Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at a tipping point?

November 19th, 2009

Dear Readers,

At the end of August 2009, Southern California Edison, the owner/operator of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, suddenly -- and as quietly as possible --- replaced about 70% of their work force: All the main contractors and their subcontractors. They kept themselves, though -- minus quite a few "early retirements."

This happened in the midst of growing concerns about shortages of trained personnel in the nuclear industry due to the combined stresses of an aging workforce and so few new recruits (there are far more enjoyable -- and profitable -- things for smart young people to do these days).

And it happened in the midst of enormous and difficult repairs and replacements of embrittled and leaking parts, due to the combined stresses of more rapid degradation than expected and longer permitted running times than the utility had hoped for in their wildest dreams when they built the plant.

Some of the people who lost their jobs had been working at the plant for decades. They knew the place inside and out. They knew how to falsify documents. They knew how to sleep on the job and get away with it. They knew how to claim a weld was done correctly when it wasn't. They knew what the regulators would look for -- and what they wouldn't. These guys really knew the plant well.

SCE got rid of them all, because SCE's management needed to show the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that they were doing SOMETHING to fix their "culture of cover-up." It had already been established that there was, indeed, such a culture at the plant. But subsequent testimony from whistleblowers makes it clear that the culture of cover-up remains, even if many of the faces involved have been changed (URLS to You-Tube videos are included below).

San Onofre has had a lot of friends over the years -- people on the outside who denigrate anyone who speaks out against the plant. Some of these people even have degrees in nuclear physics or nuclear engineering! They think that makes them experts in molecular biology, epidemiology, metallurgy, the economics of "safe" nuclear waste disposal, offshore wind power, terrorism, and every other field needed to understand nuclear power and its potential impact on the planet and on human life.

Arguing endlessly is possible, but worse than pointless: It's negligent. As long as the pro-nuclear activists can keep the pro-DNA activists debating, "they" win because San Onofre stays open by default. And that's pre-meditated murder. San Onofre is dangerous. Multiple whistleblowers are warning us that this is so -- long-time workers at the plant, former workers, and outside experts.

To have so many people -- people who ought to know -- warning us so clearly about a danger so big is terrifying -- but it can be fortuitous, too, if we take the time to listen to what they are saying.

Right now, San Onofre Unit Two is shut down for extensive repairs and rebuilding. Next year (2010), Unit Three will shut down for an extended period because it too is old and in disrepair. Neither unit should EVER reopen. (Unit One was closed in the early 1990s.)

San Onofre harms people by releasing radiation into the environment. Peer-reviewed studies have shown cancer clusters around nuclear plants, as well as birth defects, heart problems, and other health effects. And yet, admittedly, a properly operating reactor only releases a tiny fraction of the lethal waste it creates each day. Unless there is a serious accident, the vast majority of the waste will remain on-site and inside its containment. But even the daily releases of an operational nuclear power plant cause measurable health effects. Needless to say, every effort is made NOT to properly measure these effects!

Catastrophes which could release vast quantities of deadly radiation are possible, too. Tsunamis far taller than the sea wall at San Onofre can occur at any moment. Earthquakes can too, far stronger than San Onofre's 7.0 (variously claimed to be 7.5) standard, if it would even hold up to that. Airplanes can fall out of the sky by accident, and hit the plant. It is under a major air route.

Or a worker can drop a bolt, and say nothing, and later it gets stuck in a valve.

Clean energy is available all around us, we just need to harness it properly. Offshore wind energy farms could be built, for instance. As little as eight miles out to sea, they are barely visible from shore. And they don't create oil spills or anything. The portion of San Onofre which is currently an electrical switchyard could continue to be used to collect and redistribute clean, green power. San Onofre employees -- those not involved in scandals -- could be employed building renewable energy systems throughout the county.

We have had many moments in the past where we could have shut San Onofre down. If we had turned to renewables some time in the past, the cost of electricity in California would now be much lower than it is.

