Sayanara San Onofre

Just days after opponents of San Onofre held a groundbreaking 4 hour roundtable conference on the reactors’ safety, its main owner, Southern California Edison (SCE) decided to close the facility rather than continue fighting the mounting controversies over its year and a half battle to try and restart the facility.  Even though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) highly politicized commissioners were on the verge of doing whatever it took to see that the reactors opened up, the agency’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board all but put the last nail in the nuclear facilities coffin when on May 16th it agreed with Friend’s of the Earth’s contention that the attempted restart was an experiment that needed a full public investigation.  With Senator Barbara Boxer’s call for criminal investigation of the company for potential lying to the NRC also making news, there was more at stake than just a restart.

Soon after a 2003 6.5 earthquake struck  50 miles from Diablo Canyon,  a concerned geologist by the name of Sam Blakeslee in San Luis Obispo ran and won a seat in the California Legislature.  He then championed new legislation, AB1632 which passed in 2006, requiring that California investigate the seismic dangers at both nuclear facilities in the state.   The California Energy Commission which took responsibility for investigating seismic safety was all but stonewalled by the state’s two nuclear generating companies on their demand that new studies were needed.  Even after the 2008 discovery of a new fault line less than a mile away from Diablo Canyon.  It took the Fukushima disaster to finally push the state and the companies to move towards more studies.

But this wasn’t the major controversy surrounding the state’s nuclear facilities.  When built, both companies were able to get waivers from federal and state laws, allowing them to dump billions of gallons of hot water directly into the ocean, saving them millions in construction costs.  But over the years a major study originally agreed to by SCE if allowed to open, showed that there were dramatic impacts to offshore sea life.  In the case of Diablo Canyon its owner was on the verge of being fined the largest EPA fine of its type in 1998 when the whole case magically was dropped by the Clinton administration. SCE complained that there was literally no room to build cooling towers and that it would cost up to $2.5 billion to do.  In the last days of the Schwarzenegger administration the two companies were given nearly a decade to investigate alternatives to the ongoing damages.

But that wasn’t the end of the controversy.  After nearly 20 years, SCE finally went ahead with a far smaller offshore reef than originally agreed to, which in 2010 was again contested by scientists showing the continued damages in billions of eggs and other sea life being destroyed.  The state’s water agency under Governor Gray Davis then ordered a ban on all Once Through Cooling facilities along California’s coast.  The Schwarzenegger recall victory would be used to reverse the order as well as end the plan to prosecute all energy companies that had been part of swindling California’s ratepayers during the 2001 energy crisis.

In 1999 another tactical move took place when SCE was granted a 10 year extension for the licenses of both unit 2 and 3, taking the reactors beyond the expected life expectancy of their steam generators, which then went through a heated process within the CPUC for funding, including the fact that San Diego Gas & Electric opposed the plan.  The CPUC also reserved the right after granting $680 million for new reactors, to review all costs if there were any future problems!

Over the years, San Onofre also ran up a growing number of major problems and for nearly five years led the industry with a record number of whistle blower complaints.  The company was also caught lying about their promise to maintain fire watches on the facility rather than carrying out required safety changes that had been mandated after the 1975 Brownsville nuclear fire where critical wiring between the control room and the reactor were destroyed by a worker using a candle to look around.

And just a few years earlier, an all but forgotten review of welding technology being used at literally all major construction operations between 1976-96 was disclosed that  welding metal called “120” or “E70T-4,” was shown to be substandard and like to fracture during seismic events.  The facility was never fully evaluated for use of these welds.

But then, barely a year after the Fukushima hit, a steam leak at San Onofre opened the door to the explosive controversy that barely a year after spending over $670 million for new steam generators were showing major wear.

It was in August of 2011 that a statewide meeting of  activists was held in the bay area after a benefit concert for Fukushima that a network of activists was formed to reinvigorate a call for the closure of the state’s two nuclear facilities.  Many different tactics including going to local city councils with happened in both northern and Southern California that helped to focus local media and civic concerns about any attempt to rush the reactors back into service.

The first major city to sign onto concerns was Irvine with the last being Los Angeles, with over a dozen other cities as well as San Diego’s school district also joining the public concern.  Meanwhile SCE would mount its own campaign, actually holding secret meetings that bordered on illegal behavior with sympathetic politicians in the area.  The LA Times all but ignored the growing political fight for months, and in fact had not put anything in print about Fukushima for nearly a year.  But it could no longer avoid the growing controversy.  Just after Senator Barbara Boxer released a new GAO report showing that the state’s utilities had not updated their seismic probability studies for nearly 20 years, the Times would drop an editorial time bomb calling for the closure of all reactors in California.  With the countdown to the next major earthquake in everybody’s minds, it would be the July 26th California Energy Commission seismic safety hearings that set the tone for what the coming campaign.   Contrary to public pronouncements by the NRC, SCE and PG&E that there was no seismic dangers  after Fukushima USGS experts at the hearing stated that they could not state with certainty that either facility would be capable of withstand the maximum credible quake and that to do so would require $60 million in new seismic safety studies.

