Don’t blame NRC uncertainty for San Onofre retirement

By Rod Adams

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station never threatened public health and safety. Unit 2 could have been restarted as soon as its scheduled outage was completed in February 2012. Unit 3 could have been restarted by mid-March 2012. The total cost of the repairs, including purchased replacement power, should have been less than $50 million and been covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.

After spending several hundred million dollars in repairs, consulting fees, regulatory fees, and replacement power costs, Ted Craver, the chief executive officer of Southern California Edison (SCE), announced that his company had decided to retire the plant and give up its operating license. He blamed the long, expensive, and uncertain process of obtaining a licensing amendment for the surprising decision.

Craver failed to explain that there was never a legal requirement for SCE, the plant’s primary owner, to introduce the uncertainty of obtaining restart permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. SCE could have confidently fixed the material condition and moved smartly forward in its legal responsibility to provide its customers with reliable, affordable electricity.

Though it is now impossible to roll back time, unspend the hundreds of millions of dollars, and restore the 2100 MW of clean, reliable, electrical power capacity, it is worth the time to learn lessons that might help prevent recurrence of this costly tragedy in the future.

Aside: Some may think that I am melodramatic in labeling the early death of a nuclear power plant as a tragedy, but that technological marvel represented the lifetime labor of thousands of skilled engineers and technicians. It could have provided 14–16 billion kilowatt-hours of emission free electricity for another 28–48 years. I think that losing it qualifies as a tragedy; other people agree with me. End Aside.

On January 31, 2012, operators for San Onofre Unit 3 recognized the indications of a steam generator tube leak and promptly shut down the reactor. The indications and controls system worked as designed and the licensed operators took the correct immediate actions. The estimated leak rate was 75 gallons per day, which is half of the rate that would require operator action.

The radioactivity that set off the alarm came from intensely radioactive, very short-lived material. The primary coolant in an operating reactor is nearly pure water, but some of the oxygen atoms in water (H2O) exposed to a neutron flux will absorb a neutron and become Nitrogen-16, an isotope that rapidly decays (with an 8-second half life) with a high energy gamma emission. Conservative calculations made by the company indicate that the most exposed person would have received a radiation dose of 5.2E-5 millirem from the coolant that leaked before the plant was shut down.

Aside: I have often marveled at the providence of N-16 production in a water cooled reactor. The intense radioactivity forces a conservative shield design with multiple layers of dense material. That radiation shield turns out to be an effective security vault that also provides a substantial amount of protection against physical attack. N-16 also serves as a nearly perfect tracer to provide advanced warning of something like a steam generator tube leak; it is easy to measure but disappears quickly without leaving any damaging residue. End Aside.

Steam generator tube leaks, though not welcome events, are not particularly unusual. Even under the very conservative rules established for nuclear power plant operations, there is an acceptable rate of tube leakage that does not require an immediate shutdown. By design, steam generators are built with more tubes than required so that some can be plugged without reducing the plant’s ability to produce its rated power output.

As long as technical specifications are not violated and plant owners take technically sound measures to repair leaks and prevent recurrence, there is no preexisting legal requirement to ask regulators for permission before taking action and restoring a nuclear plant that has had a steam generator tube leak to full operating status.

Because San Onofre had recently replaced the steam generators in both Unit 2 and Unit 3, the owners were somewhat surprised by the leak. They were keenly interested in determining the extent of the issue and the root cause. After all, installing those replacement steam generators cost the company about $670 million. They were supposed to last for several more decades. (The plant operating licenses were good for another 8–9 years, but there is every indication that the company planned to apply for 20-year license extensions for both units.)

Not surprisingly, individuals and groups that have been fighting nuclear energy in general and San Onofre in particular raised a public outcry. On February 8, 2012, Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Cal.) sent a letter to the NRC demanding that the agency investigate the plant based on what she described as a series of incidents, none of which had any relationship to each other. (Senator Boxer is not only from California, the home of San Onofre, but she is also the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has oversight of the NRC; she has often expressed strong skepticism about nuclear energy.)

