The troubles at the San Onofre nuclear power plant brought out hundreds of people Tuesday night for a forum held by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Plant workers and anti-nuclear activists formed warring cheering sections in a ballroom at the St. Regis Monarch Beach hotel in Dana Point as a panel of regulators, ratepayer advocates and residents of nearby communities fielded questions and debated the merits of restarting one of the plant’s reactors.
San Onofre, which once supplied power to about 1.4 million homes in Southern California, has been out of commission since Jan. 31, when a steam generator tube carrying radioactive water sprang a leak, releasing a minuscule amount of radioactive steam.
The leak prompted the shutdown of the plant and kicked off months of investigations by plant operator Southern California Edison, steam generator manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and the NRC. The investigations found that hundreds of tubes in the newly replaced steam generators were showing a highly unusual type of wear caused by rubbing against adjacent tubes, and many more showed a more common type of wear due to rubbing against support structures.
Last week, Edison submitted a proposal to the NRC to restart the plant’s Unit 2 reactor — which showed less wear, Edison said, because of slight differences in the fabrication of support structures. Edison wants to run Unit 2 at 70% power for five months to see if operating at the lower level would alleviate the overly-high-velocity steam flow that caused the tubes to vibrate and knock against each other.
The more heavily damaged Unit 3 will remain offline indefinitely.
NRC officials said that reviewing the proposal will take months while the agency’s staff completes an “independent technical analysis.”
Some panelists and attendees at Tuesday night’s meeting pushed the NRC to hold a courtroom-like evidentiary hearing before making a decision on the restart. Environmental group Friends of the Earth has filed a petition calling for such a process. No decision on the plant’s fate was to be made during the hearing.
Panelist Donald Mosier, a professor at Scripps Research Institute and a Del Mar City Council member, said of Edison’s restart plan: “That seems to me a dangerous experiment to perform for all of us who live close to San Onofre when you already have the precedent that one of the identically designed steam generators has failed.”
Others expressed confidence in Edison’s analysis and called for a swift review and restart of the reactor.
“We need to get this power plant back online as quickly as we can,” said panelist Richard McPherson, a Laguna Niguel resident who said he had worked in the nuclear industry since 1963. “It’s a technical problem, the people involved know how to fix it. We need to get on with fixing it and get our electricity back.”
Proponents and opponents of restarting the plant have been jockeying to persuade the NRC and the public of their respective positions. Nuclear watchdog groups and unions representing plant workers both rallied their unions to attend the meeting. Edison shuttled employees to and from the event.
At some points, the meeting became chaotic.
Audience members yelled “Shut up!” while others cheered as one women asked: “Is there a safe level of radiation?” When a union representative got up to speak on behalf of employees, crowd members shouted “What’s your question?!”
Elmo Collins, NRC regional administrator, promised a thorough review and more public meetings before a decision is made on the restart plan. But he said it would be up to the NRC to decide whether to hold a full evidentiary hearing process.