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The NRC - Edison's atomic lapdog

Posted Apr. 12, 2013 / Posted by: Kendra Ulrich

To say that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- charged with ensuring the safe operation of the nation’s aging, degraded nuclear fleet -- is a paper tiger would be far too kind. Rather than just de-fanged and flimsy, on Wednesday, they went rogue -- disregarding the demands of federal legislators and acting as a law unto themselves -- in order to remove a critical regulatory barrier for restarting an incredibly damaged nuclear reactor, San Onofre Unit 2.

Both San Onofre reactors -- which sit in a coastal seismic zone between San Diego and Los Angeles -- have been shut down for well over a year following a radiation leak from the Unit 3 reactor due to a failure of a steam generator tube in January, 2012. Inspections following the accident revealed unprecedented tube damage in the nearly brand new replacement steam generators of both San Onofre reactors -- critical equipment that provides an essential barrier to the release of radiation into surrounding areas.

After the discovery of the pervasive damage, the NRC launched an investigation into to cause of the tube wear. Edison supposedly conducted a “root cause analysis” and submitted an experimental restart proposal for reactor Unit 2 -- claiming that safety could be assured at reduced power -- 70 percent for five months. Its twin reactor with identical steam generators has been all but declared legally dead -- too damaged to even discuss restart.

Only a few pesky problems remained before Edison thought they’d get the NRC’s green light to fire up their damaged nuke -- namely that the root cause of the problems has not been found, their own experts disagree on the cause of the tube damage and the time left until another accident might occur, and that their risky restart proposal doesn’t comply with their current operating license.

In the wake of a controversy sparked by a secret report -- only made public by Congressional demand -- the NRC announced an expansive investigation of the San Onofre steam generator debacle and of Southern California Edison’s culpability. The public was shocked to learn that Edison knew about serious problems with the radically redesigned steam generators and chose not to fix those problems -- gambling that the problems wouldn’t cause too much of an issue in spite of significant concerns.

Edison is asking the NRC to allow them to do the same thing now -- take a risk on the safety of their proposal, without evidence to back it up, in the interest of Edison’s time and bottom line. NRC staff are still in the process of reviewing technical data that Edison claims will show they can restart safely -- based upon not only woefully inadequate assessments, but also unvetted and experimental research data.

In the midst of this, Edison announced that it would apply for a “voluntary” license amendment to try to sideline concerns that they are not in compliance with their license -- specifically a license term that requires them to demonstrate tube integrity over the full range of normal operating conditions -- including 100 percent power.

Tube integrity -- seems important when the loss of tube integrity is exactly what caused the radiation leak and emergency shut down of the Unit 3 over a year ago -- and is at the center of the controversial restart plan. However, instead of addressing the significant safety concerns raised by cranking up a reactor experiencing pervasive tube damage of unknown cause to any power level, Edison proposed a footnote license amendment that amounts to little more than wordsmithing -- it literally makes safety a footnote at the bottom of the page. Even more stunning, Edison also requested that the NRC issue a ‘no significant hazard consideration’ determination for their footnote amendment.

No significant hazard?

Let’s just be clear: Edison is asking to  amend a license term -- called a technical specification -- for tube integrity. And they are requesting this amendment for a reactor that is experiencing unexplained, pervasive tube damage. Worse, they are requesting this amendment for two years, when the only analyses they’ve submitted are for five months.

The no significant hazard consideration would effectively strip the public of any meaningful role in the process through an adjudicatory hearing – which could then take place after the amendment had been issued and would amount to a dog and pony show.

An outside onlooker might have taken heart when NRC Chairman, Allison Macfarlane, stated in January of this year that, "We aren't doing this as an experiment. We would want to make sure that the plant can operate safely, period.”

However, when the top brass for Edison met with representatives from Nuclear Reactor Regulation -- the branch of the NRC that handles licensing -- at NRC HQ a little over a week ago, Edison affirmed that their plan was to test their hypothesis that reduced power operation would improve the functioning of the steam generators  for five months and then shut it down and inspect them. However, even more shocking, they revealed that they planned to do so four or five times in the coming two years.

