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San Onofre to stay dark for now, new nuclear chief says

January 14, 2013 |  4:18 pm

San Onofre nuclear power plant. Off-line nearly a year, it will remain dark for now, new nuclear chief says.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief made her first visit Monday to the troubled San Onofre nuclear plant since taking office in July, offering assurance that the facility will remain closed until its safety is certain.

NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane traveled to California to visit the closed plant and meet with local elected officials, environmentalists and plant workers' union representatives to hear their concerns.

The plant has been shut down for nearly a year because of unexpected deterioration of tubes in its four giant steam generators, replaced less than two years earlier. Officials learned of the unusual wear after a tube sprang a leak last January, releasing a small amount of radioactive steam.

The NRC is reviewing a restart proposal that plant operator Southern California Edison submitted for one of the plant's two reactor units, which entails running that unit at 70% capacity for five months in hopes that operating at reduced power would alleviate the conditions that caused the tubes to vibrate excessively and rub against support structure and adjacent tubes.

Macfarlane reiterated assurances that the commission will not allow the plant to restart unless its staff is certain that Edison's plan is safe.

"We aren't doing this as an experiment. We would want to make sure that the plant can operate safely, period," she said in a meeting with reporters after touring the plant.

Although the ultimate decision on the plant's fate will be made by commission staff based on technical analysis of the restart proposal, Macfarlane said she wanted to hear from the public.

"We need to hear everybody's concerns and make sure that we take account of them," she said. "We have to be open minded, and maybe we'll learn something new."

The commission may make a decision on the restart proposal for the plant's Unit 2 as early as March. The timeline depends in part on whether Edison is able to answer a long list of questions on the plan to the satisfaction of NRC staff.

The commission has set up a special team based out of its regional headquarters in Texas to deal with the San Onofre issue.

While some NRC staff members are reviewing Edison's restart proposal, there are separate proceedings before the commission looking at a petition by environmental group Friends of the Earth. The group alleges that Edison should have gone through a license amendment process for all design changes made when it replaced the steam generators and that the company should be required to get a license amendment -- which would include a courtroom-like public hearing process -- before the NRC makes a decision on the restart proposal.

Macfarlane declined to comment.

Her predecessor, former chairman Gregory B. Jaczko, said last spring that the commission might need to review its procedures on reviewing design changes in general.  

Art Howell, deputy regional administrator for the NRC's Region 4, said staff members are currently looking at the review process specifically in the context of San Onofre.

Macfarlane was also set to visit California's other nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon.


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Photo: San Onofre has been off-line for nearly a year. Credit: Los Angeles Times