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San Onofre is feeling heat

The nuclear plant, rated one of the worst U.S. performers, may face greater oversight.

August 19, 2008|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

San Onofre nuclear plant managers are scrambling to avoid stepped-up oversight from regulators and to resolve worker safety and operational problems that have put the facility's industry ratings significantly below its peers.

The twin-reactor facility ranks among the bottom 25% in overall performance when measured against the nation's other nuclear reactors, according to e-mailed newsletters distributed to plant employees.

The ratings, compiled by an influential industry group, showed that San Onofre's employee injury rates were several times higher than the average at other U.S. facilities and that it lags far behind in areas such as power production and the readiness of backup safety systems.

Injury rates at San Onofre put it "dead last" among U.S. nuclear plants when it comes to industrial safety, plant managers told employees in an Aug. 4 newsletter provided by one of the plant's labor unions.

Officials with Southern California Edison, which operates San Onofre, declined to discuss the newsletters, calling them internal company communications. But in an interview, the plant's top executive defended the facility's safety record.

"San Onofre is one of the safest places in Southern California to work," Ross Ridenoure said. "But we don't think that's good enough because some other nuclear plants are even safer than ours. So this is a focus of attention, and we are catching up."

Officials with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission say the plant, located south of San Clemente, does not pose a danger to the public. Out of the 104 U.S. commercial reactors operating today, 17 have fallen short of the government's minimum standards; San Onofre's two reactors aren't among them.

But the plant's subpar industry grades and "willful" violations cited by the commission have put San Onofre under greater scrutiny.

Two teams of federal regulators conducted reviews at the plant this month, arriving on the heels of a two-week evaluation by 25 representatives from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and the World Assn. of Nuclear Operators, industry-funded sister organizations that grade plant performance every two years.

One commission team performed a special inspection triggered by continuing electrical problems with San Onofre's backup diesel generators. A commission spokesman said the visit was unusual because it was the third such inspection in the last year.

The second team from the agency conducted a long-scheduled review. But inspectors also are checking San Onofre's progress in fixing problems cited by the commission in the plant's 2007 annual report.

The problems outlined by the agency included repeated cases of not giving employees proper instructions and not diagnosing and fixing problems fast enough. Regulators said the issues were of "very low safety significance," but that they were potential precursors to more serious problems.

In a March letter, the agency told San Onofre managers that the steps taken so far had "not been effective." If this month's review finds insufficient progress, "you might see us escalate our engagement with the licensee," said Chuck Casto, a deputy administrator at the commission.

In January, the agency said it found five regulatory violations at San Onofre -- several 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.

"There's a pattern of problems at San Onofre," said Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, which opposes re-licensing nuclear plants without securing off-site storage for radioactive waste. "That screams to me that the oversight people aren't doing their job, and that the utility is not doing its job."

Southern California Edison, a unit of Rosemead-based Edison International, owns most of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, nicknamed SONGS. The facility can produce enough power for 1.5 million households.

"No matter how good you are, you can always improve," said Ridenoure, the top manager at San Onofre. "Are there areas we can improve in at San Onofre? Clearly. But that's true for every single nuclear power plant in the country today."

For Edison, San Onofre's performance and public image are crucial. It has technically difficult projects slated for next year, its operations are funded by electricity customers and state regulators hold the purse strings. Edison also hopes to get the facility's federal licenses renewed for at least 20 more years before they expire in 2022.

Last year, Edison tapped Ridenoure to manage San Onofre. Ridenoure, formerly of the Omaha Public Power District, was recently promoted to senior vice president and chief nuclear officer. Ridenoure hired Al Hochevar as station manager.

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