After the above statements,  it was just a matter of time before activists started to dig into the state’s emergency planning system.  Even people involved in emergency planning started to speak out as details were eventually sorted out.  A secretive state agency called the Interjurisidictional Planning Committee (IPC) had been sanctioned by California as well as funded by electric rates of up to $1.5 million a year had been setup soon after unit 2 & 3 were licensed.  When it was discovered that the IPC had successfully petitioned the NRC to reduce the mandatory evacuation around San Onofre to just the inner two miles in 2007, it was just a matter of time before activists started calling for investigations into how the IPC could break the state’s Brown act on public meetings.   Rather than require real life emergency drills to evaluate how long it would take to evacuate the public during a nuclear emergency, the NRC only requires a study which claimed that during an earthquake it would take up to 17 hours to evacuate the 200,000 people within the 10 mile emergency zone.

Barbara Boxer and other senators petitioned a new study that showed serious flaws in the plans.  That study was ready to be released on March 11th 2013, but mysteriously slipped a month to April 11th the day after what appeared to be the last major NRC public meeting.  Resulting in the general public being completely unaware of the bombshell information about San Onofre.  The GAO report found that the NRC has long been ignoring the phenomena called Shadow Evacuation, even in other studies as well multiple petitions by the nuclear critics going all the way back to the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in 1979.  In 1979, the order was given that only pregnant women and children were to evacuate or roughly 5,000 people within 5 miles of the stricken facility.  Instead over 144,000 people did, or 70 times the projected number planned for.  Those 139,000 people today would be defined as Shadow Evacuees.

In 1989, the last time a petition before the NRC calling for the expansion of the evacuation zone that also demanded that shadow evacuations be dealt with, the agency refused on the grounds that it said that it would not be possible to estimate.  Twenty years later, the NRC had snuck in its own definition for shadow evacuations.  Twenty Percent of the public that lived between the the 10-15 miles away!  It was this number that the GAO report questioned on the basis that the NRC has never conducted any surveys outside of that zone to evaluate whether or not people would evacuate against the orders of emergency planners!   And it was this dramatic story that would then be trumped by the NRC’s own counter press statement just hours after the GAO was released, all but burying this incredible issue from spreading across the region.

And of course the danger to the entire region doesn’t just stop there.  experts have long been concerned about the fact that the southern part of the San Andreas fault is 150 years overdue for a major quake.  The massive fault that led to the Fukushima disaster shook up the science to the point many of the major assumptions previously consider rock solid are no longer the case.  But for California, and especially the area around San Onofre, which is far closer to Los Angeles than Fukushima was to Tokyo with winds routinely blowing directly towards the city at least half the time every day put all of Orange County (population 3 million) and the 5 million people in Los Angeles all being hit within 7 or 8 hours considering average wind speeds.

But then it gets really dark.  Few people in Southern California including most of the activists were or are aware of the fact that the NRC intentionally broke its own rules when licensing the San Onofre in 1983-4, failing to hold public hearings on emergency planning in advance.  This startling fact would  never have been known if it hadn’t of been for an angry NRC Commissioner James Asselstine who leaked the transcripts of Diablo Canyon’s license in January of 1985 that included detailed discussions of how the agency refused to abide by its own rules for emergency planning at both of the facilities.  The leaked transcripts led to a two year legal battle over Diablo Canyon but never expanded to San Onofre. The D.C. appeals court and Judge Robert Bork would rule that it would be tantamount to “Judicial Activism” if it looked at the transcripts, allowing the reactors to go online.

With a secretive plan to shelter over 8 million people, it is of course clear that they couldn’t possibly evacuate so many people and that the real plan was simply a desperate gamble that such an event would never happen.  And of course, that has been the strategy for decades now telling the public that there was literally no chance of such an disaster ever happening.  The exact same promise made to the people of Japan until March 11th, 2011.  And so it goes.  The public in Southern California were clearly never going to be protected from a major disaster with growing evidence that this was more than not a just an delusion of anti-nuclear activists trying to scare the public.  As numbers were dug up, it would be nothing short of the biggest economic gamble imaginable as property values in the Los Angeles area were easily worth over $1 trillion, and federal law limiting the amount of nuclear insurance to just $13 billion would mean that if such an incident were to occur,  there would be huge economic losses.  And this would only be the short list of a post disaster issue.  And nowhere, were the people of Southern California ever given even a small fraction of the growing details or concerns about this!

There is clearly far more details that could be shared but back to the other major stories!

