Top US nuclear official makes first visit to San Onofre plant

Allison M. Macfarlane, (second from right), chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, listens as Richard St. Onge, Director of Nuclear Regulatory Affairs for Southern California Edison, points to a steam generator during a tour of the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Power Station Monday.
Allison M. Macfarlane, (second from right), chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, listens as Richard St. Onge, Director of Nuclear Regulatory Affairs for Southern California Edison, points to a steam generator during a tour of the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Power Station Monday. Eliot Brenner/AP

The new head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made her first visit Monday to the damaged and offline San Onofre nuclear plant. Allison Macfarlane said she wanted to hear from officials and see the layout of the plant – which has been closed for a year.

“I’m interested in the technical aspects of what went wrong, whether we really understand whether the licensee understands what created the problem, and therefore whether we can be assured that it will [be] OK if the plant restarts," Macfarlane said.

President Obama named Macfarlane chair of the NRC about six months ago; she oversees all nuclear power plants in the country.

There is arguably no plant drawing more of Macfarlane’s attention right now than San Onofre, so much so that the agency established a separate office in Texas to deal solely with the plant.

The licensee – Southern California Edison - has asked the NRC permission to re-start San Onofre’s Reactor 2 at 70 percent power.

 Macfarlane said a decision could come as soon as March, adding that before then the agency still needs more information from Edison.

Macfarlane also met with local residents and anti-nuclear activists who contend it’s unsafe for the plant to re-open. 

A key issue for the NRC could be whether the plant can safely operate at a level it wasn’t originally designed or licensed for.

The agency is also taking a broader look at steam generators nationwide.

Other plants have had problems, but none to the extent of San Onofre.

 “We want to understand what happened with the steam generator and make sure we do understand it so we can have some predictability in the future,” said Macfarlane.

Macfarlane said she’s tried to improve communications at an agency that’s been criticized by anti-nuclear activists for being too secretive.

After touring the plant, she met with some of those activists, including Del Mar city councilman Don Mosier.

He said he came away from the meeting optimistic that the NRC is finally getting the message San Onofre is too dangerous to reopen.

“We’re starting to absorb the lessons from the Fukushima disaster,” said Mosier. “Hopefully we keep moving in that direction, but I think there’s a lot of public concern here in Southern California about the safety of these nuclear power plants, and my sense is the NRC is starting to take this issue more seriously than they have in the past.”

Mosier and the many other local residents opposing San Onofre’s restart will get another opportunity to have their voice heard next month.

The NRC has scheduled a public meeting for February 12th.

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