Time to retire San Onofre nuclear plant for good?

  • Posted on 3 May 2012
  • By David Freeman and Shuan Burnie


Compromised safety closed two nuclear reactor units; the threat of blackouts shouldn’t reopen them.

The nuclear reactors at San Onofre nuclear power plant south of San Clemente are nearly 30 years old. In January, one of the steel tubes in the steam generator of reactor Unit 2 burst and leaked radioactive steam into the environment. It was then revealed that hundreds of steel tubes inside steam generators in both reactors were severely degraded. Now both reactors remain shut down because operator Southern California Edison doesn’t yet know what caused the damage to the reactors.

The plant is visible as you drive down Highway 1 and the 5 Freeway. It sits next to the popular surfing spot San Onofre State Beach.

It’s also located near an earthquake fault. The plant is designed to withstand a 7.0 quake; Japan’s deadly quake in March 2011 that rocked the Fukushima nuclear reactors was a magnitude 9.0, or 60 times more powerful. There also are decades of accumulated “radioactive trash” in the used spent fuel rods on the site, more than 1,400 tons, a large part of which is stored underwater in pools.

Lessons from Fukushima

Fukushima was a wake up call, but Edison told the people it could not happen here; that San Onofre was safe. Edison claims it practice “safety first.” And then this near-30 year old plant springs a leak. First they said it was just steam. Then they admitted it was radioactive. Then they said it was just a problem with reactor Unit 3. Then the really bad news: The new steam generators supposed to last 20 years were wearing down at an alarming rate less than 2 years after being installed. Hundreds of steel tubes were affected, with some losing 30% of their thickness. Damaged tubes were taken out of service by plugging them; some of the tubes in reactor Unit 3 that were pressure-tested ruptured.

In Unit 2, Edison stopped pressure testing after one tube was tested and passed. However there are more than 19,000 tubes in this reactor unit. The operator has tried to create a distinction between the two reactor units with the aim of restarting Unit 2 before the summer peak loads. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, tasked with ensuring the safety of nuclear power across the country, has followed Edison’s lead and tried to make the case that the problems in Unit 2 are not as serious as those at Unit 3.

But this game plan has collapsed when Edison finally admitted on April 10 that the same unusual problems found in reactor Unit 3 also had been found at reactor Unit 2. An independent nuclear engineering analysis commissioned by Friends of the Earth discovered what appears to be the cause of the problems: a major change in the design and fabrication of the steam generators that was not scrutinized by the NRC.

During the last 6 years, Edison received approval from the federal agency to replace old steam generators, and the California Public Utilities Commission approved the $670 million expense paid for by ratepayers. Edison stated (and the NRC and state utilities commission) accepted that the generators were “like for like” replacements. In fact, the change in design was dramatic. Think of steam generators as a giant tent; old steam generators had a pole in the center that held the tubes steady.

The new design used by Edison were built in Japan. They removed the pole to squeeze more tubes into the 65-foot, 700-ton steam generator. This would give Edison the option to increase power from the plant and, of course, make more money. Two recent technical reports suggest the design changes were substantive. And without a robust analysis of why and what the effects of these changes have been, the risk of a major accident is very real.

Evacuation in Southern California

The impact on millions of people in Southern California would be devastating. As an aside, evacuation plans hardly exist on paper because there’s no practical way to evacuate the 8 million people who live within 50 miles of the San Onofre plant.

In Fukushima, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advised U.S. citizens in the area to evacuate from within 50 miles of the plant iover a period of more than 7 months due to the radiation risks in this danger zone. More than 200,000 people were evacuated and self evacuated half of whom may never return to their homes due to radiation levels.

That was in Fukushima not Orange County, which has a population density nine times higher than in Fukushima. As of April 12, the NRC is still insisting that there is a difference in the problems at the reactors. This was not credible weeks ago and is ridiculous as of today. A thorough understanding root cause analysis – should only be the start of the process of evaluating whether San Onofre should ever be allowed to operate again. Public scrutiny of the analysis of is a must.

What would it mean to keep San Onofre shut? The prospect of blackouts has been made by the energy establishment to justify unsafe operation of nuclear reactors that within hours of an accident could render a significant part of Southern California uninhabitable. That is clearly no way to provide electricity.

The California ISO, responsible for securing stable supply of electricity, has identified efficiency measures that, if implemented, can avoid risk of blackout – just as the whole state did in 2001 to end the blackmail game underway to rob Californians of billions of dollars with fake blackout shortages.

Californians do not need to choose between a dangerous irradiated nuclear plant at San Onofre and blackouts. It requires conservation efforts this summer. If Japan can shut down 49 nuclear reactors following Fukushima without power shortages, California can shut down two. This would prove that we can get along without the danger of a Fukushima on this side of the Pacific Ocean and keep the lights on. There is every reason to make a determined effort to replace San Onofre with renewables and energy efficiency. San Onofre’s problems may not be fixable. The reactors are due to apply for license extensions within the next few years so that they can operate until 2040 and beyond. That was never a safe option before the latest crisis; today it is unthinkable.

Action is needed now to help stop the restart of the San Onofre reactors. For starters, a full and transparent investigation into the causes of the problems, and what solutions are being proposed that would guarantee this problem would not recur. These may not exist without a full steam generator replacement at both reactors costing perhaps a billion dollars.

California has safer, cheaper better options for providing its energy future: efficiency and renewables.

Get involved

The Angeles Chapter is forming a San Onofre Task Force to ensure safe operations of the San Onofre nuclear power plant and to make sure its federal license to continue operating isn’t renewed To participate, contact Conservation Coordinator George Watland at george. watland@sierraclub.org or call 213-387-4287 ext. 210.

S. David Freeman is an engineer, attorney and author who has had many key roles in energy policy. He once headed the L.A. Department of Water and Power.

Shaun Burnie is an independent nuclear consultant to Friends of the Earth U.S. He formerly led International Nuclear Campaigns with Greenpeace International for nearly two decades.

Photo: Surfers use the popular San Onofre State Beach, which abuts the power plant that came on line in the 1980s. Credit: Gary Headrick/San Celemente Greens

Blog Category: 

Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.