Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009 | Mistakes and management problems continue to mount at the San Onofre nuclear plant, despite an unprecedented executive shake-up and a year-long effort to convince federal regulators and an industry ratings group that things are improving.
Federal regulators stress that the coastal facility south of San Clemente remains safe, and that nearby residents in San Diego and Orange counties have nothing to fear.
Southern California Edison, the utility that operates San Onofre, has acknowledged its performance weaknesses, but executives there say the plant “is operated in a safe and reliable manner.”
Still, internal reports and Nuclear Regulatory Commission assessments indicate that the plant’s shortcomings include a degraded safety culture; falling behind on preventive maintenance; allowing equipment to become less reliable; not finding, analyzing and fixing problems adequately; not providing employees with sufficient training and written procedures to prevent mistakes; and lagging well behind its peers in worker safety.
Those problems have led to falsified fire watch records and caused such problems as a loose battery connection on a safety system to go undiscovered for years.
“People should be concerned about this,” nuclear engineer David Lochbaum said in an interview before he became a trainer for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in mid-February.
“I don’t mean to suggest that, geez, there’s a real good chance it’s going to have a meltdown tomorrow,” said Lochbaum, who spent 17 years in the nuclear industry and until recently was the nuclear safety director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But the more problems you have, you increase the likelihood that you’ll have an accident.”
The twin-reactor plant is funded by electricity customers but owned by Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and the city of Riverside. It provides the region with up to 2,200 megawatts of much-needed electricity at any given time — enough to power about 1.4 million homes.
San Onofre’s troubles have increased costs at the plant and made its power less reliable, though. Internal records show that last year, the nuclear facility provided only 82 percent of its capacity, down substantially from 2007 and well below industry standards. During the summer months — when San Onofre is expected to generate electricity at full capacity — the plant fell short, forcing Southern California utilities to fill the gap with power purchased elsewhere at customer expense.
An added worry is that San Onofre continues to struggle even as it prepares to replace two of its large steam generators later this year. The project is the site’s most technically challenging task in decades, and requires workers to cut a massive hole in the concrete containment dome and to remove scores of tendons used to reinforce the structure and make it earthquake safe.
‘We See a Deterioration at San Onofre’
After completing its third recent special inspection in 14 months, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December again warned San Onofre that it was not properly fixing known problems and not making enough progress on issues that were brought to the company’s attention in early 2008. The NRC bumped the plant’s rating down a notch from the commission’s highest performance rating, and has scheduled a more rigorous supplemental inspection for San Onofre in the coming months.
The U.S. nuclear industry’s other major oversight organization, an influential trade group known as the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, or INPO, in July refused to upgrade San Onofre’s already subpar rating, according to internal plant documents. Instead, INPO re-affirmed the plant’s “special focus” designation — a term it uses when a nuclear plant “shows consistent poor performance over several evaluation cycles” or shows “a significant decline in performance” between reviews, the document said.
Last month, when the industry group returned to San Onofre for a check up, it was not impressed. The nine-member review team concluded that the site had made “inadequate progress” in each of the areas cited as needing special focus six months earlier — something that’s never happened before at a U.S. nuclear plant, according to an e-mail to employees written by Director of Maintenance Ed Hubley, one of the many new executives hired at the plant over the last year.
Hubley described the results as “painful and embarrassing,” and told employees that “we continue to decline in our performance.”
Rosemead-based SoCal Edison declined requests for an interview and a company spokesman wouldn’t provide answers to written questions about San Onofre’s performance. Spokesman Gil Alexander said in an e-mail that the company “is committed to operating the plant in a manner that, first and foremost, protects the public and employee safety and well-being.”
The utility wouldn’t discuss its rating from INPO because the industry-funded peer reviews, summaries of which were obtained by voiceofsandiego.org, aren’t made public. A call to the Atlanta-based institute was not returned.
“We see a deterioration at San Onofre,” NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said. Some issues involve the plant’s safety culture, he said. “Those are problems that are not easy to fix anywhere, even under the best conditions.”
Regulators have classified most of San Onofre’s issues as being “of very low safety significance,” but they are considered potential precursors to more serious problems.
Recently, the NRC reported two findings of “low to moderate safety significance.”
In December, regulators said a battery that powers emergency safety systems at San Onofre had loose connections and had been inoperable from 2004 until the problem was discovered in 2008. NRC inspectors also said San Onofre didn’t disclose the long-term nature of the failure and that the plant’s timeline of events “was not consistent” with the information gathered by inspectors.
