How safe is San Onofre?

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station sits on a beach in a seismically active area of Southern California, just three miles south of San Clemente. These days many are rightly preoccupied with the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan and its implications for San Onofre. But there are more immediate problems at the power plant that is owned and operated by Southern California Edison.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be holding a public meeting Thursday in San Juan Capistrano to review the performance and safety culture of San Onofre. Coincidentally, this is also the week that the world commemorates the 25th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union. According to many credible studies, that disaster is attributed primarily to the deficient safety culture — in design, operation and oversight — that existed throughout the Soviet nuclear power system at the time of the accident.

Safety culture is typically defined as the set of characteristics and attitudes in organizations and individuals that establishes safety issues as an overriding priority. A plant that fosters a positive safety culture encourages employees to ask questions and to apply a rigorous and prudent approach to all aspects of their jobs. It would also set up open communications between line workers and midlevel and upper management.

What exactly are the problems at San Onofre?

For many years the plant has been under Nuclear Regulatory Commission scrutiny for failure to address several longstanding issues related to its safety culture. A few noteworthy recent issues include:

Feb. 1-10, 2010: The NRC conducted focus group interviews with about 400 workers to probe the safety culture at the plant, and the results indicated "a continued degradation in the safety-conscious work environment."

March 2, 2010: The NRC issued a "chilling effect letter," finding that the "NRC has received a significant increase of allegations from onsite sources at San Onofre nearly 10 times the industry median in 2009."

Sept. 1, 2010: The NRC advised San Onofre of a substantive issue that potentially affects several safety-critical areas concerning human performance — such as human error prevention techniques, decision-making and work practices — where it has found "a continuing high number of findings." This was the seventh consecutive assessment period during which the issue, which deals with major safety culture components, was raised.

March 4, 2011: The NRC reported that "corrective actions to date have not resulted in sustained and measurable improvement" in the above-mentioned human performance issues.

The above citations may be just the tip of the iceberg. According to a recently released, exhaustive study of nuclear power plant safety in the United States by the Union of Concerned Scientists, "the NRC only audits about 5% of activities at a nuclear reactor each year. Thus each safety violation they identify could represent another 19 violations in the 95% not looked at. But the NRC only requires plant owners to fix the identified violations."

I have been closely following nuclear safety issues at the San Onofre plant, and I spoke on the matter at a 2009 NRC public meeting on San Onofre. Based on the public domain reports that I have reviewed, I believe that although there are some discrete token improvements, the overall situation at the plant has been continuously deteriorating.

But the era of a piecemeal approach toward addressing safety issues at San Onofre must end. The NRC meeting this week can and should catalyze a long-lasting partnership among the public, San Onofre and the NRC to ensure the continuous safe operation of this valuable plant. Edison should be much more responsive to the public's heightened sensitivity to safety-related issues. Its board of directors should carefully read the lines, as well as between the lines, of the NRC reports and devise a definitive plan to overhaul the drifting safety culture there.

Secrecy is the worst enemy of nuclear power safety. The plant's senior managers should come to the meeting with a fresh approach and a substantive mandate to face nuclear power realities, including the added post-Fukushima expectations, and be prepared to share their plan openly and honestly and field questions from NRC and the public. As the first step and a goodwill gesture, they should provide unfettered access to all unadulterated original audits of the plant's operation conducted by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, as well as all collected data on its nine "performance indicators," at least for the last five years. (INPO is a nonprofit organization established by the U.S. nuclear power industry in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.)

Building a robust safety culture at San Onofre will require genuine and unequivocal commitment by Edison and its board. This week's meeting should not be treated as yet another public relations exercise. As stated by the late Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, in the context of another complex technological system's failure (the space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986): "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at USC, a Jefferson Science Fellow and a senior science and engineering advisor to the Office of Science and Technology Advisor to the U.S. secretary of State (2009-10), has been conducting research on human performance and the safety culture of the nuclear power industry. He has inspected many nuclear power plants around the world, including Chernobyl.

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