Senior staff from Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Region 4 held the first local meeting in years on August 20th in San Juan Capistrano. If the goal of this meeting was to restore trust in the NRC, the evasive or non-answers to public comments failed completely to meet this goal. Requests for real data were rejected because they were proprietary information belonging to Southern California Edison (SCE). Almost all of the 49 public speakers criticized the current program as poorly designed and not safe for our local communities, but there was no meaningful response from the NRC staff. SONGS has the worst safety record of any nuclear power plant in the United States, and, despite the NRC saying that safety is their highest priority, it remains complicit in allowing SCE and their contractor Holtec to pose clear risks to over 8 million residents. The lack of oversight that led to the steam generator failure in 2011 continues today.
I last attended a local NRC meeting in early 2012 before the decision to shut down power generation at SONGS was made. I was amazed to see the same cast of characters, including a slightly older version of the moderator, Chip Cameron. Chip was memorable for cutting off contributions from elected officials during the 2012 meeting after openly consulting with senior SCE officials. Not much has changed in the last 7 years.
NRC District 4 nuclear operations chief Greg Warnick (same Greg as 2012) made a brief presentation with pictures illustrating the canister loading operation restarted in July. Many more personnel were visible in his pictures than the 3 people involved in the August 3, 2018 near drop accident. There are now cameras mounted on the top of the gantry crane and load sensors that relay the weight load to the crane operator. Despite these steps to improve safety, there was a problem loading canister 30 that resulted in a 4-hour delay while the lid to the transfer container remained partially open. This should have increased local radiation, but a later question about this resulted in an opaque statement that “no significant increase” was observed.
Representative Mike Levin (D-49th) was the first speaker. Levin acknowledged the dozen or so SONGS Task Force members in the audience (including me) and made an impassioned plea for more NRC oversight of the restarted loading operation. He specifically asked for two NRC actions: 1) a full-time inspector during canister transfer and loading, and 2), inspection of all 30 canisters already transferred for scratches and gouges (only 8 of 29 were inspected by video cameras earlier this year). Scott Morris, the senior NRC official present, said full-time inspectors had been considered but were not practical given limited NRC resources. Scott also defended the NRC statisticians (“PhD-trained”) who determined that inspection of only 8 canisters was sufficient to determine that all 29 were safe in response to a pointed question that I posed. “Standard engineering practice” was cited as the basis for the “safe” canister determination. “Safe” seems to be a moving definition defined by NRC with the help of SCE and neither entity engenders trust.