The second, more serious, finding involved an unspecified security matter, according to a San Onofre overview of the facility’s 2008 performance. The NRC does not make public its reports involving plant security. Edison declined to comment on the security issue.
Those recent problems follow a string of lapses at San Onofre. In addition to the unusually high number of federal special inspections, regulators said in January 2008 that it found five regulatory violations at the plant — several of them deemed “willful.” In one case, a fire protection specialist falsified records for years to show that he had made hourly fire patrols when he had not.
In September, SoCal Edison was fined $30 million — the largest penalty ever issued by the state Public Utilities Commission — and ordered to refund or forego $115.7 million in customer-funded performance awards and management bonuses. Regulators found that for seven years, the utility rigged annual customer satisfaction surveys and under-reported worker injuries and first aid incidents to earn the rewards.
As part of that case, San Onofre employees testified that plant managers sometimes tried to persuade doctors to close wounds with Steri-Strips in lieu of stitches and mischaracterized on-site injuries as being caused by mishaps at home — moves that improperly enhanced safety statistics.
‘At Some Point, Something at the Plant Changes
Given the facility’s recent record, the NRC “should have extra inspectors at all times at San Onofre until they can prove that they’re doing a better job,” said Rochelle Becker, executive director at the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a non-profit group that is critical of U.S. nuclear power policies. “This is an unforgiving technology. You can’t make mistakes with nuclear power.”
Lochbaum, the NRC trainer, said it’s not unusual for troubled facilities on the mend to get worse before they get better. “At some point, something at the plant changes, and the threshold where you deem something to be a problem drops. As a result, the number of problems reported goes up because now you’re reporting things that two months ago would have been tolerated.”
A recent refueling project was indicative of the plant’s worsening performance. The refueling outage, a routine and regularly scheduled task in the nuclear industry, did not go well.
The project, completed Dec. 18, cost millions of dollars more than budgeted, lasted 26 days longer than the 40-day schedule, and included significant expenditures to rush parts to the site that should have already been on hand, according to plant documents and employees who asked not to be identified because they feared for their jobs.
In addition, the company had to stop work several times during the outage — losing five days of work — because a new safety system caused incidents where maintenance employees narrowly missed being seriously injured or killed, according to officials with the Utility Workers Union of America, which represents several hundred San Onofre employees.
In September, two weeks before the outage started, Edison Chief Nuclear Officer Ross Ridenoure said the safety system in question worked “perfectly.” He added, “If I had heard anything regarding worker safety when working on equipment, I would be very concerned. I have heard nothing about anything related to what I would call the clearance system.”
But workers complained about the problem to Station Manager Al Hochevar, San Onofre’s second-highest officer, in August — a month before Ridenoure made his comments, according to Monte Kotur, the union’s local business manager.
Kotur said he and others told Hochevar there were dangerous flaws in the system that could lead operators to unwittingly remove safety tags on equipment where employees were still working. The same concerns were discussed in a meeting with SoCal Edison chief executive Al Fohrer, but the mid-October outage proceeded without any changes to the system, Kotur said.
At one point during the project, maintenance employees were so frightened and distrusted the safety system so much that they used padlocks to make sure operators could not mistakenly turn on equipment, open valves or send electricity through parts that they were working on, according to Phil Setzler, a San Onofre electrician and an officer with the union.
“We lost all confidence in management being able to guarantee us our safety,” Setzler said. “If they can’t control the equipment for the safety of the employees, how can they control the equipment for the safety of the public?”
After five incidents, including instances where tags were either incorrectly removed or equipment was powered despite ongoing work, San Onofre temporarily halted use of the most problematic parts, retrained employees and brought in experts from Germany and elsewhere to fix it.
Over the last year, SoCal Edison has tried to improve San Onofre by replacing the plant’s entire upper management. The top two posts were filled from outside the company — a first for the nuclear plant.
Lochbaum said the padlock incident and the recent reports from oversight officials were “troubling signs that are not typical for healthy plants.”
“If there were to be a problem tomorrow, all those things would come to light … and the question would be, ‘Why did everybody tolerate this?’” Lochbaum said. “We’re the best barn-door closers in the world. We’re not as good at seeing that the barn doors are open and things may get out.”
Publicity about the nuclear plant’s performance woes should spur San Onofre and SoCal Edison officials “to pony up the money to fix those things sooner rather than later,” he added. “The status quo looks untenable.”
Elizabeth Douglass is a San Diego-based freelance writer who formerly covered energy for the Los Angeles Times. Please contact her directly at email@example.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.