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Nuclear Engineer Warns Unresolved Safety Issues Threaten San Onofre Reactors

New report reveals reactor operator SoCal Edison misled federal regulators

WASHINGTON - A new analysis released today by one of the nation's leading independent nuclear engineers has revealed that serious unresolved safety problems at Southern California Edison's San Onofre nuclear reactors could lead to significant radiation releases if the plant is allowed to restart. The paper also documents that Edison misled the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission about changes made to the plant, which have led to unforeseen and undiagnosed safety problems. To date, Edison has failed to provide substantive information to the public about the safety problems and testing at San Onofre.

The study by Arnie Gundersen and Fairewinds Associates, and commissioned by nuclear watchdog Friends of the Earth, is the first public technical analysis since problems were discovered at the two now-closed reactors at San Onofre:

  • Reactor Unit 2 was undergoing a regularly scheduled shutdown in January when severe damage was found in tubes in the steam generator system.
  • Reactor Unit 3 was shut down by Edison on January 31 after radioactive water leaked from a damaged pipe in the steam generators.

The steam generators at both reactors are only months old and were installed at a cost to ratepayers of some $671 million.

In his analysis of available public information, Gundersen has concluded that "both units 2 and 3 have experienced extraordinarily rapid degradation of their steam generator tubes." He has concluded that the "severe short-term steam generator degradation" could lead to a "large risk of tube failure" and result in "an uncontrolled release of radiation into the environment."

While the NRC has said that the "root cause of the tube leak has not yet been determined," Gundersen concludes that four significant changes were made to the design of the new steam generators, all of which may be contributing to their dramatic degradation: the tube alloy used is different, the reactor flow rate was changed, more steam generator tubes were added, and key modifications were made to the "egg crate" architecture that holds the tubing in the steam generator. Yet when Edison notified the NRC that it would be replacing the steam generators, it argued that it was making a "like for like" replacement. By misleading the NRC on the true nature of the replacement, Edison fooled the NRC into giving a rubber stamp and not conducting a thorough NRC review and approval process.

"If the NRC allows either San Onofre reactor to restart without a thorough root cause analysis and another tube or tubes were to fail, radioactive releases might be significantly larger. ... The reactors both have severe problems and Edison made changes that the NRC appears not to have understood or were not told about. Fairewinds Associates recommends that both [San Onofre] Unit 2 and Unit 3 remain shut down until the root cause of each nuclear reactor rapid steam generator tube failures are understood and repaired, reliability is assured, and radioactive releases are prevented," Gundersen concludes in the report.


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A team from the Nuclear Regulator Commission was at the site in the last few weeks.

"Californians deserve the truth about what's happening at San Onofre," said Damon Moglen, Director of the Climate and Energy Project at Friends of the Earth, who commissioned the study. "Southern California Edison's culture of secrecy is putting millions of local residents at risk. Edison's problems at the site are fundamental, must be fully investigated, publicly disclosed and fully rectified before the utility can be allowed to consider restarting these dangerous, old reactors. Given that Edison has clearly misled the NRC about these steam generators, we believe that the agency needs to step in and take charge."

Gundersen is an energy advisor with 40 years of nuclear power engineering experience. A former nuclear industry senior vice president, he earned his Bachelor and Master Degrees in nuclear engineering, holds a nuclear safety patent and was a licensed reactor operator. During his nuclear industry career, Gundersen managed and coordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the country.

A pdf of the Fairewinds analysis released today is available here.

The Associated Press reported on the analysis this morning.


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Friends of the Earth is the U.S. voice of the world's largest grassroots environmental network, with member groups in 77 countries. Since 1969, Friends of the Earth has fought to create a more healthy, just world.

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