Shortly after the news that San Onofre’s steam generators had suffered serious damages, Friends of the Earth (FOE) jumped into the fray, hiring Fairewinds Associates and Arnie Gunderson to develop a technical review of the damaged steam generators,  Dan Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap would also do a study based released documents suggesting that steam generators had suffered far more damages than being acknowledged. By July of 2012, FOE had made a formal application with the NRC requesting that the agencies independent Atomic Safety and Licensing Board be established to evaluate whether or not there had been discrepancies with the original procedure and SCE application to replace the steam generators.  It would take nearly a year, but in mid May the ASLB would side with FOE, followed by Senator Barbara Boxer’s call for criminal proceedings on the same issue for lying to the government when it withheld information about the major changes it had made with the new steam generators.

The NRC had already rolled back the timeline for a projected restart numerous times.  By November 2012 the smell of nuclear death became stronger as SCE decided to remove the fuel from unit 3 and firing nearly 700 employees saying that it still hoped to reopen the reactor at some point.

At the same time,  the state’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) finally voted to start a formal investigation of San Onofre, even though the investigation should have been started five months sooner, being held up by the chairman of CPUC who also happened to be the former president of SCE – Michael Peevey.  Peevey would select a personal protege of his to be the administrative law judge for the investigation that may take nearly 2 years to complete on who should pay for the nightmare.  During most of the first four months when San Onofre was first closed,  all media outlets were all crying out about just how costly the closure was to SCE.  In a wink of the eye that all changed when a CPUC staff person released the fact that the company was being paid $54 million and SD&E $6 million a month for the reactors even though they weren’t producing any power.  Because of Peevey’s intentional blocking tactic that held up the investigation until November rather than June, SCE claimed that they were legally entitled to all of that money, or over $350 million.   Further public concerns about how the state sees the $28 billion that California gave the two nuclear utilities in 1996 have been brought up during the hearings simply because there has been no attempt by state agencies to investigate whether or not the public is being forced to pay for the reactors twice, once during the so-called deregulation fiasco between 1996 and 2001, and then again under the state’s rate making process.

Involvement in the legal proceedings at the CPUC will continue.  The ongoing San Bruno scandal that killed 9 people including a CPUC investigator that had exposed PG&E of overcharging the public by ove $2 billion has just gone ballistic as the lawyers for the agency just resigned rather than continue under the dictatorial tactics that has resulted in Peevey being investigated by the state legislator at least once already.   In the meantime,  Governor Brown has not attempted to replace Peevey to date even as anger mounts over his corporate coddling.

So with a new NRC strategy to meet secretly with regional politicians just a week away, in an attempt to help smooth the political of the agency’s plan to restart already getting new heat, SCE finally realized that it would be far better for them to finally say Sayanara to San Onofre.  The Times would immediately pull out the standard nuclear industry tactics of pointing to how much it would cost the region to decommission the reactors.  Well actually, ratepayers have long been paying into a special account for the day the reactors did shutdown.  The CPUC in 2010 failed to properly assess the required amount needed, adding an additional $10 million a month in rate money.  Estimates could be as high as $3 billion to mothball the reactors.  Since there is no place to put all its most deadly spent fuel, there are mixed concerns about whether or not they should be moved away from the coastal fault zone since they hold immense amount of radiation that could still be released.

All during last year the mainstream media was harping just how critical San Onofre power was to the region.  Yet state figures shows that there is actually a surplus of power in California. And contrary to the fear mongering last year, the region made it through last summer without any major power shortages.  Building new power lines in the region was actually the real problem rather than a shortage of power, and with a new 900 megawatt natural gas system that came online earlier this year the region will likely do okay for the summer of 2013 as well unless there are heat waves.  This last years dryer than normal winter will mean less hydroelectric power available from within the state, but there is still plenty to the north that could be imported.

With renewable energy and windpower now being the biggest source of new power being brought online nationwide, there is no better time than now move into solar and wind which will produce far more jobs than San Onofre did.  The thousand workers at San Onofre have good job skills and won’t have any trouble finding other work.  The real missing economic story will be the recovery of the coastal sea life, and the suspension of production of any more spent nuclear fuel that the nuclear industry has no real solution other than burying it out of sight for future generations to deal with.

California once thought to be the model for nuclear power development worldwide when General Electric (GE) opened up its nuclear energy division in San Jose California.  Thanks to over 55 years of anti-nuclear activism GE is gone, and California now has a new chance now to regain the leadership it once held with renewable energy and energy efficiency.  We know that the state’s major electric companies have long opposed anything related to renewables and had to be dragged kicking and screaming into these technologies.  There is no doubt that the large centralized power stations like San Onofre or Diablo represent large sources of local tax dollars and decent paying jobs, but studies have shown that nuclear is one of the worst long time job producers of any industry.  The demand for energy will continue, yet there is no time like the present to demonstrate how consciously reduce the demand, yet still meet our basic needs.

The company made the right choice rather than drag a growing number of public into a long drawn out battle with them, most of whom worked tirelessly, without pay, knowing that this was nothing short of a battle over a real safe energy future for Southern California, and one of the most important shifts in energy policy that could take place.

So, Sayanara San Onofre! And may Saint Onuphrius Magnus, the naked saint whom the reactors and beach were named after now be able to rest in peace!

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