02.13.12

Latest Accident at San Onofre Nuclear Plant Worries Activists, Residents

The coastal San Onofre facility’s latest incident has renewed worries about the safety of the plant. A year after Fukushima, is the U.S. ignoring lingering threats here at home? Jamie Reno reports.

The anti-nuclear power movement in the United States peaked in 1979, with widespread protests, the “No Nukes” concert in New York City, and the release of The China Syndrome, the gripping film about a near-meltdown at a fictional California facility that foreshadowed a real-life accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania just weeks after the movie’s premiere.

Since then, no new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S., no major accidents have occurred, and anti-nuke sentiment had become largely dormant.

But that all changed when last year’s devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan.

“Fukushima woke people up, it made Americans and the entire world realize all over again the real dangers of nuclear power,” said Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nonprofit nuclear policy organization founded in 1970. “And now we have an incident in our own backyard.”

The incident to which Hirsch refers happened Jan. 31, when a warning sensor detected a small leak in a recently installed steam-generator tube at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which is on the beach 45 miles north of San Diego, near one of Southern California’s most popular surfing spots.

The leak resulted in the release of a small amount of radioactive gas into the atmosphere, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the plant has been shut down ever since as investigators try to determine what happened.

While no one is comparing this small leak to the devastation at Fukushima, Hirsch, the former director of the Adlai Stevenson Program on Nuclear Policy, University of California, Santa Cruz, says it has only “increased the skepticism” about the safety of nuclear power among Californians.

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The riskiest nuclear plants. Credit: Getty Images

Most important, Hirsch suggests, the leak illustrates that “what happened in Japan absolutely could happen here. No question about it.”

Officials at the NRC, as well as Southern California Edison, which operates San Onofre and is a majority owner, insist that the public was never in danger and the power plant is safe.

“There was a small radiation leak as the result of a water leak in Unit 3 at the plant, but there was no threat to the public or to our workers,” said Jennifer Manfre, a spokeswoman for Edison. “I do not have the [radiation] level of the leak at this time, I don’t have those numbers, but we’re doing a full investigation and a full report will come. We obviously want to be very accurate, and this takes time.”

Manfre said that despite public concerns, there is no danger to the public at San Onofre, which began operating in 1968, in the event of an earthquake or tsunami. “The NRC requires every plant to be designed to withstand an earthquake, and they require every plant to be designed to withstand what is called the maximum credible scenario for the location of each plant,” she said. “For San Onofre, that maximum credible scenario is .67 gs. Of course, gs refers to the force of gravity. This is how seismic safety is done, by the force of gravity, not from Richter-scale measurements. The physics behind it is more accurate.”

Manfre added, “We understand the public’s interest in this, and we want the public to know that this plant is safe and that we are also committed to learning from Fukushima and incorporating that into our program. We are constantly learning, evaluating and incorporating.”

While Manfre would not translate the .67 gs into Richter-scale numbers, last year, another spokesman for Edison told the Los Angeles Times that San Onofre was designed to withstand a 7.0 earthquake, which is greater than the 6.5 quake scientists predicted could happen near San Onofre before it was built four decades ago, but of course far less than the 8.9 quake that struck Japan last year.

Several sources strongly disagree with Edison's assertions that San Onofre is safe.

“San Onofre is definitely not safe,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, director of clean-energy programs for the advocacy group Environment California. “A large earthquake fault complex near the plant and new faults discovered after the plant opened are capable of an earthquake much larger than what the reactor was designed to withstand.”

In addition to the radiation leak, a large number of recently installed steam-generator tubes at the plant, which function like an automobile radiator and carry pressurized radioactive water, were discovered to be damaged in the plant’s other operating unit, which had recently been shut down for maintenance.

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San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in north San Diego County on Mar. 15, 2011. (Mrk Ralston, AFP / Getty Images)

So far, no one seems to know why there is such severe damage to these metal tubes, which were manufactured by Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Normally, the water heated by the two operating units at San Onofre circulates through thousands of these tubes, which are immersed in water inside the steam generators. Heat from the water inside the tubes turns the water in the generators to steam. But during the leak, some of the water from the reactor might have escaped into a steam generator, causing a small release into the air when it turned to gas.

NRC spokesman Victor Dricks told The Daily Beast that the preliminary investigation has found two tubes that are so degraded they have to be replaced entirely, 69 tubes that have thinning in excess of 20 percent, and more than 800 that have thinning greater than 10 percent. “We are trying to determine why this has occurred,” said Dricks, “and that will take time.”

