Edison requests exemptions from safety regulations at San Onofre while the NRC hides important documents and refuses to implement new safety recommendations
Roger Johnson, PhD
Fireworks broke out last week when Senator Barbara Boxer confronted Nuclear Regulator Commissioners at a Senate oversight committee hearing about the safety of nuclear power plants. It turns out that months ago Southern California Edison made lengthy requests to the NRC for a long list of exemptions from safety regulations. They did this quietly at the same time they formed (with much public relations fanfare) their own Community Engagement Panel (CEP) which has become a forum for Edison to boast about its concern with safety.
At the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee hearing on June 5, Senator Boxer waved a thick fistful of exemption requests that Edison submitted to the NRC way back in March. The commissioners responded by saying that they cannot comment on the exemption requests because they never saw the requests. Apparently the NRC staff never showed the documents to the 5 commissioners.
The NRC frequently gets exemption requests when operators of nuclear power plants want to bypass regulations, especially regulations which require time, effort, and money. The NRC has a perfect record on these exemption requests: they have always been granted, even if the requests involve exemptions from safety regulations. In the case of San Onofre, the commissioners refused to say that they would deny the Edison’s safety exemption requests. Anyone listening got the impression that the NRC would routinely continue its practice of giving plant operators any exemptions they wanted.
What does Edison say about nuclear safety? Anyone who has been to a SCE meeting knows that they always start out proclaiming that safety is their number one concern. There can be no compromises with safety, they say. At the last Community Engagement Panel (CEP) meeting in May, their chief nuclear officer pontificated at length about Edison concern with safety. He went over the new SCE public relations document called “Statement of Core Principles and Values.” The three core values are (1)Safety, (2) Stewardship, and (3)Community Engagement.
What does Edison actually do about nuclear safety? They quietly (no PR) make elaborate requests to the NRC for exemptions from safety regulations. Here is what Edison wants to do: Edison has asked to be freed from off-site emergency planning. Edison wants to reduce the scope of on-site emergency planning. Edison wants to rid itself of having to deal with emergency planning zones and zones of ingestion (the 50 mile area surrounding San Onofre where radioactive fallout could contaminate food and water). Edison wants to discontinue its obligation to make radioactivity contamination projections for the public. Edison wants to discontinue its obligation to warn the public with sirens if there is an emergency. Edison does not want to assist with emergency evacuation facilities and it does not even want to be involved with providing the public with information about evacuation time estimates.
No wonder Senator Boxer is angry. If the NRC responds to these requests the way they have in the past, they will all be granted. Senator Boxer directly asked NRC chair Allison Macfarlane if she knew how many radioactive spent fuel rods were stored at San Onofre. Chairwoman Macfarlane said she did not know, and Senator Boxer sharply told her that there were over 2600. Senator Boxer then asked when the commissioners would study the Edison exemption requests. Chairwoman Macfarlane again said she did not know. This prompted a mild outburst from Senator Boxer:
“You do not know? You do not know??? You better know! I’ve got 8 million people living within 50 miles of that site. It had a fire that came within a half-mile of that site! And now they don’t want to have evacuation plans! This is a no-brainer!” Those who want to see the video of the confrontation can view it here: http://youtu.be/GWlsl9X0vgA
The position of the NRC with regard to plants like San Onofre which are now closed is that such plants are of little danger to the public. It is amazing (and revealing) that the nuclear industry can make such claims. San Onofre has the radioactive equivalent of 2,000 nuclear warheads yet they maintain that this should be of no concern to anyone.
The myth the safety of closed nuclear power plants was exploded in a more personal way when Senator Boxer confronted Dr. Macfarlane with a statement made in writing on this issue. Dr. Macfarlane is quoted as saying that even a shut down nuclear power plant could have a fire spreading to spent fuel storage that could result in “significantly worse” radioactive fallout than what happened at Chernobyl. Dr. Macfarlane tried to evade the question. Senator Boxer had to ask three different times if she made that statement. The chair of the NRC finally admitted that yes indeed, she made that statement. Evasion of questions seems to be an NRC specialty.
Those who don’t know what happened at Chernobyl might be more than a little concerned to know that the one thousand square mile area surrounding this nuclear power plant is now a forbidden Zone of Exclusion. Can you imagine if the 1,000 square mile region around San Onofre became a Zone of Exclusion? How many bulldozers would it take to bulldoze all the towns in this area? This has already happened to one town in Colorado. Uravan, Colorado used to be a great place to live. But it became so contaminated from the mining of uranium that it 1994 the government just bulldozed the entire town to the ground (http://articles.latimes.com/1994-10-23/local/me-53623_1_radioactive-tailings).
The dirty little secret of the nuclear industry is that “spent” fuel means that the profitability is spent. The “spent” fuel rods remain extremely dangerous and can remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Everyone knows what a large earthquake and tsunami did to Fukushima, and everyone knows that San Onofre is also located at the edge of the ocean on active earthquake faults. Edison likes to brag that its 30 ft. seawall will protect it from tsunamis, but what they don’t want you to know is that it is 30 ft only at low tide. David Whiting of the Orange County Register wrote an article about this (http://www.ocregister.com/articles/wall-292256-plant-san.html?page=3). Trying to represent that earthquakes happen only at low tide is an example of how unprincipled Edison is when it comes to safety. The tsunami in Japan traveled 6 miles inland and reached heights of 133 ft in Iwate Prefecture. The plant is still leaking radiation and a 2013 WHO report predicts that girls living in the most affected areas will have a 70% higher risk of developing thyroid cancer (the rate is less for boys).
