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Southern California Edison Absorbed by Nuclear Energy Morass

Southern California Edison’s nuclear energy woes are expanding. Now, it may be under a criminal investigation, all prompted by the release of two letters written nearly a decade ago detailing the concerns that the utility had with changes to the design of its two steam generators that have been shut down since January 2012.

The letters, written in 2004 and 2005, specifically warn of potential vibrations that could wear down tubes that hold radioactive material. This is an enlightening revelation because all of Edison’s correspondence to date have suggested that it was completely in the dark about the underlying issues that caused Unit 3 at its San Onofre Generating Station, or SONGS, to leak radiation more than a year ago. In fact, it has emphatically denied that it knew the design might have been flawed.

Now, the utility’s spin is changing. At the core of the accusations against it is whether the steam generator design that it had originally ordered from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was “like” the one it had before or whether it was notably different than the one it had to replace. If it was considered similar to its previous one, then it could avoid long and costly public hearings. However, if the design had changed and it would impact “safety,” public discussions would be required.

In the 2004 letter to Mitsubishi, former Edison Vice President Dwight Nunn says that this project will involve the largest steam generator ever built in the United States. He says that Mitsubishi’s process will need to conform with the utility’s needs, pointing out that the industry's experience with “Anti Vibration Bar supports” has shown itself to be a difficult obstacle in which to overcome. He then points to an example where more than 180 tubes were found to have “wear indications” after only one cycle.

“Our discussions with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to date have not resulted in a plan that will successfully address this industry concern,” writes Nunn, who left his job in 2005. “Both San Onofre and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are having difficulty in formulating such a plan.”

In 2005, Nunn repeated his concerns: He said that the industry’s experience with the “tube wear” issue is “not encouraging.” “This is of a great concern to Edison, because our steam generators are one of the largest in the industry. Therefore, I have asked a special joint team ... to be formed,” which will identify the factors that cause such wear as well as the design processes that could mitigate it.

Criminal Probe

In a conversation with this writer, Friends of the Earth said Southern California Edison has been “untruthful.” It said that while Mitsubishi does not have “clean hands” here, it merely designed the steam generators to meet the utility’s specifications. And, it emphasized that design changes did require Edison to seek a licensing amendment. The environmental organization added that the utility downplayed the design changes it had made so as to avoid public hearings.

Upon releasing the two letters, Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said that the she is now left to believe that Edison “misled” regulators. She is calling on the U.S. Justice Department to begin a criminal investigation.

Already, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is looking into whether any information had been withheld from it, as well as whether the utility can restart its healthy Unit 2. Meantime, the California State Public Utility Commission is considering who will pay the roughly $700 million that this debacle has cost: ratepayers or shareholders. For now, no federal agency will comment on the two letters, and Mitsubishi has said that it needs to review the newly released info.

“The correspondence shows that Edison knew they were not proceeding with a simple ‘like-for-like’ replacement as they later claimed,” says Senator Boxer, in a public statement. “In Edison’s own words ... ‘It will require Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to evolve a new design beyond that which they currently have available ... [they] aren’t ‘like-for-like replacements.’”

Tough Stuff

Nevertheless, Edison came firing back. It reiterated that it would never install unsafe or unreliable steam generators. It said that it did not design the steam generators and that the utility was limited as to what it could do to assist Mitsubishi. It said that the letters underscore those very points and that it devalues the concerns raised by Senator Boxer and Friends of the Earth.

“Contrary to Sen. Boxer’s suggestion, (the law) does NOT require that replacement equipment be ‘like-for-like’ or identical to the equipment being replaced,” says Pete Dietrich, chief nuclear officer for Southern California Edison. He adds that the rules permit it to make changes to design without a licensing amendment if the changes result in improvements, or specifically it does not result in any changes to the facility’s “safety analysis report.”

“At no time did SCE hide the differences from the NRC, nor did it seek to mislead the NRC,” Dietrich says. “Any suggestion that seeks to draw from the November 2004 letter a contrary conclusion is simply incorrect” and it misreads current law.

Nuclear regulators would allow changes in design if those alterations were similar to earlier ones and would not erode safety considerations. The letters, however, clearly state a concern over the vibrations that had previously led to the wearing down of tubes containing radioactive material. And that is exactly what happened to SONGS, which has remained off-line since January 2012.

As some of the details emerge, Edison's case is becoming weaker. The nuclear energy community is tight-knit. But, conspicuously, the other nuclear operators have avoided public comment on the matter. Under any circumstance, the public should withhold any judgement on this issue until a thorough investigation by all federal agencies has been completed.

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein


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