San Onofre Nuclear Power Generating Station (photo: Orange County Register)
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) barely had time to ignore a letter co-authored by California Senator Barbara Boxer―asking that it not take any hasty action concerning the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station―before announcing that changes at the facility posed “no significant hazard” and indicating public hearings probably weren’t necessary.
The letter, co-signed by Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey, was sent to the NRC last week, the day before the agency responded to a request from plant operator Southern California Edison for preliminary determinations of safety in advance of a license amendment approval that would eventually allow the plant to operate at 70% power for a limited period of time.
“Southern California Edison is seeking to shortcut the license amendment process by urging the NRC to declare that a license amendment that would enable the restart of the San Onofre facility at 70% power involves no significant hazards,” the lawmakers wrote. “We believe that granting this request would put public safety at risk.”
The power plant has been closed since January 2012, when radioactive steam leaked from generator tubes damaged by unexpected vibration. Subsequent investigations traced the unprecedented damage in thousands of tubes to engineering mistakes that may have been known by the manufacturer, Mitsubishi, and Edison before the problems became evident.
Many San Onofre critics want the plant permanently shut down, but short of that they want a full safety review of the fixes made by Edison and assurances that the plant can run at 100% power without fear that it will shake itself apart. Eight million people live within 50 miles of the plant, located between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Edison says it is still hoping to restart one of the two disabled reactors by June 1. The preliminary decision last week by the NRC, however, is just one step in the process leading to actual reactor activation. Although the NRC essentially said operating at 70% power with suspect tubes during a probationary period doesn’t involve any increased risk of accident over the existing license agreement, it still has to go through a process of license amendment approval that could take 60 days. It also requires 30 days of public comment.
Edison is trying to fast-track the process even as two NRC panels are considering Edison’s compliance with its current contract and investigators continue to pour over years of safety problems at the plant and the flawed analysis that led to last January’s shutdown.
Shaun Burnie, director of nuclear campaigns at Friends of the Earth, told Bloomberg News that the preliminary NRC finding opens the door for early approval without public hearings.