Ex-NRC head Jaczko: San Onofre restart proposal ‘does not instill a lot of confidence’

Japan’s former Prime Minster Naoto Kan (left) and Gregory Jaczko, the ex-chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), at a meeting in San Diego on June 4, 2012 about the future of nuclear energy.
Japan’s former Prime Minster Naoto Kan (left) and Gregory Jaczko, the ex-chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), at a meeting in San Diego on June 4, 2012 about the future of nuclear energy. Ben Bergman/KPCC

Gregory Jaczko, who chaired the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) from 2009 to 2012, said he has doubts about Edison’s proposal to restart the San Onofre nuclear plant at 70 percent power for five months.

“The approach does not instill a lot of confidence in me,” he said Tuesday in San Diego. “It’s a fairly novel idea to allow a plant to operate at a reduced power level because of a safety issue.”

He said the proposal raises doubts about the nuclear plant's operations.

"When you’re operating at a reduced power level, it indicates a lack of confidence,” explained Jaczko. “It raises a lot of questions.”

RELATED: Regulatory panel delivers setback to restart plans for San Onofre nuclear plant

He also said the process known as 10 CFR 50.59 (or "50.59" for short) which nuclear plants use to change similar equipment without a new license, was not meant for such a significant change of steam generators as occurred at San Onofre. It is believed the change in equipment led to a leack of radioactive steam, which caused the plant to be shuttered last year.

Jackzo was speaking in San Diego at meeting organized by activists opposed to restarting the San Onofre nuclear plant. He was joined by Naoto Kan – Japan’s former Prime Minster who led the country during the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis – and other experts on nuclear power.

The ex-head of the NRC also warned that U.S. regulators have not properly heeded the lessons of the Fukishma nuclear crisis.

“We need a different risk analysis,” Jackzo said. “For many people what happened at Fukishima was a wake-up call. This low probability scenario could in fact happen.”

He went on to say: “It’s almost stunning we didn’t take any action in the United States.”

He said the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 showed that scenarios previously thought to have very low probabilities can indeed happen. And when they do, they can have a catastrophic impact on the environment, public safety and the economy.

He said U.S. regulators no do not pay enough attention to the dire consequences of nuclear accidents.

“When I was at NRC, there was resistance to looking significantly at these things,” said Jaczko. “I think that’s a mistake.”

Jackzo said most U.S. nuclear plants were designed 50 to 60 years ago and have antiquated safety measures.

“As we look at the current fleet, many plants we have are aging,” said Jaczko. “I think it’s time we begin to reconsider prolonging the life of many of these reactors.”

Jackzo said when he was first told about Fukushima, his first concern was a Tsunami damaging the San Onofre or Diablo Canyon nuclear plants in California. Both of them are built near the Pacific Ocean.

While those fears did not come to pass under his tenure, what happened in Japan showed him that U.S. facilities should be equipped to deal with what happened at Fukushima.

“Not all plants are required to deal with all accidents,” he said. “If nuclear is going to be used, I think we have to make rules such that there will never be an evacuation.”

Jackzo said he tried putting a halt to new nuclear licenses in the U.S. after Fukushima, but he met resistance from fellow members of the NRC.

He was forced out of his position last year after reports surfaced about his combative management style.

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