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San Onofre Nuclear Plant Cannot Fix Damaged Canisters of Toxic Waste

In the two weeks since a worker at the San Onofre nuclear plant blew the whistle on a serious near-miss accident, Southern California Edison, the company that operates the facility (stock symbols: SCE-E and EIX), has halted work on moving the toxic fuel from cooling pools to new dry-storage silos in the ground near the world-famous San Onofre beach.

A massive, 100-ton canister filled with deadly nuclear waste accidentally snagged on a small metal ledge as it was being lowered into its silo and remained perched in the air with no rigging to restrain it, unnoticed by the crane operators. The canister could have fallen 18 feet to concrete floor. Known by some as “Chernobyl in a Can,” the canister contains as much radiation as was released during the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in 1986.

This is the second such halt this year. In March of 2018, loose bolts were discovered inside a canister that was about to be loaded with the toxic fuel. Southern California Edison (SCE) halted work for 10 days in March before resuming with an older canister design that did not use such bolts.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which has oversight authority of the plant, announced they have launched an investigation into the near-miss accident of 3 August 2018. Its on-site investigation, formally called a “Special Inspection,” will take place 10-14 September 2018 with conclusions due to be published within 45 days after that. The NRC full memo can be viewed here: NRC Memo of Special Inspection.

The near-miss accident was not reported by Southern California Edison to the NRC until 3 days after the event (spanning a weekend) and was not revealed to the public by Southern California Edison at its public forum on 9 August 2018. The whistleblower felt obligated to expose the near-miss accident at that public meeting after allowing time for the company to come clean and announce it on its own.

“I may not have a job tomorrow for what I’m about to say, but that’s fine, because I made a promise to my daughter that if no one else talked about what happened on Friday, that I would.”
— David Fritch, Whistleblower

In a San Diego Tribune article, Tom Palmisano, Chief Nuclear Officer at the plant, admitted “…if I could do it again, I would have addressed it upfront like I did with the shim issue in the first quarter.”

 


 

How Has Southern California Edison Responded?

Here’s a roundup of Southern California Edison’s public response since the whistleblower’s shocking announcement on 9 August 2018:

“Normal Construction Site”

Within 12 hours, David Victor, the chairman of the San Onofre Community Engagement Panel, gave a radio interview on KPBS in San Diego:

“This is one of many workplace safety issues that arise at a normal construction site, and they [Southern California Edison] are working on it. I was concerned about the implications that there was some kind of cusp of an accident. I see no evidence that that’s actually true….”

No Risk To Employees or Public

By the end of the next day, Southern California Edison issued a press release reassuring the public:

“At no point during this incident was there a risk to employee or public safety….”

Clearly it was important to make that point as quickly as possible to insure against any unjustified public panic. The Orange County Register, however, reported on 24 August 2018, describing in detail the near-miss accident: “One worker retreated to a safer distance to reduce radiation exposure, while the other manned the controls, intent on ensuring that both sides of the rigging remained level,” which indicates there may have been some radiation risk to employees. These two statements seem inconsistent with each other.

 


 

Work Halted for Now

An Edison spokesperson told Dana Pointer, “SCE halted spent fuel downloading activities on August 3 [2018] and will not resume them until we are satisfied that Holtec [the sub-contractor who transfers the toxic fuel] has completed all of its corrective actions.” The San Clemente Times also reported:

“Spent fuel loading work will not restart until SCE is satisfied that all appropriate actions have been taken, and the NRC has an opportunity to complete its on-site inspection activities.”

The NRC’s memo states, “The licensee [SCE] has committed to not resume fuel loading operations until after this special inspection and associated reviews are complete.” [Emphasis added.]

These two statements seem contradictory.

Donna Gilmore of SanOnofreSafety.com says that since the whistleblower’s statement, confusion has grown about the cause of the near-miss accident:

“[The whistleblower] called it a guide ring, but Tom Palmisano said it’s a radiation shield ring. The NRC refers to it as a metal flange. There is only a 9/16″ clearance on either side of the flange, according to Palmisano, which can result in scrapes on the outside of all the canisters as they are loaded into the hole. This flange is not shown in the drawings I’ve seen for the cooling system; so it does bring up more questions than answers about the cooling system, corrosion issues and radiation issues. The more we know the worse it gets.”

Initial Technical Analysis

David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists made public a technical analysis shortly after the whistleblower’s revelation. His conclusions included the assertion that if the canister had fallen within the silo:

“the fall most likely would not have… released radioactivity.”

Engineering evidence exists to support this conclusion. At the same time, critics fairly question these conclusions arguing in part that some of the assumptions in this study may not be applicable to this type of canister. As the investigations proceed, the technical assumptions underpinning Lochbaum’s report will be examined carefully.

 

Damage Done?

Dana Pointer asked Southern California Edison officials if the 3 August near-miss caused any damage to the canister that holds the toxic nuclear waste or to the transfer cask. “No, there was no damage,” said the spokesperson. The NRC investigation will assess that question. As noted in their memo, the NRC will “determine whether the vault’s divider shell experienced any damage…” and inspect “the canister to demonstrate the canister did not receive any damage….”

Summary

A near-miss accident occurred at the San Onofre nuclear plant on 3 August 2018 in which a heavy, thin-skinned, metal canister filled with toxic nuclear fuel (deadly to humans for hundreds of thousands of years) was left unsupported by rigging 18 feet in the air, its bottom snagged by roughly a quarter-inch on a ledge, and was at risk of falling 18 feet down to the concrete floor of its storage silo, located just 100 feet inland from the ocean’s edge and three feet above the water table.

As a result, fuel transfer operations have been halted temporarily at the plant. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is investigating the event. Southern California Edison, the company that operates the plant, has reportedly indicated they plan to resume transfer operations before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigation is published.

The threat to public health of each of the 100+ dry-storage canisters planned at the San Onofre plant is roughly the equivalent of the deadly radiation released by the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe. Engineering models indicate that the canister might have withstood such a drop without releasing radioactivity, though this assertion is under fair scrutiny.

The San Onofre nuclear plant does not have the ability to repair or replace a damaged thin-skinned dry-storage canister. Were any incident to damage a canister, like the near-miss accident on 3 August 2018, there is no way for the San Onofre plant to remove the deadly fuel from the canister.

The San Onofre nuclear plant does not have the ability to detect a failing canister before it springs a leak of highly toxic radiation.

The toxic nuclear fuel inside each canister will remain deadly for over 200,000 years.

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About the Author

Ross Teasley

A long-time Dana Pointer, technologist and publisher, I have been involved in several initiatives around Dana Point over the years ranging from environmental issues to civic planning. Fueled by coffee.

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