The utility still does not know what's causing the early and excessive wear on hundreds of steam tubes for the steam generators attached to the twin PWRs.
Worse, the media attention surrounding the visit by the NRC Chairman gave U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif) the chance to scare the wits out out of millions of people within a 50 mile radius of the plant. Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa, who's district includes SONGS, wondered what it would take to turn the plants back on.
In a press conference held late Friday afternoon (April 6), Jaczko said that after the tour of the plant, where both reactors have been shut down since January, he would not put a time table on when the units would be restarted to supply electricity to a power hungry southern California.
Jaczko said he made the long trip to San Onofre to "get to the bottom" of why SONGS is having troubles with new steam generators. He said the NRC will need technical assurances of the safety of the plant before it will be allowed to restart. The utility will have to show that it knows with certainty what caused the problem with the steam tubes and how to fix them.
SONGS tubes off-key
What the utility's engineers do know is that the excessive wear is taking place way too early in the life of the 9,700 tubes at each unit which were installed by Mitsubishi as part of a $680 million replacement package in 2009. The Japanese firm builds similar steam generators for customers world wide so why this particular installation is having these problems is a mystery.
Some possible causes, none of which have been confirmed by SONGS, include vibration, various forms of internal and external corrosion, and cracking and thinning of tubes. Possible fixes, generically speaking, identified in a nuclear industry technical paper, include improvements to water chemistry, cleaning the tubes, and plugging the ones that are excessively degraded.
Jaczko added in his remarks Friday that SONGS managers and NRC inspectors have told him that the wear in Unit 2, which was shut down for routine maintenance in January, isn't as severe as Unit 3, which is where the problem was first detected by plant operators. So far SONGS has plugged 300 tubes in Unit 2. Of 129 tubes tests, eight tubes in Unit 3 failed pressure tests give rise to a new set of concerns about the durability of the rest of them.
What's in the generators?
Anti-nuclear groups have seized on the problems at SONGS taking two points of attack. First, Friends of the Earth has been running TV ads in Southern California media markets calling for the San Onofre reactors to be closed for good. Second, the organization released a report by anti-nuclear whistle blower Arnie Gundersen that claims there were unauthorized design modifications made to the steam generators including the use of a different alloy than for similar units built and installed by Mitsubishi. The report also alleges that changes were made to the flow rate and that the steam generators have more tubes in them to produce more power.
Jaczko added to speculation about the components in the steam generators by saying at the media conference the steam generators installed at SONGS are unique and were specifically designed for the plant. He did not elaborate along those lines. Jaczko said the NRC's engineers will inspect the documentation about what was installed at the plant, but he declined to comment specifically on Gundersen's report.
The NRC public affairs office told this blog in an email in mid-February the agency does not believe the alloy used to make the tubes is the cause of the problem.
SONGS spokesperson Jennifer Manfre said that the utility has complied with NRC regulations and that it has been "transparent" in its communications with the regulatory agency. At the agency, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell told the news media last week that the agency is aware of the changes SCE made to the steam generators. Burnell added that the company "showed by analysis that their design was acceptable . . . [and] would meet our requirements for safe operation."
|Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.)|
The American Nuclear Society (ANS), in its recently published report on the Fukushima crisis, has questioned the technical basis of the 50 mile evacuation order. Dale Klein, former Chairman of the NRC and co-chairman of the ANS report, said March 8 such efforts do more harm than good since trying to move millions of people in a highly urbanized area would create unparalleled havoc.
As the head of the NRC, Jaczko had no regulatory authority in Japan. His action outraged the Japanese government which had set up a 13 mile evacuation zone that moved as many as 200,000 people out of their homes.
The normal size of an emergency planning zone (EPZ) for evacuation in the event of an emergency at U.S. nuclear reactors is 10 miles. So when Jaczko hit the panic button calling for a 50 mile hike, he established a new, informal boundary, with no regulatory authority and a questionable technical basis, that has since been taken up by anti-nuclear groups. The effort is more about politics than regulation and stands on uncertain footing.
Sen. Feinstein, who's political analysis of all thing atomic has been aided by national anti-nuclear organizations, appears to have joined the chorus calling for a new 50 mile emergency planning zone.
Feinstein said, "Nearly 7.4 million Californians live within 50 miles of San Onofre so it is clear that the generator must stay offline until it is carefully inspected and and safety issue is definitively fixed."
Trying to impose a 50 miles EPZ on existing reactors like San Onofre in California, or Indian Point in New York, could effectively close them which may be the idea Feinstein and her supporters have in mind.
It's a cynical form of drive by politics using the tour of the shut down of San Onofre to promote the anti-nuclear agenda.
A bill comes due one way or the other
U.S. Representative Darrell Issa, in who's district the reactors are located, also took the tour. He said he hopes at least one of the reactors will be back in operation by summer.
What Issa is likely concerned about is having his constituents blame him for power shortages this summer when there is no electricity to run their air conditioners. After all it is a federal agency that is making the decision about whether to restart the reactors. People hot under the collar, literally and figuratively, have less patience with regulatory caution.
Issa chose to talk about checkbooks rather than condensers.
"We want to make sure we have 100% safety, but we also want to make sure rate payers are getting what they pay for."
What Issa is referring to are the fuel replacement costs that SCE is incurring and will eventually submit to California energy regulatory agencies to recover from its customers. Repair bills for the steam generators, when they come in, will also figure into the rate proceeding. A determination of how prudent SCE was with its installation and operation of the steam generators could result in either a big bill for its customers or a river of red ink for the utility.
House Oversight Committee hearing last December looking into the dysfunctional relationships between Jaczko and the four other commissioners. The uproar over a contentious letter the four sent to the White House provided a great exercise of inside-the-beltway smoke and mirrors for the news media. At the end of the day even some of the toughest critics on the committee found no legal basis for removing Jaczko from office.
Issa now finds himself at the other end of the table, so to speak, with Jaczko making a decision, and in an election year, about the future of electricity supply for those millions Californians in his district tagged by Sen. Feinstein. However, Jaczko is as much in the hot seat with Issa over when the reactors can get back to generating electricity.
Jaczko's problem in deciding if, when, and how to authorize re-start of the reactors isn't going be solved by political calculus. It's a technical problem and one that doesn't have an answer right now. If it turns out the issues with tubes at Unit 2 are significantly different, and less serious, than at Unit 3, there could be a separate, but not necessarily earlier, solution there.
The utility still has to make the technical case for safety to the NRC's inspectors. SONGS spokesperson Jennifer Manfre said in response to Jaczko's visit that the utility welcomed his attention to its problems.
"Safety is where our priority is, and that's where the Chairman's priority is and we're all aligned with that."
It could be a long hot summer for everyone involved with the unplanned outage of the two reactors.
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