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Looking past the smoke and mirrors

Posted Jul. 24, 2012 / Posted by: Kendra Ulrich

Exposing the truth behind the San Onofre AIT report

On July 18, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Augmented Inspection Team released its final report regarding the newly replaced, crippled steam generators in the San Onofre nuclear reactors. Both reactors at this Southern California Edison run nuclear plant -- located between San Diego and Los Angeles -- have been offline for nearly six months, following a tube failure in one of Unit 3’s steam generators and the release of radiation beyond the protective containment building.

The Augmented Inspection Team was charged with uncovering the extent and causes for the rapid degradation of the new equipment. One of the key questions the AIT evaluated was whether Edison had been in compliance with NRC regulations when it presented the significantly altered steam generators as “like-for-like” replacements.

The AIT report corroborated the independent expert reports commissioned by Friends of the Earth from Fairewinds Associates in that last four months. In addition to grossly inaccurate computer modelling used to test the replacement equipment design, Edison’s significant design changes -- including removing critical stabilizing features and cramming in almost 400 more tubes -- created excessive vibration which resulted in the tube collisions that led to unprecedented, rapid degradation.

The surprising announcement contained in the AIT press release and executive summary was that the AIT concluded that Edison had complied with NRC regulations when it proposed its replacements under NRC 50.59 guidelines.

This assertion is patently false and is unsupported not only by the report itself, but also by Elmo Collins, the NRC Region IV administrator who oversaw the AIT. In a cover letter to the AIT report, Collins stated, “It is not the responsibility of an AIT to determine compliance with the NRC rules and regulations or to recommend enforcement actions . . . This will be done through subsequent NRC inspection or review.”

It may seem contradictory that the NRC staff who prepared the AIT report and accompanying documents would make such a misleading statement knowing that the report itself does not support it. However, creating such an impression serves the interests of both Edison and the NRC staff.

In 2006, when the replacement steam generators were initially proposed, the NRC failed to recognize the extent of the modifications and require Edison to submit their drastically altered steam generator design to the scrutiny of the requisite license amendment process. Stating that Edison did not comply would be to admit their own regulatory oversight failure -- a failure that put millions of people at risk.

More than a month ago, Friends of the Earth filed a petition with the NRC requesting that Edison be required to obtain a license amendment with a full public hearing for their steam generators before either reactor is allowed to restart. Had this process, which is mandatory for such significant design changes, been followed when the steam generators were initially proposed, it is highly unlikely that the defective design would have ever been approved. It was both Edison’s malfeasance and the NRC’s lax oversight that allowed for this costly and dangerous debacle to occur.

In order to uncover the truth, Friends of the Earth has filed today a Freedom of Information Act request for all communications between the NRC and Edison about the faulty replacement steam generators.

The information garnered from the FOIA request will be essential for holding Edison accountable for misleading the NRC and the NRC accountable their significant mistakes. It will help to ensure that Edison submits their steam generator design to the extensive, critical safety review and adjudicatory public hearing required by the correct license amendment process. This is of paramount importance for ensuring that these reactors are not allowed to restart before the problems are fully rectified.

The bottom line is that the defective steam generators in both San Onofre nuclear reactors pose a serious threat to the nearly 8 million people who live within 50 miles of the coastal site. Thousands of tubes in these steam generators are showing wear. A single tube rupture could create a domino-like, cascading accident and the release of massive amounts of radiation into surrounding communities.

According to the AIT report, there was a real possibility that this kind of catastrophic accident could have been the first indication of a problem. The fact that the severe wear in the steam generator tubes manifested in a leak and not a rupture amounts to winning -- if a radioactive leak can be called winning -- an extremely dangerous gamble.  Restarting either reactor with this severely damaged equipment installed would be betting again on a fixed game with potentially devastating losses.

Friends of the Earth is committed to ensuring that citizens are dealt a fair hand and that their safety is not in the gambling chips. We will continue to fight to keep the San Onofre reactors offline unless and until the safety of the public can be guaranteed.

Read Friends of the Earth's analysis of the AIT report

Smoke and mirrors (Report)

Analysis of the NRC's Augmented Inspection Team report on the San Onofre Crisis

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