On March 13, 2012, NRC Chairman Jaczko responded to Senator Boxer’s letter. That letter is an important piece of history that demands more attention. It provides a clear picture of exactly how tiny the event was and how there was never a risk to public health and safety. Here is a quote:

SONGS operators brought the unit into cold shutdown on February 2, 2012, and began steam generator tube inspections on February 12, 2012. The inspection confirmed the location of the leak was limited to one tube. NRC staff is continuing to review the licensee’s evaluation of the cause of the leaking tube and the licensee’s inspection of 100 percent of the tubes in both steam generators. As in Unit 2, the steam generator tubes will be pressure tested to evaluate their integrity. The root cause of the tube leak has not yet been determined. For both Units 2 and 3, SONGS will evaluate the results of their inspections to determine the appropriate length of time before the next inspection. NRC approval is not required for the licensee to restart Units 2 and 3. NRC inspectors will perform an independent evaluation of the licensee’s operational assessment report and preliminary cause evaluation prior to startup.

(Emphasis added.)

After the leak, SCE solemnly made public statements stating that it was committed to placing its highest priority on safety. As is often the case, it gave the impression that this commitment would best be met by doing everything possible to prevent recurrence of a steam generator tube leak. There is no evidence that anyone in a decision-making position compared the incredibly tiny safety consequences of a tube leak to the negative impact on public health and safety from the electrical power sources that would have to operate because San Onofre was not operating.

On March 23, 10 days after the NRC responded to Senator Boxer’s letter and informed her that the NRC had no legal right to interfere with SCE’s restart, Peter T. Dietrich, SCE senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, wrote a letter describing the actions that the company was going to take to address the conditions found in the steam generators. Even though a 100-percent inspection of the tubes in the steam generators for Unit 2 showed no signs of the tube-to-tube interactions that caused the single tube leak in Unit 3, that letter made the commitment that the company would not restart Unit 2 until the cause of the wear in Unit 3 was determined. It also made the following fateful commitment:

Prior to entry of Unit 2 into Mode 2, SCE will, in a joint meeting, provide the NRC the results of our assessment of Unit 2 steam generators, the protocol of inspections and/or operational limits including schedule dates for a mid-cycle shutdown for further inspections, and the basis for SCE’s conclusion that there is reasonable assurance, as required by NRC regulations, that the unit will operate safely.

(Note: Mode 2 means that the containment is closed and the reactor startup sequence is started. Mode 1 is when the reactor is operating at greater than 5 percent of rated power.)

Though the letter did not explicitly state that the company would ask the NRC for permission before starting up, it handed the NRC the right to schedule the meeting and said that the plant would not start up until after the meeting was held.

On March 27, the NRC responded to Dietrich’s letter with a Confirmatory Action Letter (CAL) that turned the voluntary commitment into a obligation that is still not a legal requirement enforceable by a fine, but that could be enforced with one of several options, including a notice of deviation, an order imposing a legal requirement to meet a commitment, or a demand for information. (Though it contains enough legal language to cause most of us to get a headache, you can read all about the legal status of CALs in the NRC Enforcement Manual starting on page 3-30.)

I’ve been in touch with SCE’s media relations people to find out more about the company’s decision to give the NRC a veto over the company’s ability to operate the plant within the parameters of its existing license. Here is the response I received:


As you know, the CAL memorializes commitments Southern California Edison made to the NRC regarding San Onofre Unit 2. In addition to the words on those pages, we have committed to the public and all stakeholders to place the highest priority on safety. From the moment we identified indications of potential tube wear issues in Unit 2, we believed it was important to understand the cause and potential scope of those issues before restarting Unit 2. Toward that end, we commissioned three independent experts to analyze the causes of the excessive tube wear and from that research we developed corrective actions to prevent the problem. I believe you are familiar with all those details.

You are correct that a CAL is voluntary and the language in the San Onofre CAL includes our commitment to seek NRC approval prior to restart. If we had restarted without NRC approval, SCE would have deviated from its commitment. If we do not honor such commitments, the NRC can impose more stringent enforcement actions. You could argue that the need for restart approval was a “de-facto” requirement.

Instead of making an expansive commitment, SCE could have confidently addressed the material conditions and firmly asserted that it had performed sufficient actions to provide a reasonable assurance that its valuable nuclear power plant would continue to operate safely. There might have been some resistance and some attempts to apply pressure, including increased regulatory attention, but it is hard to imagine that the increased attention and pressure would have resulted in consequences anywhere close to the complete loss of 2100 MW of emission free power generating capacity and the loss of at least 1500 jobs.

