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San Onofre can't take the pressure, tubes fail test

David McNew/Getty Images

It does not take a nuclear physicist to understand the troubling situation at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. 

Three tubes failed to pass a pressure test this week, prompting the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to send an inspection team to San Diego County.

The tubes, which move radioactive water through a steam generator, have been under scrutiny after unusual deterioration was found following a small radioactive gas leak in January. 

NRC officials explained the relatively obvious in a statement, by noting that the tubes that failed are more likely to rupture during plant events affecting pressure in the generator. 

It goes on to say that tube integrity is important because "the tubes provide an added barrier inside the containment building to prevent a radioactive steam release."

But that doesn't seem exactly right. They're not an added barrier. They are the barrier. Like veins are a barrier from keeping blood from going everywhere. Except here all it takes is one leaky "vein" to cause a radioactive internal hemorrhage at the nuclear plant.

Currently, both of San Onofre's generators are off line.

"Safety is our driver at this time. The units will not be returned to service until we are satisfied it’s safe to do so. Industry experts are on the site now, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is on site now – they have inspectors - so this testing will continue for the foreseeable future," Edison spokesman Steve Conroy told KPCC. 

Conroy says it will take a few weeks to finish pressure tests, and the utility will determine at that point what happens next. Electricity consumption hits its peak during the summer, and officials hope to restore plant operations by then.

Last week, the NRC annouced that all U.S. nuclear plants will be required to make modifications and safety upgrades.