Ten Miles Square


July 23, 2012 8:54 AM San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station to Remain Shuttered

By Tina Gerhardt

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued its final report investigating two units at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a nuclear power plant located on the Pacific coast of California, which have been shut down since January 2012 after a worker noticed a leak.

The findings of the NRC’s Augmented Inspection Team (AIT) state that “unless changes are made to the operation or configuration of the steam generators … excessive tube wear and accelerated wear [will continue].”

San Onofre is a pressurized water reactor. (The other type of reactor is a boiling water reactor.) The basic principle of how it works is simple: nuclear energy produces steam, the steam drives a turbine, the turbine powers a generator, the generator produces elecriticity.

The tubes under discussion conduct water through the generator to the turbine. They transfer heat and also act as a radiation barrier, keeping hot radioactive water on one side and hot non-radioactive steam on the other side. If they are not repaired, the plant runs the risk of further future leaks.

These findings confirm Friends of the Earth (FoE)’s report released last week, outlining that San Onofre’s steam generators are in worse shape than all comparable generators nation-wide.

Additionally, the FoE report argues that Edison installed the tubes without applying for a design change, as required by NRC regulations for parts that are not a “like for like” replacement.

In 2010 and 2011, Southern California Edison installed two new steam generators. NRC regulations stipulate that if parts are not “like for like” replacements, a more stringent design change review be conducted. Typically, the process requires an NRC review, a license amendment and a public hearing. This did not happen. As the FoE report argues, Edison installed the tubes without applying for a design change.

NRC’s report, by contrast, states “Southern California Edison provided the NRC with all the information required under existing regulations about proposed design changes to its steam generators prior to replacing them in 2010 and 2011.”

According to Arnie Gunderson of Fairewinds Associates and author of the FoE report, “The plant is outside of its design basis. Every power plant has a design. When you make major changes, there is a procedure. They are playing games with licensing. Southern California Edison should have said that they are making major changes.”

According to the FoE, the NRC was asleep at the wheel in not registering the fact that San Onofre did not make “like for like” exchanges, which led to the leak and the FoE to file a petition for an investigation, resulting in last week’s report. In their estimation, NRC oversight is lacking.

Edison argues that tubes in one unit suffered less degradation than in the other. The NRC report supports this statement.

Arnie Gundersen said “there is no difference between Unit 3 and Unit 2. Both reactors need major repairs.”

The FoE report recommends that both reactors should remain closed. According to Damon Moglen, Director of FoE’s Climate and Energy Program, “the damage and problems at these two generators are astronomical and off the charts.”

The NRC report also identifies 10 issues requiring follow-up and states that “the plant will not be permitted to restart until the licensee has developed a plan to prevent further steam generator tube degradation and the NRC independently verifies that it can be operated safely.”

The NRC intends to schedule a meeting to receive and respond to public questions.

Aside from the immediate concerns about the safety of the new steam generators and tubes, several other factors make the nuclear power plant dangerous.

The San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant rests on the Pacific Coast 60 miles south of Los Angeles and 45 miles north of San Diego, the second and eighth largest cities in the U.S. respectively. The nuclear power plant is within 50 miles of 8.5 million people.

Numerous nuclear power plants throughout the U.S. are located close to cities: Indian Point is 24 miles north of New York City; Pilgrim is 38 miles southeast of Boston; and Turkey Point is 20 miles south of Miami.

Last summer, an Associated Press investigation found that populations around nuclear power plants have grown four-fold since 1980, while safety planning is not keeping pace with this urban sprawl. According to the AP, the “evacuation zones have remained frozen at a 10 mile-radius from each plant since they were set in 1978.”

The San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant is also located on the Pacific Plate of the active San Andreas Faultline. A report conducted by the California Energy Commission in 2008 to assess the risk of damage to nuclear power plants due to seismic activity found that it was much higher than previously thought. In April, Southern California Edison announced that it would conduct a study of offshore faultlines near the plant together with Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Other nuclear power plants, too, are located in earthquake, tornado or hurricane-prone zones. For example, the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York; and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, 100 miles north of Santa Barbara rest on fault-lines or active plates.

Moglen underscores that “the seismic risk is also a problem for the massive amounts of nuclear waste sitting at San Onofre in absolutely unsafe conditions.” According to Moglen, the amount of waste stored at San Onofre is higher than at most other nuclear power plants in the United States.

Additionally, in 2010, the California State Water Resources Control Board adopted a policy on the Use of Coastal Waters for Power Plant Cooling, which stipulates that coastal power plants must reduce the use of “once through cooling”, drawing water in for cooling and flushing it out, since drawing water in harms marine life and the consequences of pumping hot water and chemical components out on sea water, marine life and the public have not been established.

Shifting to a new water source would require the construction of a cooling tower. But San Onofre is flanked by the Pacific Ocean on the west and California Interstate Highway 5 on the east. So it remains unclear where this tower would be built.

According to a feasibility study conducted in 2009 for Edison by Enercon “no nuclear stations designed solely for once-through cooling have been converted to closed-loop cooling; any closed loop conversion design would be unprecedented and would present inherent uncertainties.”

Moreover, the report said “Retrofitting SONGS [San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station] with a closed-loop cooling system would be challenged with insuperable permitting obstacles, unparalleled - ‘one of a kind’ - engineering challenges, adverse environmental impacts likely greater than those imposed by once-through cooling and initial costs exceeding $3 billion.”

