[UPDATED with Edison Objection to Weekly Report:] Design Flaws Confirmed at San Onofre Nuclear Plant

See update at end of post where Southern California Edison takes issue with the Weekly's original report earlier this morning.

ORIGINAL POST, JUNE 19, 8:58 A.M.: Design flaws resulted in San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) generators being unable to handle too high a flow of radioactive water and steam, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) representatives revealed at a public meeting in San Juan Capistrano Monday night.

Those would be the same design flaws plant critics pointed out months ago *to a chorus of denials from operator Southern California Edison (SCE). *See update below.

In between San Juan Capistrano Community Center cheers (to those who demanded the permanent shutdown of SONGS) and jeers (to an SCE rep who said now is not the right time to assess the financial pain that will be passed on to ratepayers), neighbors were assured radiation dangers posed by the plant are much less than those from x-rays or normal, everyday exposure.

The meet-and-retreat came after a weekend of disclosures from the NRC, including confirmation that design problems caused excessive wear among [*the] thousands of tubes that circulate water heated by two steam generators each of the plant's two reactors.

The generators, which were installed in 2009-10 at a cost of $670 million, may have to be replaced already, according to an NRC expert. It was disclosed separately that Edison may face stiff NRC fines for unspecified security issues at the plant.

Friends of the Earth, whose engineering associates pointed out design flaws as the reactors were taken off line in December and January, have petitioned the NRC to permanently close the plant. Federal regulators and SCE have given no exact timetable on when operations might resume, although the power company has said one of the two units should be good to go in August.

UPDATE, JUNE 19, 11:50 A.M.: According to SCE's Jennifer Manfre, our rundown on last night's community meeting is San Juan Capistrano “is factually incorrect.”

“While we understand that the OC Weekly is ideologically opposed to nuclear power,” Manfre adds in an email, “it is not within journalistic ethics to actually create facts and provide misinformation.”

I cannot speak for OC Weekly, but I can report it's factually incorrect to brush me personally as being “ideologically opposed to nuclear power.” I've figured if Americans are going to continue burning power at the rates we burn it, we will need nuclear power (hopefully, safe nuclear power) as a bridge to a future relying on alternative sources.

In fact, with some current staffers present, I pitched a story at a news meeting about this, with plans to visit the plant and talk to SCE about it, as I figured this was a “radical” angle for an alternative newspaper. A previous Weekly editor shot the idea down flat.

On to Manfre's specifics. She says it was incorrect to report SCE has repeatedly denied Friends of the Earth (FOE) claims of design flaws with San Onofre's steam generators:

Please review the FOE's reports closely. These reports claim that a change in the alloy, additional tubes, removal of the stay cylinder and changes in the “egg crate” tube sheet were the cause. All of these claims have been categorically disproven by the NRC's investigation. This began with the alloy change, which is an industry best practice. Apparently FOE was not aware of current technology advances in basic steam generator design. Also, SCE has never denied that design changes were related to the cause, in fact we have publically said that we believe it was a design issue. What we have denied, and what the FOE reports falsely claimed very publically, is that SCE purposefully misled the NRC, that the NRC was not aware of all of the design changes or that we did not follow the 50.59 process. The NRC very clearly stated last night that they were aware of ALL of the design changes made by SCE. (You neglected to inform your readers of this important point.)

On my stating there were cheers and jeers at different points of last night's presentation:

Obviously you have a slant here. We are considering making our video tape of the full meeting public, which will demonstrate that this was limited to three instances of cheers and jeers combined.

I'll be happy to post it here, too. That the meeting came after an NRC rep confirmed over the weekend that design problems caused excessive wear among thousands of tubes that circulate water heated by two steam generators in each of the plant's two reactors:

Excessive wear is determined by EPRI and nuclear engineering standards as greater than 35% for these steam generators. What is your source of information that there are “thousands of tubes” with this amount of wear? It is not correct.

She is correct; I mistakenly left out the word “the” between “among” and “thousands”–in other words, some of the tubes, not all of them. My apologies.

That federal regulators and SCE have given no exact timetable on when operations might resume at the two SONGS units, although the power company has said one of the two units should be good to go in August:

This is a blatant misrepresentation of what SCE has stated. SCE believes that we can submit our response to the NRC's Confirmatory Action Letter by the end of July, which then must be evaluated by the NRC. We do not control their timeline on the evaluation, but we have said that we do not believe that Unit 2 could be restarted before August, but have also stated that neither unit can be restarted until SCE and the NRC are satisfied it is safe to do so.

Here's what I wrote following an SCE announcement earlier this month:

The power giant is now looking at an August restart.

. . .

Edison says it will present the NRC a plan for restarting Unit 2 in July but that it will take longer to return Unit 3 to service. The latter reactor is where the tube wear was first observed.

Then, as now, those passages are meant to imply these are goals for SCE, pending the consent of the federal regulator. If that was unclear, again, my apologies.

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Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

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