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Category: San Onofre

San Onofre design choices led to nuclear plant shutdown

San Onofre
An executive with the company that manufactured faulty equipment that led to the shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear plant defended decisions made in the design of the replacement steam generators.

The company made choices in designing support structures at San Onofre that were intended to prevent one type of vibration, but ended up creating another type of vibration that ultimately led to the plant's closure, said Frank Gillespie, senior vice president with Mitsubishi Nuclear Energy Systems.

The problematic vibration, he said, had not been seen at any other plant before, although it had been observed in experimental conditions.

That vibration led to excessive wear on the tubes, particularly in the plant's Unit 3, where one tube sprang a leak and released a small amount of radioactive steam on Jan. 31, 2012, and eight tubes failed pressure tests.

The nuclear facility has been closed for more than a year.

Mitsubushi discussed the design process in a proprietary report that was made public in a redacted form earlier this month.

Gillespie said designers working on the new system in 2005 put "paramount focus" on controlling vibration and reducing wear. In the process, they added more anti-vibration bars, but made other changes that led to less contact between the bars and tubes.

In Unit 3 in particular, the bars were flatter, leading to about half the amount of pressure between bars and tubes as in Unit 2, the plant's other working reactor unit, which also saw an unusual but less severe amount of wear.

“What they didn’t understand at the time is, some of the steps ... actually made in plane [vibration] worse,” Gillespie said. "...There was an underappreciation for the fact that the pressure of the bars against the tubes actually performed a very important function."

Anti-nuclear activists and some lawmakers -- notably, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)  -- have accused Mitsubishi and plant operator Southern California Edison of being aware of defects in the equipment's design prior to installation and failing to make modifications that might have prevented the problem in order to avoid going through a potentially lengthy license amendment process.

Mitsubishi's root cause report did show that some changes were rejected in part because they would have required a license amendment. The changes were intended to reduce the dryness of the steam flowing around the tubes, which ended up being a factor in the problematic vibration.

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Officials rejected some changes to crippled San Onofre generators

San Onofre nuclear power plant

A report on the root causes of problems at the San Onofre nuclear plant shows that officials considered making design changes to the plant’s new steam generators before they were installed but rejected some fixes in part because they would require further regulatory approvals.

Some of the generators began malfunctioning a year after they were installed, and the nuclear power plant has been shuttered for 14 months. The closure has already cost San Onofre’s operators, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, $470 million.

Ratepayers across the region are already shouldering some of those costs and could be on the hook for hefty future repair bills.

The report was released Friday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It was written by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which built the generators.

The report provides the most detailed picture to date of how the flawed system was designed.

But both companies insisted Friday said that they were not aware of the problem that crippled San Onofre. Mitsubishi argued that the changes officials contemplated before installation would not have made a major difference.

Mitsubishi, however, acknowledged that it had made an incorrect input into a computer code that resulted in underestimating the velocity of steam flow in the plant’s replacement steam generators. Again, the company said that that error did not cause the failure.

The report comes amid a furious debate over who is to blame for defects that led to the shutdown.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) obtained a leaked version of the proprietary Mitsubishi report. They wrote to the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission alleging that the report showed Edison and Mitsubishi were aware of design defects in the generators before they were installed and chose not to make fixes.

On Friday, after weeks of back and forth with Mitsubishi, the NRC released a redacted version of the report.

San Onofre was shuttered after a tube in the plant’s replacement steam generator system leaked a small amount of radioactive steam on Jan. 31, 2012. Eight other tubes in the same reactor unit later failed pressure tests, an unprecedented number in the industry, and thousands more tubes in both the plant’s units showed signs of wear.

The wear was blamed on tube vibration caused by excessively dry and high-velocity steam and inadequate support structures, particularly in one of the plant’s two units. Tube vibration and wear has been a problem at other plants, but the specific type of vibration seen at San Onofre had never been experienced before in the industry.

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Voters consider ballot measures in Redondo Beach and Carson

 

While the contests at Los Angeles City Hall drew much of the spotlight in Tuesday’s election, 29 other cities throughout Los Angeles County held municipal votes of their own.

