Economics for the Earth Blog

San Onofre reactor restart a reckless gamble with Southern Californians’ safety

Posted Oct. 4, 2012 / Posted by: Adam Russell

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- Southern California Edison’s plan to restart one of its crippled San Onofre reactors is a reckless gamble that flies in the face of the utility’s claim that it puts safety ahead of profits. Conclusive evidence shows that the severe problems at the site apply to both the reactor proposed for restart and the other which is to remain closed, according to nuclear watchdog Friends of the Earth. Edison’s controversial announcement comes days after an independent poll of the company's customers showed that a commanding majority oppose restart of the damaged reactors and consider safety, not profits, the absolute priority.

San Onofre’s twin reactors have been shut down since January after a leak of radioactivity led to the discovery of unprecedented damage to hundreds of tubes in the two aging reactor’s steam generators, after less than two years of operation of the expensive replacement equipment. Rather than repair or replace the damaged generators, Edison has proposed to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to restart reactor Unit 2 and run it at reduced power -- an unproven scheme that endangers the safety of the 8.5 million people who live within 50 miles of the plant.

Since the plant was shut down, a series of technical assessments commissioned by Friends of the Earth have shown that the causes of the severe damage at San Onofre are the same for both reactors and were caused by design errors introduced by Edison and rubber stamped by the NRC -- which failed to require the mandated license amendment process which would have involved a thorough probe, including public hearings, of Edison’s failed design alterations.

“Neither of the reactors at San Onofre are safe to operate,” said S. David freeman, former head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the federal Tennessee Valley Authority, and senior advisor to Friends of the Earth.  “While Edison may be under financial pressure to get one up and running, operating this badly damaged reactor at reduced power without fixing or replacing these leaky generators is like driving a car with worn-out brakes but promising to keep it under 50 miles an hour.“

Edison has conceded that reactor Unit 3 may never be restarted, but argues in its restart request that Unit 2 is less damaged and can be restarted safely. However, the restart plan also admits that there may be radiation leaks in Unit 2. Studies by nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen and a recent study by the Committee to Bridge the Gap have concluded that the numerous design flaws introduced by Edison are identical for the steam generators at both reactors, and that the accelerated wear in the new equipment is completely anomalous in US nuclear history -- granting to Edison’s San Onofre the dubious distinction of having the worst record of wear and damage in new steam generators.

“Restarting San Onofre without repairing the underlying problems first turns Southern California into a massive science experiment,” said nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, who has produced three independent technical reports, commissioned by Friends of the Earth, on the poorly designed and damaged steam generators. “Running at the reactor at a 30 percent reduction in power may not fix the problems but rather make them worse or shift the damage to another part of the generators. It’s a real gamble to restart either unit without undertaking repairs or replacing the damaged equipment” said Gundersen.

Edison’s restart request to the NRC comes just four days after a poll of Edison's customers in Southern California showed a strong majority oppose restart of the reactors at San Onofre. The poll, conducted by David Binder Research and commissioned by Friends of the Earth, registered the opinion of 700 registered voters in Edison’s Southern California service area. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they oppose restarting the plant. Only 32 percent said San Onofre should reopen. Customers surveyed all but unanimously said Edison should put safety first, but nearly half believe the utility puts profits before safety.

“Despite scaremongering by Edison about summer blackouts if they were not allowed to restart their damaged reactors, the public has seen that after months, the lights are still on but the reactors are down,” said Damon Moglen. “It is clear that there is no need to rush to restart these damaged reactors and certainly no justification to do so in an experimental way which endangers the lives and livelihoods of millions of Californians. A rush to restart without repairs or replacement is nothing less than a craven concession to profits over safety. No wonder the public does not trust Edison to make the right decision. Federal regulators and state authorities need to intervene.”

Contact:
Bill Walker, (510) 759-9911, bw.deadline@gmail.com

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