Some residents remain skeptical that the troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station can restart one of its units safely, though plant officials assert the restart plan contains "conservatism upon conservatism" that reduces chances of an accident to virtually zero.
Thirteen panelists from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, California regulators, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, independent experts, local residents and anti-nuclear advocates publicly dissected the beleaguered nuclear plant's plan for restarting one of its shuttered reactors during a meeting on Tuesday in Dana Point.
A large number of building trades union laborers who work on the San Onofre site attended the meeting at the St. Regis Hotel, cheering loudly for the pro-nuclear panelists and prompting competing cheers and boos from anti-nuclear advocates attending the meeting.
Continuing Regulatory Process at the Trouble Plant
Panelist Elmo Collins, NRC Administrator from Region IV, was careful to mention that the plan was still months away from any decision on whether the commission would allow the plant to restart.
"What we will look for is if there's a sound engineering basis for why this [potential equipment failure] won't happen," Collins said. "We don't experiment with safety. We don't gamble with safety."
NRC officials have said any potential approval would take months of pouring over the 1,000-page document.
Anti-nuclear advocates and some residents have demanded a formal, adjudicated hearing process from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"There's really no way to move forward in a fair and acceptable way on this without an adjudicated hearing," said panelist Gene Stone of local Residents Organized for a Safe Environment.
That petition is before the five NRC Commissioners and hasn't been ruled on yet, Collins said.
Plans for the Restart
San Onofre Chief Nuclear Officer and panelist Pete Dietrich attempted to assure residents and other panelists the restart plan was technically sound.
One of the flaws that led to the small radioactive steam leak in January that shut down the plant was that steam generator manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries underestimated the heat and pressure that would travel through the tubes as the steam generators operated.
Dietrich said operators could run Unit 2 of the plant—the unit which had much less wear to its steam tubes and no leaks—at 70 percent power and only run it for 5 months. That operational period would be less than half the time Unit 3 ran before it sprang a leak. At the end of the five months, each tube would undergo another inspection.
Dietrich also pointed out that the tube supports in Unit 2 weren't installed loosely as were the ones in the generators of Unit 3, a fabrication— not design—flaw that helped lead to the wear on the tubes.
And, he pointed out that Unit 2 had already operated a full cycle of 21 months when it underwent a planned outage to add new steam turbines.
"We conducted 170,000 inspections of steam generator tubes and brought in outside experts we hired to dissect our analysis and convince us that we're wrong," Dietrich said. "That's why it's taken eight months."
When operating correctly, tubes in the generators carry superheated, radioactive water. The tubes act like a radiator, boiling pure water in a separate system that makes steam to turn a turbine, which makes electricity.
Shutdown Cost and Plans for Power Replacement
Robert Randolph of the California Public Utilities Commission, another panelist, said the commission would begin proceedings in a few weeks to investigate whether it would be worth it to keep running the plant, whether Southern California Edison could charge customers for repairs or whether they would have to pay money back.
Randolph did say, however, that running Unit 2 at 70 percent would provide significant support for making sure California could keep the lights on next summer.
Even so, both Randolf and panelist Robert Oglesby of the California Energy Commission, said their agencies were working on electricity plans for 2013 that don't include voltage from San Onofre.
Panelist Rochelle Becker, an anti-nuclear activist who has criticized the industry for its cost to ratepayers, asked Dietrich why ratepayers may have to pay for all the NRC inspection fines and outside experts.
"Where were all those people before?" she asked. "We have a series of broken promises, none due to ratepayer responsibility."
Dietrich said right now, plant operators were focusing on how to restart the plant safely, and would then work to determine responsibility for the plant failure.
More public meetings are scheduled with the NRC as its inspectors sift through the reams of findings. Further inspections are taking place at Mitsubishi in Japan, Collins said. The future of the more heavily damaged Unit 3 at the plant is still vague.