Voters in Redondo Beach and Carson will decide controversial ballot measures -- one aimed at shutting down a power plant and the other at ousting Carson's longtime mayor.

Redondo Beach residents will vote on Measure A, which would rezone the 50-acre site of the gas-fired AES Redondo Beach plant and would require it to shut down by the end of 2020.

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Plant owner AES had been planning to construct a new plant on the site to comply with new state regulations on the use of ocean water for cooling.

If Measure A passes, the California Energy Commission could still choose to permit a new plant, but proponents of the measure say the commission is unlikely to overrule local zoning decisions.

The measure would require that 60% to 70% of the land be converted to parks or open space and would allow commercial development on the rest of it.

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Proponents of the measure say the new plant would pollute more, because despite being more efficient, it would run more often, and that other uses of the land -- like an upscale hotel -- would bring in more revenue to the city.

"We don't want a new power plant on our water front for another 50 years," said Councilman Bill Brand, a co-author of the measure and the only sitting council member who supports it. Brand said AES pays about $400,000 in taxes a year to the city, but that new commercial developments could bring in 10 times as much.

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San Onofre: Edison, regulators at odds over restart plan?

Children play in the surf and a man fishes with the nuclear power plant looming in the distance. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Southern California Edison may be at odds with federal regulators over what it means to run the San Onofre nuclear plant at full power.

Edison officials met with U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staffers Wednesday to discuss the agency's technical questions on a proposal by Edison to restart one reactor at the shuttered plant and run it at 70% power for five months before taking it back offline for more inspections.

The company argued that running the reactor at reduced power will alleviate the conditions that led to unusual wear on steam generator tubes carrying radioactive water.

The plant has been out of service for more than a year after one of the tubes in the plant's Unit 3 leaked a small amount of radioactive steam.

The NRC has asked Edison to show that Unit 2 -- the unit proposed for restart and which showed less tube damage -- could be run at the full power level allowed under its license without danger of tube rupture.

Activists have contended that if Edison fails to prove there is no risk then it should be required to apply for a license amendment to run at 70% power.

In a response submitted Monday, Edison argued that 70% power is, in fact, "normal steady state full power."

The company said that the "clear purpose" of the technical specification governing tube integrity is "to ensure that the … tubes will retain their integrity over the range of operating conditions to which they will be subjected. In this case, that range is limited to 70% power."

Art Howell, who heads an NRC panel focused on San Onofre, told Edison officials Wednesday that "Your position on the technical specification is different than staff's position that was communicated to you on Jan. 29."

Edison also promised to provide an analysis by March 15 showing that the unit can safely operate at 100% power. Edison Vice President of Engineering Tom Palmisano told the NRC staff, "We think it's appropriately conservative to operate at reduced power" and continue to collect data.

Activists expressed outrage at Edison's response to the NRC request.

"With all due respect, it reads to me like a schoolboy's justification for why they couldn't complete a homework assignment," said Kendra Ulrich, a nuclear campaigner with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which has been pushing the NRC to require a license amendment.

Ulrich said Edison was "asserting they understand the regulations better than the regulators themselves."

NRC staff have said they will make a decision on Edison's restart proposal no earlier than late April.

In its quarterly earnings report Tuesday, Southern California Edison's parent company, Edison International, disclosed that the plant's outage has cost the company more than $400 million to date for repairs, inspections and replacement power.

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Photo: Children play in the surf and a man fishes with the nuclear power plant looming in the distance. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

San Onofre: Edison ordered to show costs for replacing generators

San Onofre nuclear generating station. Edison ordered to show costs for replacing generators.
In response to a complaint filed by a former San Diego city attorney, an administrative judge with the California Public Utilities Commission has ordered Southern California Edison to file an accounting of its costs to replace steam generators at the San Onofre nuclear plant by March 15.

The commission did not agree to immediately stop collecting funds from ratepayers for the project, however.

Issues with the replacement steam generators -- installed in 2010 and 2011 -- led to a shutdown of the plant that has now stretched on for more than a year. The utilities commission launched an investigation in October into the costs of the outage, which could eventually lead to money being refunded to customers.