It has been widely noted that both Edison and the NRC rely on strong public relations efforts. These efforts stress safety, but many feel that this is to cover for the fact that both are more concerned with money and profit than they are with safety. Officially, the NRC logo states that its mission is “Protecting People and the Environment.” In reality, many have come to believe that the NRC is the poster boy for regulatory capture, a bureaucratic agency which is under the control of the industry it is supposed to regulate. NRC funding comes from the nuclear industry, and NRC commissioners are vetted by the NEI (the Nuclear Energy Institute, a powerful political organization in Washington that lobbies for the interests of the nuclear industry).
Has the NRC Implemented Lessons Learned from Fukushima?
The entire nuclear industry was shaken to its toes by what happened at Fukushima. The Japanese were told over and over that everything was completely safe and there was no need to worry about accidents. When the catastrophe actually happened, everyone realized that it could happen anywhere. The NRC was pressured to study what went wrong and to use the lessons learned at Fukushima to improve the safety of all 104 American nuclear power reactors. The NRC set up a Task Force of senior staff and published a Lessons Learned report in 2011. With great public relations fanfare, the NRC announced: “The NRC has taken significant action to enhance the safety of reactors in the United States based on the lessons learned from this accident.” The Task Force came up with 12 recommendations.
That was two years ago. It turns out that the NRC strategy was to study the problem and to gain publicity for studying the problem. Actually doing anything about it was not part of the plan. To this date, none of the 12 recommendations has been implemented. This provoked another sharp exchange between Senator Boxer and the NRC commissioners. She asked them directly if they had implemented any of the recommendations. The commissioners choked on their own words trying to avoid admitting that they have not implemented any of the recommendations. The NRC commissioners are mired in appearance and unwilling to admit reality. Senator Boxer told the commissioners: “I am afraid that you may have lost sight of your mission.” Once again, it all comes down to money. Additional safety costs money, and to the NRC and to nuclear power plant operators, safety interferes with the higher motive of profit. What do you expect when a nuclear power plant like Edison is run by bankers?
The NRC Rebukes Congressional Oversight and Conceals Important Documents
The next exchange between Senator Boxer and the NRC was over the refusal of the NRC to release documents related to the failure of the new steam generators at San Onofre. A video of this exchange can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yHe7EQuG8g or you can read all about it in an excellent investigative report by Orange County Register watchdog Teri Sforza: http://www.ocregister.com/articles/nrc-617412-boxer-documents.html
Everyone knows the reason the generators failed: Edison tried to extract more power (read: more profit) out of them by squeezing in more tubes which compromised structural safety. The sneaky part is that Edison tried to pass off the major design changes as insignificant and claimed that they were merely doing a “like for like” exchange. The purpose of claiming a “like for like” exchange was to avoid a detailed safety review of the whole design. It worked. When the generators failed, Edison quickly and loudly blamed Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) which built the generators. Mitsubishi said that it implemented the changes that Edison demanded. The case is now in the courts. In the meantime, Edison is working hard to make ratepayers rather than stockholders pay for the $671 million blunder.
No one really knows exactly how much Edison and the NRC conspired to sneak through the design changes. Documents exist, but neither Edison nor the NRC will release them. When Senator Boxer requested the documents, the NRC refused. Apparently there are a lot of incriminating documents that the NRC and the nuclear industry do not want the public to know. The NRC claims that it is above the law and can keep government documents secret because disclosure of the documents could undermine the ability of NRC officials to communicate secretly without fearing that someone might find out what they are saying or doing.
These outrageous claims have no basis in constitutional law. The NRC was created by an act of Congress in 1974, and it is Senator Boxer’s committee which exercises Congressional oversight as it is legally required to do. The refusal of the NRC to provide requested documents to Congress might be seen as a criminal action. Senator Boxer has threatened the NRC with a contempt of Congress citation. Stay tuned, this story will not go away. Brace yourself for what we will learn when the documents are uncovered. Let’s hope the NRC does not shred them.
The coverup going on is shameful to the nuclear industry, an embarrassment to the country, and worrisome to anyone who lives near a nuclear power plant. By the way, that includes a lot of people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a third of the U.S. population (116 million people) live within 10 miles of a nuclear power plant. That’s why the National Academy of Sciences is now studying possible cancer streaks in these areas.
One would think that this should be a big story and a major concern for everyone living in Southern California. It appears that we will now be living for decades (or centuries) with thousands of tons of radioactive fuel from San Onofre (plus all the radioactive fuel from Diablo Canyon). Yes, picture perfect Southern California is about to become a nuclear waste dump. The radioactive waste from San Onofre will rest in Congressional District 49, home of Congressman Darrel Issa. What is Congressman Issa doing about the fact that his district is going to be a nuclear waste dump? Nothing. How does he feel about it? He has nothing to say. After all, he is busy with important things for District 49, like Benghazi. And of course accumulating money (he is the richest member of Congress). Issa gets a grade of F for caring about his district. Governor Jerry Brown also gets an F for doing nothing about the biggest threat to the future of California.
Senator Barbara Boxer gets an A+. Thank God there are at least a few politicians who fight to protect public health and safety.