Stab Magazine | What's The Price Of A Nuclear "Near-Miss"?

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What’s The Price Of A Nuclear “Near-Miss”?

San Onofre Nuke Plant hit with $100k fine.

news // Mar 27, 2019
Words by stab
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Southern California Edison, the owners of the shuttered nuclear power plant at San Onofre, have been slapped with a $116,000 fine by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) after a “near miss” last August.

Having violated U.S. Federal Nuclear Safety law, according to an NRC document, the fine is “related to the failure to ensure the availability of important safety equipment to provide redundant drop protection for a spent fuel canister during downloading operations into a storage vault. The violations also included failure to make a timely notification to the NRC Operations Center following the incident.”

On Aug. 3, 2018, workers at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) in San Clemente, California, errantly allowed a 50-ton canister loaded with spent nuclear fuel to dangle, unsupported, 18 feet in the air for the better part of an hour. The incident was not initially reported by Edison, and it took a whistleblower from inside the organization to step forward and let the public know what had happened.

“SCE management failed to establish a rigorous process to ensure adequate procedures, training and oversight guidance,” reported Lee Brookhart, a senior inspector at the NRC, during a Monday NRC webinar.

Southern California did not dispute this assessment.

“The event should not have happened and as the licensee, we take full responsibility,” responded John Dobken, the utility’s media relations manager.

While this may sound like a regulatory agency stepping up and doing its job, watchdog groups are skeptical, calling the fine insignificant.

“The budget for the SONGS Decommissioning Trust Fund (DTF) is more than $5 billion in monies collected from ratepayers since the early 1970s. In percentage terms, today’s fine represents 0.000023% of the total budget,” said Charles Langley, Executive Director of Public Watchdogs. “Today’s final NRC enforcement action failed to account for the July 22nd near-miss, making today’s webinar look more like a cover-up than a regulatory action.”

“Today’s webinar shows that the NRC is captive to the industry it regulates and incapable of enforcing Federal laws passed to protect the public safety,” added Nina Babiarz, a Public Watchdogs board member. “Most appalling was the NRC’s shocking announcement that they will be modifying Edison’s permit in a way that allows every single canister to be gouged when it is transferred into the ground. That is what happened on the August 3rd near-miss.”

Another big reveal at the NRC webinar on Monday was the fact that Edison has been using robotic devices to inspect canisters that have already been transferred to the on-site dry storage facility. The initial inspection results have reportedly not been analyzed at this point with no clear timeline of how long it will take. As of the Aug. 3 accident, 29 of the 73 canisters have been successfully transferred.

It really can’t be stressed enough how perilous of a situation there is at San Onofre at the moment. One of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world in the 21st Century is what to do with spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste as more of these plants go offline. And the fact is, there are not good solutions. As they say, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Currently, the U.S. Government does not have a definitive strategy in place, and given the shit storm going on in Washington, D.C. at the moment, nothing’s going to happen anytime soon. There are no facilities in the U.S. built to store nuclear waste for the long-term. Meanwhile, at one of the most popular beaches on the West Coast, were surf culture and industry as we know it today was literally born, canisters filled with radioactive material sit on the beach, potentially corroding and leaching radiation into the land, sea and air. 

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