On May 13, 2013, an Atomic Safety Licensing Board (ASLB) of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ruled in favor of Friends of the Earth (FoE) that the Southern California Edison's bid to restart its damaged Unit 2 at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) limited to 70% of its power rating is an “experiment.” The Board determined that such tests and experiments with public safety require a public hearing and an opportunity to intervene before the operator is allowed to start up the atomic reactor. In response to its own licensing board Order and Memorandum, NRC Office of Public Affairs spokesman Scott Burnell put their own spin on the practical effect of the Order by saying that the staff's current restart review is its own independent process. The press office interpretation is that the staff could green light the restart of the nuke despite the Order. The Licensing Board can appeal to the Commission. But, it would not be unprecedented for the five politically appointed Commissioners to overrule the judgment of its licensing board. SONGS Units 2 and 3 have been closed since January 2012 because of severe damage to $600 million in new steam generator replacements after just 10 months of operation following the installation of a botched power uprate design. Hundreds of millions of dollars in the loss of company stockholder dividends and additional ratepayer charges are at stake.
The operator, Southern California Edision (SCE) has plugged 3% of the most damaged of thousands of tubes in Unit 2 where tube-to-tube vibration and tube wall wear resulted in radioactive leaks from the component “that serves a critical safety function” as the reactor’s primary pressure boundary for maintaining the all important reactor primary coolant. Because SCE cannot reliably and safely restart Unit 2 at 100% of its licensed rating, the electric utility is desperate to get the reactor back into the electric rate base by proposing to operate at 70% of full power with periodic shutdowns for inspections to avoid any further disclosure by a safety review process and the scrutiny of independent experts.
The federal licensing boards’ May 13, 2013 Memorandum and Order instead concluded that Southern California Edison’s (SCE) hasty restart plan required the public hearing because “… a power limit not to exceed 70%, this condition would result in a deviation from the technical specification requirement that tube integrity be maintained over the ‘full range of normal operation conditions’ up to 100%. Such a deviation from a technical specification requires a license amendment…” and the opportunity for the public to open independent safety review and investigative hearing. The federal licensing board went on to say “…we conclude that the authority to operate sought by SCE in its Unit 2 Return to Service Report is such a ‘test or experiment’ that requires a license amendment” and the public hearings.
The ensuing confusion is undoubtedly headed towards an extended court battle with Edsion threatening to shut the nukes permanently if it doesn’t get one restarted this year.