San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

On July 10, 2012 the Executive Director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, Rochelle Becker, addressed members of Conservative Order for Good Government (COGG) in Rancho Bernardo, California. For over 30 years, Ms. Becker has been advocating for nuclear responsibility at the Diablo Canyon (completed in 1972) and the San Onofre (Unit 3, completed in 1983) Nuclear Power Plants in Southern California and has been a pivotal watchdog for rate payers, overseeing the cost benefits and risks associated with these aging nuclear reactors.

In her report to the organization, Ms. Becker sounded the alarm and alerted this group of Southern California citizens that on top of the existing steam generator problems that had forced the shutdown of the San Onofre power plant, new information on earthquake fault lines in close proximity to the nuclear power plant was decreasing its safety and complicating its license renewal process to continue operations.

During her presentation, Ms. Becker insisted that regulatory incompetence is a bipartisan issue and that the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility is in no way intentionally directing the solutions towards closing the plants or keeping them open. She added that the group is simply “applying pressure on the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission to do their job” and making sure that taxpayers are not providing additional funds above and beyond what they would ordinarily pay for continued service, operations, maintenance and repairs.

The recent shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has brought out anti-nuke activists including Friends of the Earth, an international environmental group, who want to see the plant permanently decommissioned and furthermore is suggesting that the electricity generated by the nuclear power plant be replaced by renewable green energy from solar, wind and hydro-power. (Read The Green Agenda: Do the Means Justify the Ends?)  Though Ms. Becker stated in her report to COGG that she is not taking sides with the pro/con nuclear energy debate, she does wish to see “California emerge as a leader” in the discussions of weighing what the costs of using nuclear energy are to the public in lieu of alternative sources of energy. Whatever decisions are made regarding these reactors “…will cost us money, so we need to know that we are making the right decisions.”

San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant is located on the Northern San Diego County border. When operating at optimum levels, San Onofre produces enough electricity (approximately 2,200 megawatts) to power 1.4 million homes in the Southern California region. The plant also provides the power that maintains the coastal transmission routes by supplying critical voltage to the system.

However, on January 21, 2012, service was interrupted when it was discovered that “trace amounts of radiation from one of the units leaked from a ‘pinhole’ was caused by unusually rapid wear in generator tubes that serve as one of three main barriers to radiation leaks to the atmosphere.”[1] This discovery forced an emergency shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station prompting investigations into the matter by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the California Public Utilities Commission, and Southern California Edison, the utility that operates San Onofre.

On June 19, 2012, Morgan Lee, a reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune, reported the findings of the nuclear inspectors who were assigned by the NRC.

“A months-long inspection of the side-lined San Onofre nuclear plant found that inaccurate computer modeling and construction shortcomings by an equipment manufacturer are behind rapid degradation of steam generator tubes that serve as a crucial barrier to radiation…”[2]

In a statement made by Greg Werner, a regional chief inspector for the nuclear commission,

“[t]he computer simulation used by Mitsubishi to design the steam generators had under predicted velocities of steam and water in the generators by factors of three and four times.”

“Essentially the tubes are not held in place securely enough, so it allows them to slide or vibrate.”

Thomas Palmisano, Edison’s vice president of nuclear engineering at San Onofre added,

“…that dry steam was contributing to vibrations and wear in the problem area, where nearly 10,000 tubes in each generator make a 180-degree turn.”

Lee reported that Gregory Jaczko, the recently resigned Chairman for the NRC, was concerned that SoCal Edison may not have been “forthright about the extent of the changes to generators manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.” This after it was disclosed at a public meeting in San Juan Capistrano that there had been “a series of alterations to the original equipment design and that these alterations included adding an additional 400 tubes to each generator.” Apparently, the “plant’s four massive generators were designed to qualify as nearly identical equipment” and SoCal Edison made the decision to “forgo a license amendment” that would have involved “a more rigorous technical review.”

