Nuclear Power Struggle
San Onofre's big promises and big failure
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San Onofre nuclear plant
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission began formally flagging concerns at the plant in 2008, citing its failures to provide adequate instructions to employees, weaknesses in ensuring oversight, and problems quickly addressing safety issues. Edison replaced its top nuclear official in 2010, part of a management shakeup that improved operations. Still, San Onofre’s on-site employees have made more allegations of wrongdoing this year than those at any other nuclear plant in the country.
Between 2008 and today, the NRC received the most allegations from San Onofre’s workers. In that period, at some nuclear plants, the NRC validated one or two concerns. At San Onofre, the federal watchdog substantiated 62 complaints, including concerns that workers didn’t feel comfortable raising safety issues without fear of retaliation. The NRC in 2010 sent a stern warning to Edison, the plant’s operator, to ensure workers were encouraged to talk about safety problems.
While it isn’t clear whether any connection exists between San Onofre’s troubled history and the current outage, the mere fact that the plant has had so many problems for so long reflects poorly on it, said David Lochbaum, nuclear safety director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. When workers don’t think high standards are being enforced, they tend to become more tolerant of potential problems, Lochbaum said, because they believe there’s less accountability.
Much like a car radiator, the steam generators in a nuclear power plant transfer heated water through tubes to create steam. The steam then turns the blades of a turbine to create electricity.
Lochbaum likened the situation to a defendant with a long criminal record showing up yet again in court. Their record doesn’t automatically mean they’re guilty, but it doesn’t help, either.
“They may be disassociated, but when you have that other baggage, you can’t ignore it,” Lochbaum said.
San Onofre’s current problems have been traced to the plant’s steam generators, vital parts that were replaced only two years ago. They’re so essential—and so costly—that if they need to be replaced yet again, ratepayer advocates say the nuclear plant might simply be run at reduced power until its operating license expires in 2022 and then closed.
“It’s just a hugely expensive expenditure,” said Matthew Freedman, staff attorney at The Utility Reform Network in San Francisco. “And San Onofre has a recent history full of problems and surprises. So one could predict that even if the steam generator problem works itself out, another problem would be waiting around the corner. “