Lapses found at San Onofre

Times Staff Writer

Federal officials Monday disclosed a variety of lapses at the San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Clemente, including a worker who falsified records for more than five years to show that operators made hourly fire patrols when they had not.

As a result, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered Southern California Edison to develop a training program for employees, including ethics courses for managers and contractors as well as classes for plant staff to prevent deliberate misconduct. Some of the corrective actions must be taken by the end of the month.

The commission, which regulates the nation’s nuclear power industry, found five violations of federal regulations at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station during the last year.


San Onofre’s two reactors produce electricity for about 2.75 million households. The plant is jointly owned by Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and the city of Riverside. Edison owns 75% of the station.

In addition to falsified records, officials uncovered two security lapses, but would not elaborate on them. The other violations involved a radiation worker who did not comply with the conditions of a work permit, and a company failure to properly supervise an unqualified technician, whose work led to the temporary shutdown of a safety system.

“The order contains a comprehensive set of actions designed to improve performance at San Onofre by emphasizing a strong nuclear safety culture,” said Elmo E. Collins, a regional administrator for agency. “The NRC depends on a good-faith effort by power plant workers to follow regulations. Willful violations by workers cannot be tolerated.”

In a prepared statement, Edison acknowledged the NRC’s order and stated that the company was complying with the agency’s requirements.

Though the actions of plant workers were deliberate, NRC and Edison officials said the five incidents did not represent a significant threat to the safety of San Onofre. Victor Dricks, an NRC spokesman, said the lapses were what the agency calls “Level 4" violations, or the least serious.

“But I don’t want to diminish their importance,” Dricks said. “They involve willful misconduct.”

Nuclear policy experts from Committee to Bridge the Gap and the Union of Concerned Scientists said the persistent fire patrol problems compromised safety at San Onofre and reflected a lack of resolve by the NRC to enforce regulations that protect the public from catastrophic nuclear plant accidents. They said a hefty fine would have been more appropriate.

The NRC “always claims there isn’t a high safety risk,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But these fabrications went unnoticed by supervisors and managers for 5 1/2 years. This says something about the inadequacy of the NRC’s inspection process.”

Commission officials said that a fire protection specialist on the midnight shift from April 2001 to December 2006 falsified records about hourly patrols around the plant to check for fires.

After a year of investigation, the NRC concluded that the specialist had recorded the patrols in plant logs even though they never occurred. Agency officials said they also were concerned about lapses in supervision during the plant’s midnight shift.

NRC officials contend, however, that the fabricated records and lack of patrols had little effect on safety because of other fire-protection measures, including water sprinklers, chemical retardants, alarms, a fire department and safety doors that close automatically in an emergency.

But Dan Hirsch, founder of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear policy group based in Santa Cruz, disputed the NRC’s contention that the problems were not that important to the plant’s safety.

“A major fire at a nuclear reactor could release a thousand times the long-lived radiation of the Hiroshima bomb,” Hirsch said. “Fire protection data is the last thing one should tolerate being fabricated at a nuclear power plant.”

Hirsch noted that the current violations were the latest of a number of problems at San Onofre. Earlier this month, NRC inspectors discovered the failure of an emergency generator during three tests in late December. The diesel generator is one of two that provide electricity to safety systems in the event of a power outage.

Edison officials said the generator failed because of a faulty speed sensor, which was replaced.

Dricks said the agency began investigating the fire patrol fabrications in January 2007. The NRC then uncovered the other four violations. Complete descriptions of those violations were unavailable Monday. Dricks said the investigation into possible violations at San Onofre was continuing, but he declined to elaborate.

Despite repeated requests, Edison officials declined to comment further on the violations.

NRC officials said that in addition to training for employees, Edison must hire an independent contractor to assess and monitor the effectiveness of the company’s corrective measures. Edison is required to have all the corrective measures in place by Sept. 30.