Obviously, everyone is demanding answers, most especially Southern California residents who live within a 50-mile radius of the nuclear reactors and worry about their safety and who also depend on the affordable energy the plant provides. The failure of the regulatory agencies to oversee the safe operations of these facilities is not only costing the taxpayers upwards of $670 million for inspections and analysis, but it has now led to possible rolling blackouts or brownouts as the county faces its hottest months of the year.

All of this has been compounded by the recent discovery of seismic fault lines within “yards of the reactor site”[3], which will now cost taxpayers an additional $60 million for recently approved seismic studies. In an article from the San Diego Free Press dated Monday, June 18, it stated that San Onofre was originally designed to withstand a 6.0 earthquake and that it had since been upgraded to manage a 7.0 magnitude quake. In effect, the upgrade does little to settle concerns about its safety considering the Mexicali 7.5 magnitude earth quake recently felt around the region.

“Even if the steam generators were working like they were supposed to,” the article stated, the plant is not only in an earth quake zone but also

“…a tsunami inundation zone, and would likely fail in any sort of moderate earth quake. Operators admitted last month that vibration sensors on crucial equipment would improperly shut down […] in the event of an earth quake.”

Ms. Becker wants to know “What does safety cost? Do we want to invest in (nuclear energy) or invest in something else?” The reality of the plant’s shut down brings about new discussions about the future of nuclear energy as a viable source in California given the State’s aggressive renewable energy policies that require utilities to obtain 33% of their energy from renewable sources like solar and wind. However, the ability of these sources to supply adequate energy has proven to be unreliable, despite being heavily subsidized by the state of California and the Federal government. According to Brian Sussman, author of Eco-Tyranny, the production costs of solar and wind are difficult to determine.

“For solar panel manufacturers, (the challenge) is getting the kWh cost down to something near traditional energy sources. Right now it’s not even close—in fact, it’s nearly impossible to quantify the real cost of solar. The problems include the fact that traditional sources of energy are available 24/7—solar energy obviously is not. Dark of night, clouds, and angle of the sun deter efficiency, thus making the power source more expensive to produce.”

“Plus there’s an additional quagmire for solar that most promoters do not like to talk about: its noted limitations require a full-time backup system, continually running at a low level, in order to be able to quickly ramp up in the event of a change in atmospheric conditions. Most such backups are natural gas-driven.”[4]

Nevertheless, the high cost of solar and wind energy production is not the only problem with these sources of energy. Read The Green Agenda: Do the Means Justify the Ends? This article reveals the overwhelming hypocrisy of the green movement to 1) push for certain “emission free” energy sources (solar and wind) while ignoring their own rules about protecting the environment, and 2) destroy other “emission free” energy sources (dams and nuclear) decrying these sources of energy as harmful to the environment.

While mounting concerns of the fiscal and safety costs surrounding the operations of the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon Power Plants are legitimate, using this volatile situation as an opportunity to push for alternative sources of energy that are proving to be just as expensive or more to the taxpayers is insincere and opportunistic.

The taxpayers owe a debt of gratitude for the oversight that Ms. Becker and her colleagues at the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility have provided all these years. When Ms. Becker ended her presentation to COGG with the hopes that “California emerge as a leader,” the hope is that Ms. Becker will not diminish her sincerity and that she will remain primarily focused on nuclear responsibility and accountability to the taxpayers. After all, she was adamant that the group was “not pro- or anti- nuclear.”

However, based on the image below that was pulled from her website, it would seem that Rochelle Becker is morphing her goals, wanting rather to see California lead in responsible energy production, which apparently does not include nuclear power.

Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility and its Vision for Responsible Energy Production

1. Shutdown at San Onofre, Union Tribune San Diego, opinion section, June, 21. 2012
2. Lee, M., Nuclear Inspection Team Notes Flaws at San Onofre, Union Tribune San Diego, June, 19, 2012
3. Activists to Demand San Onofre Closure at NRC Public Meeting,, June 15, 2012
4. Sussman, B., Eco-tyranny, WND Publishers, 2012, pp. 125-126