The commission authorized Edison and SDG&E in 2005 to spend up to $782 million in ratepayer funds on the replacement project but agreed to review whether any costs exceeding $671 million were reasonable once Edison submitted its final project costs, which the company has not yet done.

In filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the companies reported having spent $774 million as of Sept. 30.

In the meantime, Edison received permission from the PUC to include costs of the steam generators on bills in 2011 and 2012 of $56.7 million and $115.2 million, respectively. A request to recover costs in 2013 is pending.

The commission currently looking at the plant's 2012 costs is in the first phase of the investigation, slated to extend until July. It had planned to look at the costs of the steam generator replacement as part of a later phase. 

Forrmer San Diego City Atty. Michael Aguirre, representing client Ruth Henricks, asked that the timetable be moved up and that the commission stop collecting money from the ratepayers for the steam generator replacement and refund the money collected already.

The administrative law judge's ruling declined to take those steps but did set a binding date for Edison to file the application.

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Edison manipulated costs at San Onofre, complaint alleges

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station at San Onofre State Beach

An advocacy group filed a complaint Wednesday with the California Public Utilities Commission alleging that Southern California Edison manipulated inflation calculations to recover more money from ratepayers for defective replacement steam generators at the San Onofre nuclear plant.

The Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility complaint alleges that Edison violated federal securities law by misrepresenting the authorized inflation adjustment by as much as $100 million in filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and might have overbilled customers using the inflated figures.

John Geesman, an attorney for the alliance, characterized the alleged actions as "plain old-fashioned financial chicanery."

Unusual degradation of tubes in the new steam generators, installed in 2010 and 2011, led to a small leak of radioactive steam in January 2012 and prompted the plant's shutdown.

The public utilities commission is already investigating the costs of the outage and may eventually order Edison, which operates the plant, and San Diego Gas & Electric, which owns a 20% share in the facility, to refund money to ratepayers. PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper said the commission will be looking at the costs of the steam generators as part of a later phase of that investigation.

The Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility asked the commission to call for court action by the California attorney general's office under the state's false claims act. Under that law, any government entity that is found to have been overbilled could recover triple the amount.

The PUC authorized Edison and SDG&E in 2005 to spend up to $782 million in ratepayer funds on the replacement project, but agreed to review whether any costs exceeding $671 million were reasonable.

The commission did not specify an inflation adjustment at the time. That was to be determined when Edison submitted its final accounting of project costs and applied to include the costs permanently in rates.

The company has not yet filed that application but is expected to do so in March. In the meantime, Edison received permission from the PUC to include costs of the steam generators on bills in 2011 and 2012 of $56.7 million and $115.2 million, respectively. A request to recover costs in 2013 is pending.

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San Onofre design issues probed by regulatory commission

San Onofre
The head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Friday that the agency's office of investigations is probing the  "completeness and accuracy" of information Southern California Edison has given the agency about equipment at its troubled San Onofre nuclear plant.

NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane wrote to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that the agency had launched an "expansive investigation" on Sept. 28, 2012, into information Edison gave the agency about the plant's steam generators. The investigation is ongoing.

Macfarlane was responding to a letter sent Wednesday by Boxer and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) after they obtained a leaked version of a non-public Mitsubishi report on the cause of problems with the steam generators.

The lawmakers said the report showed that when designing the replacement steam generators, Edison and Mitsubishi had rejected safety modifications in order to avoid triggering a lengthy NRC license amendment process.

The plant has suffered from unusual degradation of steam generator tubes, which resulted in a small leak of radioactive steam more than a year ago and prompted the plant's shutdown.

The NRC, the lawmakers and Mitsubishi have declined to release the full Mitsubishi report, saying it contains proprietary information.

Markey said Friday in an email that the report showed a team formed by Edison and Mitsubishi when designing the replacement steam generators had identified some conditions that made the system particularly vulnerable to tube wear, but rejected design changes that could have mitigated the problem. The team, formed early in the design process, was focused on the design of anti-vibration bars.

A source familiar with the document who was not authorized to speak on the record said the team was apparently formed as part of the normal early-design process, to minimize potential problems with tube vibration and wear, not because the companies had a specific concern at the time.

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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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