At hearing, environmental group says government rushed approval of faulty steam generators at San Onofre

Grant Slater/KPCC

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has been offline since inspectors discovered problems in newly installed steam generators on January 31, 2012.

The group Friends of Earth presented about 40 different slides – mostly technical data – at a Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing Wednesday outside Washington, D.C.

But the crux of their case can be summed up by just one slide: a drawing of a cart before the horse.

The group argues San Onofre’s operator, Southern California Edison, should have been required to go through the NRC's license amendment process before it installed new steam generators in 2009 and 2010.

Less than two years later, inspectors found that some tubes in those generators were so badly worn that they could fail - and possibly leak radiation.

The plant has been closed ever since.

“What happened is Edison made their mind up before they went out for bids they were not going to tell the NRC all the changes they were making,” said nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen, who testified on behalf of Friends of the Earth. “This steam generator is so much changed from everything before it, it’s no wonder they had problems.”

Gundersen calls the tube-to-tube wear that happened at San Onofre the biggest equipment failure in the U.S. nuclear industry in the last decade.

But he’s worried his arguments fell on deaf ears because - he claims - the NRC is rushing to get the plant re-opened.

“It seems to me that they’re more interested in getting through the process than paying attention to anything Friends of the Earth had to say,” said Gundersen.

NRC, Edison say "safety first"

NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane, who visited San Onofre for the first time this week, said a decision to re-open the plant could come as soon as March, but only after the NRC carefully reviews all the science.

“We at the NRC will certainly not approve [San Onofre] to restart until we’re convinced they can operate safely,” she told reporters on Monday.  

All along Edison has stressed safety is its priority, too.

Spokeswoman Maureen Brown said Friends of the Earth didn’t present any new information at the hearing, and the utility did nothing out of the ordinary.

“San Onofre and Southern California Edison went through a required NRC process with regard to changes to our technical specifications for the replacement steam generators,” said Brown. “The NRC reviewed and inspected these changes. They were approved, and there was no request for public comment or additional information when this process occurred."

That was of course before the problems at San Onofre, before “tube-to-tube wear” or “steam generators” became part of the Southern California lexicon.

Ever since, people have paid much closer attention to the nuclear plant.

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