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Major Design Flaws Uncovered at Calif. Nuclear Plant; Watchdog Groups Petition for Closure

- Common Dreams staff

On Sunday, Federal investigators revealed the findings of a months long investigation into a radiation leak discovered at California's San Onofre nuclear power plant in January. Officials maintain that major design flaws in new equipment were the leading cause of the malfunction. Nuclear watchdog groups petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Monday morning to keep the reactors shut down while a comprehensive safety review is conducted.

San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in Pendleton, Calif. “The crisis at San Onofre is the result of a perfect storm of error,” said Damon Moglen, climate and energy director for Friends of the Earth. The ocean-side twin-reactor plant has been idle since January, after a tube break in one of four steam generators released traces of radiation. The federal regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have concluded that design flaws are the cause of excessive wear in tubing that carries radioactive water through the virtually brand new equipment.

Plant operators at Southern California Edison could face penalties stemming from the investigation; however, the company has been preparing to submit a proposal to the NRC to restart one or both of the reactors in the near future.

Friends of the Earth has been working to stall the restart, and has now filed a legal petition to require the NRC to keep the reactors shut down until and unless their operator obtains a 'license amendment'.

"The crisis at San Onofre is the result of a perfect storm of error,” said Damon Moglen, climate and energy director for Friends of the Earth. “On the one hand, Edison made significant design changes without seeking an amendment to its license as required by NRC regulations; on the other hand, the NRC appears to have been asleep at the regulatory wheel. The result was the failure of critical equipment that could endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions of Southern Californians, and leaves California ratepayers stuck with the bill for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of defective technology."

About 7.4 million Californians live within 50 miles of San Onofre.

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Associated Press: Feds: Design Led to Nuke Plant Woes

After months of investigation, federal regulators have determined that design flaws appear to be the cause of excessive wear in tubing that carries radioactive water through California's troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant, a top federal regulator said.

The twin-reactor plant between Los Angeles and San Diego has been idle since January, after a tube break in one of four, massive steam generators released traces of radiation. A team of federal investigators was dispatched to the plant in March after the discovery that some tubes were so badly corroded that they could fail and possibly release radiation, a stunning finding inside the virtually new equipment.

Flaws in fabrication or installation were considered as possible sources of the rapid tube decay but "it looks primarily we are pointed toward the design" of the heavily modified generators, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Regional Administrator Elmo Collins told The Associated Press in an interview Sunday.

Collins couldn't rule out that one or more of the generators, installed in a $670 million overhaul in 2009 and 2010, might have to be replaced.

Eight tubes failed during earlier pressure tests in the Unit 3 reactor and "we have not seen that in the industry before," Collins said.

"It's these four steam generators that either have, or are susceptible to, this type of problem," Collins said, referring to the unusual damage caused when alloy tubes vibrate and rattle against each other or brackets that hold them in place.

So far, a fix has remained elusive.

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Friends of the Earth: Nuclear watchdog petitions NRC to require relicensing of faulty San Onofre reactors

Friends of the Earth today filed a legal petition to require the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep the crippled reactors at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shut down until and unless their operator, Southern California Edison, obtains a license amendment.

The troubled San Onofre reactors, located in Orange County, Calif., were shut down in January after a leak of radioactive steam. Subsequent investigations commissioned by Friends of the Earth have revealed that the new steam generators, which have only operated for 11 and 22 months respectively, are defective. The petition filed today contends that Edison misled the NRC about the steam generators’ design, which allowed the utility to run the reactors with fundamentally flawed technology, endangering 8 million Californians who live within 50 miles of the plant. [...]

The petition filed today states that Edison — while fully aware that it was making serious changes in the design of the new steam generators — deliberately mischaracterized the new technology as a “like for like” replacement, thereby avoiding NRC or public review of the altered design. Under NRC rules, the substantial changes to the design of the new steam generators required a rigorous license amendment review by the NRC, including an adjudicatory public hearing. Instead, the agency accepted Edison’s misleading characterization.

“The bottom line is that these changes should have required a major review and a new license,” said Dave Freeman, former head of the federal Tennessee Valley Authority and a senior advisor to Friends of the Earth. “The San Onofre steam generators were in fact operated without the necessary license until they broke down. Federal regulators must be forced to follow their own rules and prove to Californians that this is about ensuring their safety — not protecting Edison’s profits.”

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