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Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

20 thoughts on “Don’t blame NRC uncertainty for San Onofre retirement

  1. Geoff

    This emission free energy is absolutely needed. Where might California get the power it has abandon to replace it? Import hydro or nuclear power from Washington state via a grid that doesn’t have the capacity to provide the additional load? Simple minded bureaucrats with political agendas should stay out of the mix. This was hardly an issue of safety, but one of political bent. Another unnecessary price will be paid by the citizens of California thanks to a party that defies logic. I was born there but will never move back. Good luck keeping the lights on.

  2. Joffan

    Sorry, Rod, I’m still blaming the NRC. When a regulator takes an operator’s cautious approach to impose additional layers of time- and money-consuming delay, the regulator has to carry the can to a large degree when those delays close the plant.

    What the NRC has done is make communications and openness more difficult because they now apparently may have penalties attached, which is a hit for future safety.

  3. Mark

    California will suffer greatly from this very bad decision. As Rod points out, they are turning their back on 20-40 more years of safe, clean energy. The lost megawatts will not be replaced by carbon-free sources, nor will “renweables” be able to fill the void. It’s going to be a HOT summer! :-(

  4. Sid Bernsen

    Perhaps there is a nuclear operations organization, such as Exelon, that could acquire the units from SCE and restart them. I know that there is a PR problem but there must be a strong support group willing to resist the shutdown crowd. They just need a LEADER.

  5. Wayne SW

    That was my thought with both Kewaunee and Crystal River 3. Both SONGS and CR3 would require expenditures to bring back online but in both cases there was significant contractor liability to the damge that those units suffered, which would in large part offset those costs. There was NOTHING wrong with Kewaunee. The problem we face today is that the owners themselves don’t want to take the trouble to keep them running. Either the costs are too high, the rewards too small, and the hassles (regulatory and PR) too great.

  6. GG

    In the end, as with any big business, it must have been a financial decision that shut SONGs down. Im failing to see where you mention any serious financial logic went into the decision…it actually appears to be the opposite. Am I missing something?

  7. Charley Haughney

    Rod, I appreciate your analysis of the SONGS situation. Like you, I view the shutdown as a colossal waste of carbon-free energy. But it seems to me that SCE faced another problem, one that was likely to prove more intractable than either their premature steam generator leakage or the hounding by Senator Boxer. That problem was an ongoing NRC adjudicatory proceeding to consider whether the matter of steam generator replacement should have been subject to a license amendment rather than “self-approved” under 10 CFR 50.59. See a Board Order scheduling Oral Argument on related legal matters:

    While NRC and industry practice over the years has been to use the 50.59 process coupled with NRC inspection activities to review steam generator replacements, the question of whether a license amendment and the attendant opportunity for a hearing should be used has been the sleeping alligator in the canoe.

    In many respects, adjudicatory hearings are a useful part of the NRC public process. But these hearings can be legally and technically complex, and the hearings come with all the trappings of an administrative law trial: discovery, filing of oral testimony and exhibits, cross examination of expert witnesses, disputes on all manner of legal and technical details, many avenues for appeal of decisions, and many other twists and turns. Once a proceeding is underway, as was this one involving SONGS, neither the utility nor the NRC staff have much, if any, control of the hearing content and schedule. This SONGS hearing had not yet evolved to the intractability of the Shoreham Operating License proceeding (four separate Boards and over 10 years duration). But its existence granted the intervening parties an opportunity to use the adjudicatory process to take full advantage of the process and stretch the hearing schedule at every opportunity.

    Regardless of the outcome of the NRC staff’s consideration of SCE’s actions to comply with the provisions of the CAL, SCE faced a large uncertainty about the outcome or the duration of the adjudicatory proceeding. A tough, hard-nosed, capable, nuclear utility might have fought on and prevailed; but SCE decided they had had enough. In my view, too bad for Southern California.

