Regulators Set Special Inspection of Edison's San Onofre Plant

July 31, 2008

By Elizabeth Douglass, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 31, 2008
It will be the third such visit in the last 12 months, this time to ensure that electrical problems with backup power systems have been fixed.
Regulators are launching a special inspection at Southern California Edison's San Onofre nuclear plant to make sure the utility fixed electrical problems with crucial backup power systems, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Wednesday.

The visit next week by a three-person team marks the third special inspection in the last 12 months for the coastal facility near San Clemente.

"We are concerned about the number of failures and want to take a look at the way the licensee has responded to the issue," said Elmo E. Collins, the commission's administrator for states in the West and southern Midwest.

Nuclear watchdogs expressed alarm.

"The safety culture at San Onofre is nearing the shambles stage," said Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, which focuses on safety at California's nuclear plants.

The commission will hold a public meeting to discuss San Onofre's performance tonight at the Country Plaza Inn in San Clemente.

In March, Edison workers found a loose electrical connection on an emergency battery that rendered it inoperable, commission spokesman Victor Dricks said. The batteries are part of a backup power system to keep the control room and safety systems functioning.

Regulators said similar problems had occurred since 2005. Inspectors will be at the plant for several days beginning Monday, and will submit a report within 45 days, the commission said.

Although Dricks called the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station "a good performer," he added that "this is the third special inspection that we've done in the last year. It's uncommon to have that many."

Last summer, the commission conducted a special inspection after an incident that forced the shutdown of one of the plant's two reactors. The commission blamed the shutdown on a failed pipe connection in a compressed air system that controls safety valves -- a problem that automatically took the reactor offline.

In early January, the agency announced a separate special inspection to focus on the failure of an emergency generator during several tests.

Edison, a unit of Rosemead-based Edison International, "welcomes and supports" the new inspection, the utility said in a statement. "We believe the commission's independent assessments provide important oversight of U.S. nuclear plant operation and should reassure the public regarding nuclear generation safety."

Edison runs the San Onofre facility, which can produce enough electricity to power 2.75 million households. Edison is its majority owner, with San Diego Gas & Electric Co. owning a 20% stake, and the city of Riverside owning about 2%.

Other problems have cropped up at the nuclear plant.

In mid-January, the commission said it found five violations of federal regulations at the San Onofre facility, including a case in which a fire protection specialist falsified records for more than five years to show that workers had made hourly fire patrols when they had not. Regulators called those and other violations "willful," but allowed Edison to avoid a fine by promising to conduct special training and to improve the safety culture at the plant.

More recently, federal regulators said they were investigating allegations from a San Onofre plant employee that painters and supervisors working for contractor Bechtel Corp. were falsifying maintenance records.

After reviewing the complaint, Bechtel fired a supervisor. The paperwork requirements were designed to make sure employees didn't mistakenly work on the wrong part, Bechtel spokesman Francis Canavan said. "We have them for a reason, and that's to ensure the safety of the employees and the public."

Edison spokesman Gil Alexander said the allegations concerned paperwork and "none of the incidents affected operational issues that would impact employee or public safety." But, he added, "inaccurate written records, no matter how insignificant they may have been in this case, are not acceptable, and we have already taken steps to make it clear to our workforce that there can be no exceptions."

Another complaint involved 19 San Onofre employees, including a security guard, who were allegedly performing work for which their qualifications had expired a year earlier. Dricks, the commission spokesman, confirmed that federal regulators were investigating those and other claims.

Alexander said the problems "involved previously trained employees allowing certain types of training to lapse because, at the time, they were not performing work to which the training applied."

Federal regulators gave San Onofre passing grades for its performance in 2007, but noted that more work was needed to prevent human errors and to identify and resolve problems. All were characterized as "of very low safety significance."