The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday proposed $100,000 in fines against the San Onofre nuclear power plant for allegedly violating safety standards in episodes involving workers exposed to radiation or accidentally carrying flea-sized radioactive particles outside the plant.
Officials at Southern California Edison, which operates the sprawling nuclear power plant south of San Clemente, said no decision has been reached as to whether the fines will be challenged or paid.
"There's no question these fines are severe," said Becky Sordelet, a spokeswoman for Edison.
Sordelet said that, in each of the incidents cited by the NRC, no actual hazard existed for plant workers and the public. Moreover, the utility has taken extensive measures since the episodes to guard against any further occurrences, she said.
First Fines for Year
The proposed fines are the first large penalties levied against the power plant by the NRC this year. In September, Edison officials agreed to pay a $180,000 fine for violations that led to an accident involving a cooling system for one of the plant's reactors, shutting the system down for more than eight months.
Among the incidents cited by the NRC in issuing the penalties Friday was one in which an employee's hand was exposed to 27 times the allowable levels of radioactivity while he worked on a pump inside the plant in November. Edison officials, however, said the exposure was to a very small area of the skin and did not pose "a significant health risk" to the worker.
While the exposure itself represented a potential violation of federal regulations governing nuclear power plants, the NRC instead slapped Edison with a proposed $50,000 fine for failing to report the incident for 25 days. Under federal rules, such exposures are supposed to be reported immediately, said Greg Cook, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Edison officials said the late report resulted from an error in a computer-based system that processes reports on workers exposed to radiation. Since that time, the system has been corrected so that it will "flag immediately" all potential incidents of overexposure.
The regulatory agency also hit the power plant with a $50,000 fine for three incidents involving the inadvertent removal of microscopic radioactive particles from the plant by workers.
In early February, safety inspectors discovered a microscopic fragment on an employee's sweat shirt sleeve as he arrived at work in the morning. The worker, who is assigned to refueling in the Unit 3 reactor, apparently picked up the particle when he wore the same sweat shirt the day before, but the company's detection equipment failed to pick it up as he left the plant.
Later that month, the plant's radiation detection equipment alerted officials when a worker entered the plant with a radioactive particle embedded in his shoe. The employee apparently inadvertently picked up the particle while at work the day before.
Also in February, a radiation specialist at the plant discovered a small radioactive particle in his home during a self-administered inspection. The tiny particle posed no health hazard to the employee, his family or the public, and was safely removed, Edison officials stressed.
Since those incidents, radiation monitoring has been improved and includes the increased use of new automatic monitoring booths at plant exits, according to company officials.
Under federal regulations, Edison has 30 days to pay the fines or challenge them, Cook said. In addition, the utility is required to send a written explanation of the episodes, a description of corrective actions that have been taken, and a statement saying when it will be in full compliance with NRC rules, he said.