The moment of change is always difficult, but in the case of San Onofre, waiting to change will be far more difficult in the long run. Every day the plant remains open, enough new deadly hazardous waste is created -- never mind yesterday's or the day before's -- to destroy Southern California for thousands of generations. Enough to cause trillions of dollars of damage, and millions of deaths. One day's waste.

And no one can buy insurance against a nuclear disaster. Check your home-owners' policy, your rental policy, your business insurance policy -- check them all. Nuclear accidents are EXCLUDED. You and your family will die, and your far-away heirs will get nothing, or at most, a tiny fraction of a penny on the dollar, from a grossly inadequate general fund created by a notorious act of vile legislation known as the Price-Anderson Act. The most dangerous industry in the world is allowed to operate, for all intents and purposes, WITHOUT INSURANCE.

In addition to not having proper insurance, other arcane special laws allow San Onofre to operate without real oversight. For example, Cal-OSHA has only a limited presence at San Onofre, because it's a nuclear facility regulated by the NRC. Even the federal OSHA has no real presence there, also due to "special agreements" with the NRC and/or the Department of Energy (DOE).

How did the most dangerous industry on earth ALSO become the least regulated? Because of national security and enormous complexity. State officials didn't understand how the plant worked, and were happy to relinquish authority to federal regulators. Secrets about fuel composition and other matters made the federal nuclear regulators want to keep even other federal regulators out of the workplace.

San Onofre's most blind and fervent supporters will always declare that nuclear power is safe. "Look at France! Look at Japan!" they'll cry, because both of those countries get most of their electricity from nuclear power, at a terrible, but hidden (to those who refuse to look), cost. "Yucca Mountain" they've been crying for nearly 20 years as if it would solve the waste problem. What a lie THAT was! But for 20 years the local media has bought it, the local politicians have bought it, and the local population, spoon-fed this lie by the media, the politicians, and the plant, have bought it as well.

One lie after another has kept San Onofre open. Worker lawsuits for cancers they never thought they'd suffer haven't stopped it. Repeated allegations -- proven allegations -- of fraud haven't stopped it. Fuel fleas, radioactive kittens, maniacal ex-employees with garages full of weapons, haven't stopped it. Major components installed backwards? No, that didn't stop it, either.

And, of course, even broad public opposition to the plant, which has often existed in the past as well as now, despite the government and industry's "best" efforts, hasn't stopped it. Will anything stop it, short of a meltdown?

We better hope so.

Ace Hoffman Carlsbad, CA

NOTE ABOUT THESE VIDEOS: I've left "ratings" open and set "comments" to "monitored." Please RATE these videos -- that will greatly improve their chance of being viewed in their entirety by others! "Shut it down!" Unknown speaker at the November 5th, 2009 NRC hearing in Dana Point, CA:

Also from the November 5th, 2009 NRC hearing in Dana Point, CA. The first speaker here is Rick Busnardo, a supervisor at San Onofre (see below):

From an October 22, 2009 NRC hearing on NUREG-1437:

From the May 8, 2009 special hearing on San Onofre's culture of cover-up:


From: Know No Nukes:

2 SoCal nuke plant workers file federal complaints SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. (The Associated Press) - Nov 18

Two supervisors at the San Onofre nuclear power plant have filed federal complaints claiming they suffered retaliation for reporting safety violations.

Monday's filings with the U.S. Department of Labor claim managers at the San Diego County plant marginalized Rick Busnardo and gave Mike Mason a bad evaluation last year. The men had cited a welder for violating regulations while making a canister to hold spent nuclear fuel.

Busnardo and Mason are now on medical leave.

The plant's chief nuclear officer, Ross Ridenoure, didn't directly address the complaints but says the plant encourages workers to point out safety problems without fear of retaliation.



Ace Hoffman
Author, The Code Killers: An Expose
Carlsbad, CA