Furthermore, the San Onofre plants, commissioned in 1983 and 1984, are both due to expire in 2022. “Given the costs of repairs to ensure safety compliance after January’s leaks, the need for seismic upgrades, the cost of license renewals, which will undoubtedly total billions of dollars,” Moglen asks “what is the overall efficacy of continuing to use San Onofre, particularly given that cheaper and renewable energy alternatives, such as wind and solar, abound in Southern California?”

Currently, no one is arguing that it is time to open San Onofre again. It is dangerous and all the reports - NRC and FoE - say so. And if Los Angeles and San Diego area residents have been able to meet energy needs during the heat of summer, one of the hottest on record, without the nuclear power plants running, it might not be needed.

The California’s Public Utilities Commission is weighing whether to order Southern California Edison to shut San Onofre down , given the financial and environmental costs associated with getting it to safe standards and running again.

On March 11, 2012 over 200 people rallied in San Onofre to encourage authorities to keep the power plant closed.

Back to Home page

Tina Gerhardt is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, The Nation and The Progressive.


  • Crissa on July 23, 2012 6:03 PM:

    Didn't we have a movie in the 80s that posited this exact situation, but resulted in a release of radioactivity from muzzling the whistleblower?

    The California rule also limits heat released into the ocean, but I think it might be easier to put a system in place of heat exchangers out at sea, but that would be billions of dollars to install.

    The energy source that nuclear provides is completely different than wind or solar - it is baseline, constant over large time whereas wind and solar are cyclical and inconsistent supply, giving power over shorter periods. They're two power sources which don't really mix and don't complement each other, although we always need some baseline load.

  • SB on July 25, 2012 11:16 AM:

    En route from southern California back to home in the Bay Area, I just drove by San Onofre. Wedged between a heavily trafficked interstate corridor and the ocean, it's an ominous sight for traveler or resident.

  • CaptD on September 08, 2012 12:24 PM:

    JUST $54 million a month -- that's how much Southern California Edison is $TILL recouping from customers for the two new generators at the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant which, in 2011, that were found to be leaking radioactive steam and were shut down; yet we are still PAYING $54 MILLION EVERY MONTH....

    And now, it will cost millions more to repair the generators and restart the plant. That cost could also be passed on to customers if Southern California Edison has its way. Altogether, the failed generators and repairs will cost customers over a billion dollars. These generators are the worst in the nation, so we'll be spending good money after bad. See chart: http://sanonofresafety.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/steamgeneratortubesplugged1.pdf

    Over 44,000 people have already signed a petition to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shut down San Onofre for good. Now we need to take the fight straight to Governor Jerry Brown, who is sensitive to how the costs of this plant will be passed on to consumers and can pressure the California Public Utilities Commission to shut down the plant so that customers aren't funding more failed overhauls. He may be our best shot to have this plant shut down so the time to reach out to him is now.

    Tell Governor Jerry Brown: Save taxpayers from this billion-dollar boondoggle -- shut down San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station permanently.


  • CaptD on September 08, 2012 12:25 PM:

    Must read article: The Nuclear Mafia Derails Democracy in Japan

    Is it happening in the USA and other Countries because of Nuclear Payback*?

    * http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Nuclear+payback

    Those that support nuclear power because nuclear power somehow supports them; no matter what the health implications or other “costs” are for others.

  • CaptD on September 08, 2012 12:27 PM:

    Why is Washington DC pushing Nuclear considering the Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster RISK?

    Exelon, “Obama’s Utility” Has Amazing Influence in the White House- Energy the “Chicago Way” http://www.againstcronycapitalism.org/?p=8145

    How many of our elected Leaders OWE favors to the Nuclear Industry?
    I hope the Washington Post has the courage to ask them all and tell US what they find!

    I believe this is a "Nuclear Gate" story that includes most Leaders in both Parties...

  • CaptD on September 08, 2012 1:31 PM:

    We all know that the Japanese are known for being technically advanced but the other side of that “coin” is kind of scary:

    Read this great article posted on a well researched AU blog site called,
    Paul Langley’s Nuclear History Blog:

    The Loss of Coolant risk in reactors and the urgent call for a “technical fix” that never came.
    Fukushima nuke disaster investigative panel rejects TEPCO tsunami claims

    The final report released by the Diet’s Fukushima nuclear disaster investigative panel has concluded that factors other than the tsunami may have triggered the loss of power at the plant, which aggravated the unprecedented disaster.

    (+ my comment there)
    A Great Article…
    I agree, the Tsunami was not the main reason for Fukushima’s triple meltdown, despite the nuclear industries desire to make it appear that the Tsunami was the problems because to say otherwise would call into question THE SAFETY ALL LAND BASED REACTORS…

    FUKUSHIMA proved that Nature can destroy any land based nuclear reactor, any place anytime 24/7/365!

    THIS IS WHY ~90% of the Japanese People are against nuclear, they cannot afford to RISK yet another Fukushima, or having their electric bill go up another 10+% like it recently just has!

  • CaptD on September 08, 2012 3:33 PM:

    And this From Germany about US Green JOBS

    Get the Facts Right: Germany has seen a Boom in Green Jobs

    Is it true that the clean energy industry in Germany has not yielded net job growth?
    Over the last ten years, Germany has seen a boom in green jobs. More than 340,000 new jobs have been created in the renewable energy sector. By contrast, Germany�s only domestic fossil energy source, lignite coal, employs only 50,000 people along its entire supply chain, from mining to the power plants. Unemployment is a big challenge in Germany, too, but the renewable industry is providing many new jobs. In its German section, the AEI report clearly fails the reality-check.