  8. SteveK9

    Hey Guys, everyone keeps referring to ‘California’. I think I should point out that CA has 34 million people. Some of my friends I visited in San Diego last week are not happy and are concerned about the closing of San Onofre. By the way, when I haven’t been back in years I forget just how fantastic San Diego is. When you are there, what you wonder is why anyone lives anywhere else.

  9. SteveK9

    On another website someone suggested that Mexico build some nuke plants in Ensanada and sell some of the power to San Diego. That would be fantastic for Mexico and not bad at all for Southern California.

  10. SteveK9

    Last comment. We drove by San Onofre on our way up to Catalina Island. It was a very sad thing to see. I do wonder how ‘final’ these decisions are.

  11. gmax137

    It is final when the licensee dockets a certification of cessation of operations under 10CFR52.110, Termination of license.

  12. NIC guy

    Thanks Rod. I agree with your analysis, but not the headline. SCE and NRC share the blame. SCE and all operators are responsible for the safety of their plants. NRC is not. It is the regulator, responsible for setting safety standards and enforcing compliance. SCE is at fault for bucking their decision to the NRC. The NRC is at fault for failing to say, “it’s not a safety issue, you make the call, SCE.” But rarely do regulators decline an opportunity to broaden their jurisdiction and exercise more power. Neither had the confidence to make a decision. The public interest is damaged.

  13. Rick

    I think the final straw, and a large portion of their reluctance to continue the fight was Boxer’s and Pelosi’s calls for CRIMINAL investigations upon the SCE leadership… a clear shot up the nose, not across the bow. It’s hard to fight an uphill battle when CERTAIN Horses Arse’s are digging a hole below you AND starting avalanches above you at the same time.
    Here’s to hoping someone (with their act together) comes along with a buyout… I think there might be a few unused steam generators lying about the U.S. they could find…

  14. Dennis Mosebey

    1. San Onofre voluntarily promised NRC they would research and investigate causes of the tube leaks. NRC followed up with a Confirmatory Action Letter. Once that is issued the utility cannot start up without NRC action.
    2.An Atomic Safety and Licensing Board determined that in spite of already held public meetings, the restart had to be open to the Public.

    3.The ASLB was wrong. It did not have to be and since they work for the NRC it was totally an NRC political decision after dilly dallying as they do asking for more information to protect their backsides from Boxer and Feinstein et al.

    It was the NRC’s fault pure and simple. To say it was not is naive. But overall your article is a very good one. Lots of good detail.


  15. Bas

    SCE told public that it was committed to placing its highest priority on safety.
    Assume SCE repaired and restarted without involving / permission of the NRC.
    Public would have be characterized SCE’s nuclear management as unreliable, even sneaky, as that does not fit with its safety commitment.

    The idea that nuclear management is unreliable, would have created far bigger damage.
    Not only to SCE, but to all nuclear.

  16. Jack Keeling

    Here is the bottom line in this matter:

    On February 8, 2012, Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Cal.) sent a letter to the NRC demanding that the agency investigate the plant based on what she described as a series of incidents, none of which had any relationship to each other. (Senator Boxer is not only from California, the home of San Onofre, but she is also the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has oversight of the NRC; she has often expressed strong skepticism about nuclear energy.)

    It should be noted that Senator Boxer held up the conformation of Allison Macfarlane as NRC Chairperson until San Onofre was closed, on the pretext that she was waiting for NRC information. Facing this type of opposition in a heavily antinuclear state, SCE had no choice.

  17. Chuck Rosselle

    Much as I hate to say it, I believe SCE faced the same dilemna as Duke/Progress on Crystal River. However they got there, at a certain point they were faced with a fix vs. buy decision. Rather than put more money into SONGS and possibly be faced with Natural Gas as a replacement in thr future, they chose to not spend the money and make the transition now. I do not think this will be the last. Exelon is faced with a potential 41% reduction in their Capacity Pricing starting in 2016. Without some form of relief they likely are going to shut down financially unsupportable generation like Clinton.

  18. Wilford N. Goodman

    Southern California Edison has told NRC that the unusual wear on the tubes of replacement steam generators at San Onofre was a result of “fluid elastic instability” — high-velocity steam flow and low moisture in certain areas that caused the tubes to vibrate excessively and rub against each other. Running the plant [unit 2] at reduced power would reduce the steam velocity to an acceptable level, the company said.