Now, isn’t forming a hypothesis, testing it, and then analyzing the results the very definition of an experiment?!

I’m all for scientific inquiry, but certainly not when it puts lives at risk -- and here we’re talking about the lives and livelihoods of 8.7 million people living within 50 miles of these damaged nuclear reactors in Southern California that would be unnecessarily and unacceptably jeopardized by Edison’s nuclear experiment.

One would think that any regulatory agency worth their name would want to have all the relevant information in hand before approving such a request. After all, the terms of the operating license are not simply words -- they are in place to ensure safety.

However, at last week’s meeting, the NRR showed themselves to be anything but a regulatory watchdog -- they were as docile and complacent as a bunch of sleepy puppies -- yapping lines about “just following the process” and that giving Edison a license to operate didn’t constitute allowing them to operate, so they didn’t actually need any technical justification or data to approve this amendment. And while these pups did quite an impressive job of jumping through Edison’s mental hoops in order to get to a place where they could reason away removing this license amendment request from the context of the significant  safety questions raised by Edison’s proposal, the NRR’s hand-licking and appeasement of those they are supposed be regulating is anything but cute. It represents a significant failure on the part of the NRC as a whole and puts public safety at unacceptable risk.

On Tuesday, Senator Boxer, Chair of the Senate NRC oversight committee -- Environment and Public Works -- and Congressman Markey, sent a letter to NRC Chairman Macfarlane that explicitly stated that all open investigations should be completed prior to any decisions -- preliminary or final -- regarding the restart, license amendment, and no hazard determination being made, and that issuing a no significant hazard consideration would put the public at risk. The NRC's response to that letter was due by COB Wednesday.

In a surprising and audacious move on Wednesday -- and rather than respond to the members of Congress -- the NRC sent out, without fanfare on their listserve, a 15 page document that announced that it was not only accepting a footnote license amendment application from Edison but also preliminarily accepting the no significant hazard consideration.

While I'd like to give the NRC the benefit of the doubt, it seems a bit odd that a 15 page document announcing acceptance of Edison's application and a finding of no significant hazard could be drafted, finalized, and signed mere days after the application was received -- having only just been filed on Friday, April 5th -- if the regulators had actually conducted a thorough review of all relevant safety issues. This smacks of nothing more than a quick glance and a fast rubber stamp.

Now there comes a time when -- no matter how apparently sweet the puppy -- they decide they just don’t have to listen: they chew apart the couch, maybe tear through the garbage, and just generally make a mess of things.

The NRC has certainly decided to run amuck. The complete disregard and disrespect for the California State Senator and Chair of their oversight committee, Barbara Boxer, is rather recklessly bold. They could not be bothered to even acknowledge her letter -- co-signed by Congressman Markey -- with a response before doing exactly the opposite of what she had requested.

If the NRC isn’t going to even pretend to be a watchdog for the people, or protect public health and safety, then they at least need to be brought to heel before their rash decisions open the gate for their friends at Edison to crank up an incredibly damaged nuke and potentially trash Southern California.

In a statement issued in the hours following the NRC’s announcement, Senator Boxer said, “The NRC staff proposal, which could pave the way for the restart of the San Onofre nuclear power plant before the investigations of the crippled plant are completed, is dangerous and premature. It makes absolutely no sense to even consider taking any steps to reopen San Onofre until these investigations look at every aspect of reopening the plant given the failure of the tubes that carry radioactive water. In addition, the damaged plant is located in an area at risk of earthquake and tsunami. With eight million people living within 50 miles of this plant, the staff proposal is beyond irresponsible.”

We, at Friends of the Earth, could not agree more and applaud both Senator Boxer and Congressman Markey for their leadership. In spite of what the NRC believes, or how much they want to appease and sit pretty for those they are supposed to regulate, they are not a law unto themselves. They must answer to Congress.

For our part, we are currently engaged in two open proceedings before the Petitions Review Board and the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board and are committed to ensuring that Edison's proposed nuclear experiment with Southern California is stopped.

Photo credit: Creative Commons, Mlhavý, via Flickr.com

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