Dricks said the only other U.S. nuclear plant that uses tubes manufactured by Mitsubishi is the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska, where a fire last year briefly knocked out the cooling process for spent nuclear fuel rods. But, Dricks insisted, “while damage so soon to these tubes is unusual, it is not unprecedented. It has happened at other plants. The St. Lucie plant in Florida, for example. In that case it was caused by rubbing between the tubes and other support structure.”

Asked if it’s possible that other damaged tubes at San Onofre could lead to more radiation leakage, Dricks said, “I can’t speculate on that.”

Asked if what happened in Japan could happen here, Dricks said flatly, “No.”

San Onofre has been plagued by safety issues for years. On Feb. 10, the NRC concluded as part of a separate investigation that failure by workers to recognize and repair degraded equipment led to an ammonia leak that caused an emergency alert at the plant in November. First reported by Associated Press, the NRC found San Onofre workers “failed to adequately identify, evaluate, and correct a problem” in a water-purification system, which led to the ammonia leak.

Since 2007, the NRC has inspected the plant repeatedly for issues ranging from alleged falsification of paperwork to a loose battery connection that made some safety systems inoperable for four years.

Hirsch noted that a few years ago it was discovered that hourly fire watches at the power plant, which would prevent any fire from burning for more than an hour, were “not being done at all, and instead employees fabricated the fire-watch log, for five years. This kind of thing absolutely shakes me. The safety culture there is tolerated, and all Edison did was promise sensitivity training, stressing the importance of following safety regulations. There was no fine, no penalty at all.”

Low morale and a lack of trust between management and some employees has been a problem at the plant. This was pointed out in an email sent last year by James Chambers, a longtime San Onofre employee, to the California Energy Commission (PDF).

The NRC acknowledges the problems at San Onofre. “There was an issue involving a willful violation in which a worker falsified some fire patrol records for five years,” said Dricks. “Since then, we’ve identified deficiencies in the safety culture, and the licensee [Edison] has gone to great lengths to beef up the training in that area. There is no reason to think what happened [the radiation leak] is connected. The overall safety performance at the plant has shown great improvement.”

But the ammonia leak in November, and now the radiation leak and deteriorating tubes, might lead some to conclude otherwise. Edison, which has been criticized in the past for not being forthcoming with the public regarding the plant’s safety problems, still seems to have some difficulty with public relations.

Shortly after the incident, Edison issued a statement saying, “There has been no release [of radiation] to the atmosphere.”

The following morning, however, Dricks announced that a small amount of radioactive gas did escape from a building that houses auxiliary equipment and that hundreds of tubes were damaged. That number could climb much higher as investigators continue to inspect the plant to find the source of the water leak.

Ironically, on Feb. 9, amid all the controversy over the San Onofre leak, the NRC voted 4-1 to approve the nation’s first nuclear-reactor construction permits since 1978. The decision will give Atlanta-based Southern Co. the green light to construct and operate two reactors at its Vogtle power plant southeast of Augusta, Ga. The company hopes to bring the reactors online in 2016 and 2017.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, the dissenting voter, expressed serious concerns about post-Fukushima safety enhancements for nuclear plants that the commission has yet to finalize. President Obama, who’s voiced his support for the expansion of nuclear power as a way to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, has reportedly offered the Vogtle nuclear project $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees.

But in Southern California, some residents are apparently ready to pull out their tattered old “No Nukes” shirts. On Feb. 7, several residents in San Clemente, a largely conservative coastal community just a few miles north of the nuclear plant, asked the City Council to set up independent radiation-monitoring stations around the city and requested a study to determine cancer risks.

Further south in San Diego, Christine Miller, a real-estate broker who has no history of activism and never gave nuclear power much thought, says the Fukushima tragedy “opened my eyes, and the leak at San Onofre has only made me more resolute in my decision to become an anti-nuke activist. A lot of people I know are scared. This plant has a terrible safety record. Who knows what they haven’t told us?”

Ironically, on Feb. 9, amid all the controversy over the San Onofre leak, the NRC voted 4-1 to approve the nation’s first nuclear-reactor construction permits since 1978.

In a Feb. 8 letter to the NRC’s Jaczko, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) called on the commission to “comprehensively review the safety” of the San Onofre plant. In the letter, Boxer cited the leak, as well as the unexpected wear and thinning of the steam-generator tubes.

Del Chiaro said there hasn’t been this much anti-nuclear buzz in California in years.

“Since the late ’70s, Americans kind of got lulled to sleep,” she said. “The nuclear industry repackaged itself as green and has attempted a renaissance. But polls show that Fukushima shifted the needle against nuclear power significantly in California, and now the San Onofre incident has hit home. I suspect that on the anniversary of Fukushima next month, a lot of Californians will be talking not only about Japan, but about whether we want a future with nuclear power here.”