar failure of the new steam generators in the first place.  NRC says it believes the problem would have been caught in the design stage if Edison hadn’t bypassed a full license amendment process then.  But Edison is desperately hoping to avoid a safety hearing again, this time for the far more consequential proposal of running a damaged reactor with a 1000 times the long-lived radioactivity of the Hiroshima bomb without repairing it.

Edison now says it will close both units if the NRC doesn’t quickly acquiesce to this repeat bypass of safety review and allow Unit 2 to start up at 70% power for 5 months.  There are many obstacles to this occurring.  But even if Edison were to get its way, which is by no means clear, the steam generator tubes may not cooperate.  Edison’s own analysis says Unit 2 can’t operate for much more than a year even at 70% before getting into the danger zone.  And even could it operate longer, at best they would have a 2 unit plant running at 35% of its overall power, with costs close to that of running both units at full power.  San Onofre is not long for this world.  And that is a significant signal for the nuclear industry as a whole.

Download a pdf of Mr. Hirsch’s statement here.

Read CBG’s joint press release here.

Streaming audio is available here.