A worker from the San Onofre nuclear power plant, David Fritch, put his job on the line and became the latest whistleblower from the plant to expose safety issues. At a public meeting on 9 August 2018 in Oceanside California, news of the near miss San Onofre nuclear waste accident sparked outrage and exposed systemic problems.
“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.”
While working at the plant in his capacity as a safety professional, Fritch observed first hand a near catastrophe. On 3 August 2018, a 100-ton canister filled with highly radioactive nuclear waste was being “downloaded” into a temporary transport carrier to be moved a few hundred yards from inside the plant to a storage silo buried near the world-famous San Onofre beach. As the thin-walled canister was being lowered into the transport cask, it snagged on a guide ledge four feet from the top. Crane operators were unaware that the canister had stopped descending and the rigging went completely slack, leaving the full weight of the heavy canister perched on that ledge by about a quarter-inch.
Had the ledge not held for the hour or more it took workers to realize and address the error, the thin-walled canister of highly toxic nuclear waste would have fallen 18 feet to the ground below.
A Quarter Inch from Chernobyl
Each canister contains roughly the same amount of radiation as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster released in 1986 that left a region of Ukraine uninhabitable, which has led some observers to call this recent incident at San Onofre: “A Quarter Inch from Chernobyl.”
“What we have is a canister that could have fallen 18 feet. That’s a bad day…. And you haven’t heard about it. And that’s not right.”
Mr. Fritch went on to note that the process of moving the toxic fuel from its current cooling pools to the dry storage silos buried near the beach is seriously flawed because the staff is “undermanned,” “undertrained.”
“And a lot of them, who haven’t been around nuclear before, are performing these tasks — not technicians, not highly trained, and not with thorough briefs.”
Fritch, an experienced safety professional, warned that the culture within the gates of the plant is not focussed on safety above all else, and he advised that the companies responsible should define success primarily in terms of safety, develop transparency, and commit sufficient financial resources to do the job safely.
The dramatic 4-minute video footage of Mr. Fritch’s comments is posted here:
In the few days since that public meeting took place, as news of the incident spread, local residents have expressed growing dismay at Southern California Edison for mishandling the public trust, as well as gratitude to Fritch for exposing the incident. On Saturday evening, a group of about 40 people gathered for an impromptu protest march on Del Mar Street in San Clemente followed by speakers on a small patch of grass above the San Clemente pier.
The crowd consisted of a mix of experienced activists who have been engaged with the issue of nuclear power for decades and young activists, including two young candidates for San Clemente city council Jackson Hinkle, and Jake Rybczyk, as well as 13-year-old activist Carson Kropfl who seeks to protect the ocean he loves using hashtag #SaveSanO.
From among the experienced activists, Gary Headrick of San Clemente Green welcomed the crowd, and Torgen Johnson, a Harvard-trained urban planner, gave a current situation report of the San Onofre plant as well as insights about the national problem of where to store nuclear waste.
The younger generation of activists then expressed their desires:
“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not upholding safety standards. They’re not insuring that the public is safe, and we need to make sure that changes. We need to make sure that we have thick-walled canisters. We need to make sure that we have real-time, independent radiation monitoring. This means something you can go to on your phone and make sure that radiation is not leaking today, and that you can go to San Onofre and enjoy your beach day with your family.”
— Jackson Hinkle
“How many times are we going to allow Southern California Edison make mistakes that threaten not only us as humans, but also our environment and our standard of living? We have to stand up to change that.”
— Jake Rybscyk
“Hey everybody. My name’s Carson Kropfl. I’m from San Clemente California and I’m 13 years old. The ocean is my inspiration. We almost had a nuclear disaster on August 3rd, and Southern California Edison did not inform the public. We need real-time monitoring available to the public, just like we get weather and surf reports. We should get radiation reports as well.”
— Carson Kropfl
Dana Pointer has reported on the general status of the San Onofre nuclear plant in 2018 elsewhere. Since the Community Engagement Panel public meeting on 9 August 2018, it appears that the public’s confidence in the plant operator, Southern California Edison, has experienced a setback.
“I’ve served on this panel since it started; so I’ve been here all four years. I’m a little disappointed in tonight’s meeting […] we are a sounding board of the community, and I don’t feel we’re keeping up. I don’t think our answers are keeping up with the questions. […] I feel we need to be a little more responsive to the public.”
— Gary Brown, Orange County Controller
On Friday morning, the Chairman of the Edison Community Engagement Panel, David Victor, a professor at the school of international relations at UC San Diego, spoke with public radio station KPBS in San Diego:
“like any big construction site, people using cranes — misusing cranes — workers make errors. 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, but I don’t know exactly where he [whistleblower David Fritch] works on the plant, and we need to get that information from Edison within the bounds of what they can talk about on a personnel matter.”
— David Victor, Chairman, Community Engagement Panel
Regarding comments the previous week on KPBS by Dr. Gregory Jaczko, the former Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who stated “no more canisters should be buried at the site now used by San Onofre.” Jaczko said, “the chances are, if they’re buried they will be forgotten about.”
Victor replied, “He may have been head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission some time ago but I thought the opinions that he offered in that interview were just completely untethered from reality.”
In reaction to that statement, Torgen Johnson stated,
“Dr. David Victor, a social scientist academic with no public office experience, no OSHA inspection experience, and no nuclear regulatory experience openly discredits the firsthand account of the OSHA inspector, [David Fritch] and the opinions of the former Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Dr. Gregory Jaczko, who is a nuclear physicist and who faced the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster while in office. In no way is an 18-foot near drop of a loaded spent fuel canister filled with 37 assemblies of high burn-up fuel merely a ‘work place safety issue at a normal construction site.’ ”
Southern California Edison Responds to Questions
“If the canister had fallen… if there had been a leak [in the canister], what would you have done?” Question addressed to Tom Palmisano of Southern California Edison by Dan Stetson, Vice-Chairman, Community Engagement Panel.
“The canister is designed and analyzed for a fall from approximately 25 feet. So, the canister would not have been breached.”
— Tom Palmisano, Chief Nuclear Officer, San Onofre Nuclear Site
“Has Holtec [the company that produces the dry canisters] offered to buy the nuclear waste of San Onofre, as they have at some other nuclear plants?” Question addressed to Tom Palmisano of Southern California Edison by David Victor, Chairman, Community Engagement Panel.
“No, they have not for San Onofre.”
— Tom Palmisano, Chief Nuclear Officer, San Onofre Nuclear Site
Unanswered Questions about the San Onofre Nuclear Plant
- Is the transferring of spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre site currently suspended, and if so, what is the term of the halt, or under what conditions would the transfer resume?
- Did this incident on 3-Aug 2018 cause any damage to the canister or its contents?
- Did this incident on 3-Aug 2018 cause any damage or alteration to the transfer cask?
- Have the Holtec canisters currently being loaded at San Onofre ever been successfully transported at full weight?
- Is there a reason the plant at San Onofre should not build a “hot cell” facility that could transfer fuel from and into new canisters?
How can you get involved?
Southern California Edison has an on-going commission to inform the public about the process of deconstructing the San Onofre facility (the process is called “decommissioning”) called the Community Engagement Panel (CEP) which holds public meetings quarterly. Anyone can attend and speak at these meetings. Click here for more information: https://www.songscommunity.com/
There are also several environmental groups involved in advocating for safe and transparent management of the radioactive materials during the demolition of the plant and to work on the long-term problems of toxic fuel storage.