San Onofre is feeling heat
San Onofre nuclear plant managers are scrambling to avoid stepped-up oversight from regulators and to resolve worker safety and operational problems that have put the facility’s industry ratings significantly below its peers.
The twin-reactor facility ranks among the bottom 25% in overall performance when measured against the nation’s other nuclear reactors, according to e-mailed newsletters distributed to plant employees.
The ratings, compiled by an influential industry group, showed that San Onofre’s employee injury rates were several times higher than the average at other U.S. facilities and that it lags far behind in areas such as power production and the readiness of backup safety systems.
Injury rates at San Onofre put it “dead last” among U.S. nuclear plants when it comes to industrial safety, plant managers told employees in an Aug. 4 newsletter provided by one of the plant’s labor unions.
Officials with Southern California Edison, which operates San Onofre, declined to discuss the newsletters, calling them internal company communications. But in an interview, the plant’s top executive defended the facility’s safety record.
“San Onofre is one of the safest places in Southern California to work,” Ross Ridenoure said. “But we don’t think that’s good enough because some other nuclear plants are even safer than ours. So this is a focus of attention, and we are catching up.”
Officials with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission say the plant, located south of San Clemente, does not pose a danger to the public. Out of the 104 U.S. commercial reactors operating today, 17 have fallen short of the government’s minimum standards; San Onofre’s two reactors aren’t among them.
But the plant’s subpar industry grades and “willful” violations cited by the commission have put San Onofre under greater scrutiny.
Two teams of federal regulators conducted reviews at the plant this month, arriving on the heels of a two-week evaluation by 25 representatives from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and the World Assn. of Nuclear Operators, industry-funded sister organizations that grade plant performance every two years.
One commission team performed a special inspection triggered by continuing electrical problems with San Onofre’s backup diesel generators. A commission spokesman said the visit was unusual because it was the third such inspection in the last year.
The second team from the agency conducted a long-scheduled review. But inspectors also are checking San Onofre’s progress in fixing problems cited by the commission in the plant’s 2007 annual report.
The problems outlined by the agency included repeated cases of not giving employees proper instructions and not diagnosing and fixing problems fast enough. Regulators said the issues were of “very low safety significance,” but that they were potential precursors to more serious problems.
In a March letter, the agency told San Onofre managers that the steps taken so far had “not been effective.” If this month’s review finds insufficient progress, “you might see us escalate our engagement with the licensee,” said Chuck Casto, a deputy administrator at the commission.
In January, the agency said it found five regulatory violations at San Onofre -- several deemed “willful.” In one case, a fire protection specialist falsified records for years to show that he had made hourly fire patrols when he had not.
“There’s a pattern of problems at San Onofre,” said Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, which opposes re-licensing nuclear plants without securing off-site storage for radioactive waste. “That screams to me that the oversight people aren’t doing their job, and that the utility is not doing its job.”
Southern California Edison, a unit of Rosemead-based Edison International, owns most of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, nicknamed SONGS. The facility can produce enough power for 1.5 million households.
“No matter how good you are, you can always improve,” said Ridenoure, the top manager at San Onofre. “Are there areas we can improve in at San Onofre? Clearly. But that’s true for every single nuclear power plant in the country today.”
For Edison, San Onofre’s performance and public image are crucial. It has technically difficult projects slated for next year, its operations are funded by electricity customers and state regulators hold the purse strings. Edison also hopes to get the facility’s federal licenses renewed for at least 20 more years before they expire in 2022.
Last year, Edison tapped Ridenoure to manage San Onofre. Ridenoure, formerly of the Omaha Public Power District, was recently promoted to senior vice president and chief nuclear officer. Ridenoure hired Al Hochevar as station manager.
The men are the first outsiders hired to fill the plant’s top posts -- and both are affiliated with the industry rating institute that conducted last month’s crucial performance review at San Onofre. Hochevar is an institute employee on loan to San Onofre for as long as two years; Ridenoure was a member of the rating group’s executive advisory group.
Ridenoure’s rejiggered team is pushing a Return SONGS to Excellence campaign, focusing mostly on plant operating statistics. In preparation for last month’s plant evaluation, he issued regular bulletins detailing San Onofre’s projected scores from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.
“We have worked very hard for a long time, and have been finalizing preparations for this assessment. We have come a long way,” Ridenoure told employees in a July 7 newsletter, “but we have a long way to go.”
The institute’s ratings are not made public and Ridenoure wouldn’t discuss them, but he said he was “very pleased with the feedback” from the industry group’s just-completed review. Representatives from the Atlanta-based group didn’t return several calls for comment.
San Onofre currently has a rating of 3 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being best, according to union officials and a company newsletter.
The ranking is based primarily on 11 statistical measurements covering such areas as safety systems, power output, workforce radiation exposure, employee safety, unplanned shutdowns and fuel failures.
Ridenoure said in an Aug. 11 newsletter that the institute’s 2008 report would include more “areas for improvement” than in 2006 -- when the plant was downgraded to a 3 -- but that they would be easier to fix. A week earlier, he wrote that San Onofre was “living with problems in the plant rather than fixing them.”
The industry group has no regulatory power and its evaluations are voluntary. Even so, the ratings have become an important performance indicator, said David Lochbaum, nuclear safety director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Because of the limited distribution, the INPO reports can be more candid and more detailed,” said Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who saw many of the institute’s reports during 17 years in the industry. “The NRC sets minimum standards. . . . INPO grades plant performance against standards of excellence, which is hopefully a higher standard.”
Lochbaum applauded Edison’s push to improve San Onofre, saying “the good news is that they’re not in denial anymore.”
“The bad news,” he added, “is it’s not yet fixed.”
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San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
Operator: Southern California Edison
Location: On the coast, south of San Clemente and adjacent to San Onofre State Park.
Reactors: Unit 2 has been in service 24 years and Unit 3 for 23 years; federal operating licenses for both expire in 2022. Unit 1 was retired in 1992 and is being decommissioned.
Owners: Southern California Edison (78%), San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (20%) and the city of Riverside (2%)
Workforce: 3,000 people, including 400 to 600 contractors
Maximum power: About 2,200 megawatts combined, enough to power 1.5 million homes
Source: Southern California Edison