Sunday, May 19, 2013

A week at the California Public Utilities Commission investigation into San Onofre's steam generator failures...

May 19th, 2013

Dear Readers,

Last week, the fight against San Onofre took a significant, if obscure, legal step forward at the state level. Witnesses were sworn in and testimony was taken for the California Public Utilities Commission's investigation (known as an "OII") into the failure of San Onofre's replacement steam generator project.

The first day, the proceedings were not webcast. One of the people in the audience had set up a camera but was told to put away his equipment. He argued a bit and then complied, but while in his seat again (instead of at the back of the room), the state police (not the city police) came and quietly spoke to him. I learned later that they asked him to go outside and talk to them. He asked, were they making a request, or giving him a legal order? They said they were making a request. The audience member declined to accompany them, saying he was busy listening to the proceeding.

At that point, I felt an enormous amount of pressure to turn off the audio recorder I was secretly using myself (someone had cajoled me into turning it on), since I was sitting almost directly behind where the would-be cameraman was sitting!

Just kidding, of course.

In reality, I was too scared to turn it off at that point.

Shortly thereafter, however, pressure from the public caused the CPUC to record the rest of the event and webcast it. Power (and information) to the people! The room was much less full after that.

The only conversation that was allowed was between those seated at the two rows of tables in the front and the judges or commissioner. When someone is on the witness stand, and when allowed, the people at the front tables talk with the witness, and ask them questions.

On the left side of the room (from the audience's perspective) were more than half a dozen groups of activists and "advocates," some with two people at the table, some with one. TURN, A4NR, CDSO, WEM, WBA, the DRA (Division of Ratepayer Advocates) and someone representing "interested parties" were all present. All did a splendid job. The advocates, as they were called, sometimes put different people at the table and changed positions now and then.

On the right was one person from SDG&E and four lawyers from SCE and their law firms. For most of the proceeding, only the head SCE lawyer, Henry Weisman, spoke for that side.

Facing the tables were two Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) and a commissioner the first day, but the commissioner left after that. Hopefully he watched the proceedings on the Internet. The witness stand was empty at first, then occupied one by one with a variety of people, mostly from SCE.

I spoke out from the audience once, which you're not supposed to do, but they had to admit I had a good reason. I complained that the lawyer for SCE was not using his microphone properly and could barely be heard. That was Thursday, as I recall, your honor.

You could only officially address the judges. Attorneys for the "advocates" could not talk directly to the attorneys for SCE and SDG&E, and the audience could not speak at all.

All communications must be with the judge, except after the judge swears in a witness. Then, the lawyer or advocate sponsoring that witness asks the witness to affirm that the exhibits they are associated with in the proceedings are in fact accurate to the best of their knowledge. Then they turn over the witness to be "cross-examined." Then there is usually some rebuttal testimony, but not very much. Sometimes rebuttal testimony is preceded by one of the judges asking additional questions after the advocates are finished with theirs.

It seemed to me that the advocates had an overwhelming case against SCE and SDG&E. Time and again our arguments were objected to by the SCE lead lawyer, and time and again the objection was sustained -- but many other objections were overruled (meaning the witness had to answer the question) or questions were not objected to at all.

Every so often, someone would have to search for a document, and one of the judges would declare the hearing to be "off the record" for a moment. This would give the court reporters a little break, from maybe 10 seconds to a couple of minutes. The court reporters would rotate through several in the pool, usually changing during a break. There were two short breaks and a long lunch break each day.

Everyone tried to get the job completed in a week. No one wanted to be accused of forcing everyone to stay longer, in the most friendly city in the world with the biggest variety of the best food, dozens of museums and other attractions, and a million other things to do. The reason why we should all try to wrap it up in a week was purportedly to save the ratepayer money, since rooms were quoted during the hearing (by someone from SCE, "off the record") as costing $400 per night, and I guess SCE was planning to bill the ratepayers.

My room was free since I stayed with a friend. Sometimes I had to pay for parking. I'm supposed to submit a record of the hours I spent working on the case as an "expert," having worked with several of the groups. A line of questioning by one of the advocates was based on my suggestions, which in turn, were mainly based on the "DAB Safety Team" reports and the documents those reports are based on.

The courtroom "drama" comprised about a dozen witnesses, mostly from SCE, who testified to the extremely complex financial arrangements of the company. Deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole we crawled. I tweeted perhaps 40 times during the week, mostly the first couple of days. The rest of the time I sketched various people in the room, mostly witnesses, on my smartphone.

A foundation was being laid for later phases of the investigation, and the basic question of this phase, "who should pick up the tab for the money spent in 2012?" was clearly being shown to be: "Not the ratepayer." That only leaves SCE, SDG&E, and their shareholders, minus whatever can be gotten out of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, who was not represented in the room.

MHI's liability is apparently limited to about $160 million dollars, a pittance compared to the tens of billions that will be lost in "guaranteed" income to Edison if San Onofre is shut down permanently, and a small fraction of the billions that was lost already due to the failure of the new components. At sums like these, the hotel costs of an extra week of hearings seems trivial to this writer, but so be it. Everyone stayed late the last day, everyone who was allowed to speak had spoken, and all agreed that we were done.

Some of SCE's witnesses were notoriously difficult to pin down on anything. Mr. Perez was a master at evasive answers; it took two days to get through him. "I don't know" was the most common response to a question to him, other than hearing an objection from SCE's lead attorney.

However, a different witness, Mr. Palmisano, Vice-President of Nuclear Engineering at SoCalEdison, was much more cooperative. He didn't give ground: He believes the plant can be safely restarted. But he spoke the truth as he saw it, and that was much appreciated and admired by all. Mr. Palmisano was also willing to try to explain the engineering basis for his opinions. His testimony was very refreshing, especially in comparison to those who came before and after him. However, when trying to understand the exact engineering principles, one eventually gets to a point where the necessary numbers are "redacted" in the testimony. This became a bit of an issue when an unredacted version of a document, from a popular web site on the Internet, was presented. As far as I know the unredacted version was not allowed to be admitted as evidence.

Later, another witness was cornered into admitting that YES, a Fukushima type of accident (in terms of the consequences, if not the exact events) could happen here. This seemed like a key moment, along with when the same witness, who was in charge of various features of SCE's outreach to the community, and their evacuation planning and so forth, did not know what major cities are inside the various radiation ingestion zones around the plant.

There aren't expected to be any rulings in this case for a long time, perhaps years. There are three more "phases" of the CPUC investigation, and aspects such as whether or not SCE committed fraud in any of their claims about the steam generators isn't scheduled to come up until phase three, possibly in 2014.

It was a grueling week, but I believe at the end, the advocates had presented a strong case for not restarting San Onofre: It's too risky, it's not economical, and its energy is replaceable with clean energy alternatives. Ratepayers should not be charged for this fiasco.

Meanwhile, however, Edison announced a possible "long-term fix" for running Unit Two at 100% power again for an additional 40 years -- assuming their "test" (running for five months at 70% power) works out as planned. The long-term plan involves adding more "anti-vibration bars" which they say will provide about 15 times more force against certain types of vibration such as "random vibration." Will the plan work?

It might reduce the vibration significantly. But, because the flow rates are not being changed much, it probably won't actually stop the vibration completely. Nor will it stop the forces on the tubes themselves that caused the vibration in the first place, but it could put those forces against microscopic cracks that might have already formed.

So it might work, but I wouldn't bet the farm.

Ted Craver and Pete Dietrich, however (neither of whom were called at the hearing) would bet YOUR farm, though!

Sincerely,

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA



Drawings by Ace Hoffman on a Samsung Note II