Taking a close look at SONGS

NRC Chairman Jaczko (l), NRC inspector Greg Warnock and Southern California Edison Chief Nuclear Officer Pete Dietrich talk about the steam generator issues at the San Onofre (Calif.) nuclear power plant. Photo by Lynn Sakamoto of Southern California Edison

Friday, April 6th, was a long day. Very long. We trouped out of the hotel about 6:45 a.m. and set off for the start of 12 hours of nonstop nuclear issues.

First stop: the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS to the residents of Southern California. The plant has two reactors, Units 2 and 3 (Unit 1 was closed and taken down years ago). Units 2 and 3 are having trouble with new steam generators – in essence huge radiators to transfer heat from radioactive water from the reactors to clean water that becomes steam and drives the turbines and generators.

Some wear was found on Unit 2’s steam generators when that unit went off line in January. Then more pronounced wear forced Unit 3 to shut down when a small leak developed that let a little radioactive water over to the clean water side. Although the leak did not pose a threat to plant workers or the surrounding communities, and was less than the NRC requirement for shutdown, plant officials shut the plant down anyway.

The NRC, plant officials and residents were concerned. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko concluded this issue was sufficiently serious to warrant a whirlwind trip to talk with plant executives, employees, local citizen groups, elected officials, California state power officials (with summer approaching supply is an issue), and the news media.

The SONGS stop was in conjunction with Senator Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose district encompasses the plant. They participated variously in the tour and briefings by plant executives. Jaczko and Issa went into the normally sealed containment dome of one of the reactors to see the massive steam generators.

The day also included a press conference with a dozen cameras and about 20 reporters, with another 50 reporters and interested parties listening in on a conference call the NRC arranged. That was followed by four back-to-back meetings with local officials and residents concerned about the plant.

At each venue Jaczko’s message was the same: First, the plant has to find the cause of the wear in Unit 3. Then it must see if there is anything that would call into question the integrity of the devices in Unit 2. And only then can anyone think of even temporarily restarting Unit 2. There is no timeline. Safety trumps anything else, and to the maximum extent possible information on the steam generator problem will be public, with ample opportunity for residents to hear what is going on. He also described Southern California Edison’s approach to the problem as conservative and “the right thing to do.”

Members of one of the larger groups of individuals to meet with Jaczko – opposed to continued operation of the plant — detailed their concerns.

“We’re entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that the licensee does the right thing. We have the same interests at heart that you do,” he told them.

Eliot Brenner
Director, Office of Public Affairs
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