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Incident involving transfer of waste canister at San Onofre nuclear plant prompts additional training measures

Incident involving transfer of waste canister at San Onofre nuclear plant prompts additional training measures
An overview of the new dry cask storage facility at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (Photo by Southern California Edison)

A contractor responsible for transferring canisters of spent nuclear fuel at the site of the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has been cited for “performance errors” and was directed to “take corrective actions, including additional training” for its workers, Southern California Edison officials said.

The contractor, Holtec International, was cited for the incident that occurred earlier this month when a canister got caught on an inner ring as it was being lowered into a Cavity Enclosure Container at a newly constructed “dry storage” facility on the site of the plant that is in the process of being decommissioned, Edison said in a statement last week. The transfers have been placed on hold.

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Since February, operators of the San Diego County plant have been transferring 73 canisters of spent fuel from what is called “wet storage” to the new dry storage installation. Used up fuel is thermally hot and to cool it, nuclear operators place the fuel in a metal rack and submerge it in a deep wet storage pool.

So far, 29 of the 73 canisters have been transferred to the new storage facility. Edison expects to complete the transfer by the middle of next year.

Edison’s announcement came one day after a man identifying himself as an industrial safety worker associated with the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration startled those attending a public meeting in Oceanside hosted by the SONGS Community Engagement Panel by describing a litany of safety shortcomings associated with the transfer process.

David Fritch said on Aug. 3 one of the canisters being lowered into the cavity enclosure “could have fallen 18 feet.”

In remarks during the Community Engagement Panel’s public comments period, Fritch said similar problems have occurred before “but it wasn’t shared with the crew that was working. We’re under-manned. We don’t have the proper personnel to get things done safely.”

Fritch, who said he’s been on the site for about three months, said some workers are “under-trained” and that many experienced supervisors “are often sent away” and replaced by new supervisors who “don’t understand it as well.”

Fritch’s remarks were captured on video from the livestream of the panel’s quarterly meeting.

The San Diego Union-Tribune on Friday left voicemail messages with Fritch to get more details but did not receive a response. Edison identified Fritch as a contractor.

Fritch opened his comments by saying, “I may not have a job tomorrow after what I say” and said he attended the Community Engagement Panel meeting to see if Edison representatives would discuss the incident “and I was disappointed to see that it was not.”

“Edison is not forthright about what’s going on,” he said.

In its statement Friday, the utility said, “At no point during this incident was there a risk to employee or public safety, and immediate lessons learned have already been integrated into our process.”

According to Edison, “there is a very snug fit” in the Cavity Enclosure Containers and it’s not unusual for “a few manipulations to get the canister aligned” properly.

The canister loaded by a crew from Holtec on Aug. 3 got wedged but the utility said an Edison oversight team discovered the canister was not sitting properly. The canister was then re-positioned correctly and placed at the bottom of the enclosure.

“SCE is committed to protecting the safety of the public and takes these incidents very seriously as we progress through our decommissioning process,” the utility said in its statement.

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Edison went on to say it discussed the incident with the federal government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency that licenses canisters at the nation’s nuclear facilities.

On Thursday, Tom Palmisano, vice president, decommissioning and chief nuclear officer at SONGS, said the chance of the canister dropping 18 feet was “unlikely” but the canister is “designed to withstand that, but it doesn’t excuse it. So a serious, near-miss if you will, in terms of a rigging issue.”

After it was discovered the canister had been wedged, it was safely set down “within an hour,” Palmisano said, and “there was no risk” to the public or the workers involved. Palmisano said he did not know Fritch but “I’ll make sure with whoever he works for that he’s protected. He has a right to voice his concerns and that’s important. I credit him for bringing up an issue.”

Critics of Edison pounced on the disclosure, saying it points to larger issues surrounding the plant near San Clemente that is home to 3.55 million pounds of spent fuel at a site hugging the Pacific Ocean and near the busy 5 Freeway. The area also has a history of seismic activity and 8.4 million people living within a 50-mile radius.

The incident “confirms every fear we’ve had about what’s going on at San Onofre and what measures they’re taking to ensure the public’s safety,” said Charles Langley, executive director of the San Diego advocacy group Public Watchdogs, who has worried the walls of the canisters are not thick enough and could crack.

Edison has long maintained that the canisters, as well as the storage facilities, are safe.

The utility also ran into a problem in March during the transfer of spent fuel at the site. Work was delayed 10 days after workers discovered a piece of shim — essentially, a pin 4 inches by a half-inch — came loose while a canister was being loaded.

Edison received assurance from Holtec and an independent engineering firm that the canister’s integrity was sound.

San Onofre was shut down for good in 2013 as a result of faulty equipment that led to a small release of radioactive steam and a heated regulatory battle over the plant's license.

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