Friday, September 14, 2012

Head of NRC says SanO reactors won't restart "for months"...


Dear Readers,

Allison MacFarlane, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), says neither of San Onofre's two reactors will be restarted "for months." That's not good enough! They should never be restarted at all. They should never have BEEN started at all.

Grid operators (California Independent System Operators, CAISO) say they're "bracing" for SanO to be down next summer. That's not good enough! They should be preparing to glide through the next and every summer, with plenty of energy, and they can if a concerted effort is made throughout SoCal to switch to renewables as quickly as possible.

The truth is, we got through this past summer just fine without SanO, and we can get through the rest of them -- forever -- without it and with renewables.

However, large investments in renewables are unlikely to start unless investors are sure SanO's gone for good. And you can't convert its switchyard to a switchyard for an offshore wind farm until then, or convert SanO itself to a gas-fired power plant -- first you have to "decommission" San Onofre, and that's exactly what should happen next, starting immediately.

The chances are pretty good the "root cause" of the problem for San Onofre was, as we all suspected, greed. Technically, they had too much steam and not enough water below the "U" of the upside-down U-shaped tubes in the steam generators. This allowed the tubes (9,737 tubes per steam generator) to vibrate too much. Water is a better vibration dampener than steam.

We've heard rumors that the steam generator manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), wants to blame the problem on San Onofre's operators (Southern California Edison, SCE) for trying to extract too much steam from the system. In other words, SanO's operators realized there was an excess of steam and rather than find out why or consider the possibility that that might not be such a GOOD thing, they simply spun the turbines faster to produce more electricity and make more profit.

Of course, we've also heard that computer calculations for how much steam would be produced were off by 300 to 400 percent, and the blame for that error apparently falls on MHI, although both SCE and the NRC could have checked those figures properly if they had cared to. They all trusted the computer programs instead. A more public procedure might have allowed an independent researcher to see the problem before California residents were put at risk by a steam generator tube failure. But the nuclear industry tries to avoid scrutiny as much as possible because so many of their problems are completely unsolvable.

The nuclear industry, San Onofre included, has been striving to eliminate "the human factor" from nuclear reactor operations as much as possible. However, this author, a computer programmer for the past three decades, knows that computer programmers make mistakes too, and relying on automated systems can be utter folly.

In fact, relying on "hard-coded" procedures, rules, guides, manuals etc. can be utter folly, too -- sometimes things happen so fast there's not enough time to review the rules! And yet there's no other way. So you computerize the rule books so the operators can bring up the data faster. But then, one day a virus gets in and you can't look at anything until the system is cleaned and rebooted. Vital computer systems go down all the time. During the millennium rollover, the "eye-in-the-sky", America's sophisticated radar and data-gathering global system for detecting incoming missile attacks, went down for about four hours. This occurred after many years and millions of dollars spent preparing for that moment. Computer software fails, computer hardware fails, attached storage devices fail... attached motors and controls for valves fail, too, which is why so many things have manual backup plans at nuclear reactors. And another "Stuxnet" type virus can ruin everything while making it look to the control room operators like things are going fine!

At least one Airbus jumbo jet has crashed due to faulty computer software, and more than one rocket failure has also been blamed on computer errors.

Another rumor that's been circulating for months was that strange humming noises were coming from San Onofre's reactor containment area, which may have been the sound of the steam generator tubes banging into each other. Even though the reactor had never made that noise before, the idea of shutting down and figuring out what was wrong didn't seem to have occurred to anyone at the plant. That's no way to drive a car, let alone, operate a nuclear power plant!

But San Onofre has had a tradition of safety code violation cover-ups, and harassment of workers who speak out.

Luckily last January only a single tube burst, rather than a cascade of tubes and a significant loss of reactor cooling capability -- or worse: Metal shards could have entered the primary coolant loop, and then might have blocked coolant flow to part of the reactor core itself, causing localized heating and melting of some of the fuel, possibly preventing control rods from fully inserting. Not likely? Who cares! It was POSSIBLE.

San Onofre will be defueling Unit 3 next month and I bet we'll get an announcement, maybe today, that they'll defuel Unit 2 soon as well soon. Defueling, however, is NOT "decommissioning". They can put fuel into the reactor and restart as soon as the NRC gives the okay.

Instead of keeping SoCal residents on the edge of their seats, we need to decommission San Onofre, so it's not there anymore.

And of course, we need to get rid of the waste, but to where? Move it away to another planet?!? Too bad that -- and every other solution ever proposed-- is unworkable!

Yucca Mountain has been stopped by presidential order, and it was a technological failure anyway. The Blue Ribbon Commission appointed by the president to study alternatives could not come up with anything substantive; they recommended localized "interim storage" and suggested the way to site nuclear waste dumps was by preemptive legislation allowing very small, very well-bribed communities to overrule county, state, and national interests by agreeing to host a radioactive waste dump. These "local communities" can be just a few dozen people. The "BRC" did not come up with a technological solution to the nuclear waste problem for a very simple reason: Ionizing radiation destroys any container you put it in.

After more than half a century of study and tens of billions of dollars spent looking into possible solutions, trying things and seeing them fail, that is why there is still no solution to the waste problem.

San Onofre has stopped making more radioactive waste for the time being, but Diablo Cyn and ~450 other nukes around the world have not, and the fight to permanently close San Onofre is hardly over, either.

SCE plans to have new steam generators built, probably at ratepayer's expense (even while we're still paying for the last ones).

Instead, let's decommission SanO immediately. It's prudent and proper and should not be delayed any longer.

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

Ace Hoffman, computer programmer,
author, The Code Killers:
An Expose of the Nuclear Industry
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Email: ace [at]