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San Onofre to stay shut for "months" says Nuclear Regulatory Agency

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station has been offline since a radioactive steam leak in January 2012. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer wants the Justice Department to investigate if California utility executives deceived federal regulators about an equipment swap at the San Onofre nuclear power plant that eventually led to the radiation leak. (Photo: A cyclist rides past the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant on April 6, 2012.)
Grant Slater/KPCC
A cyclist rides past the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant on April 6, 2012.

The San Onofre nuclear power plant will stay shut down for “months.” This from the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this morning at a U.S. Senate hearing. The NRC is still trying to figure out why tubes that carry radioactive water at the plant’s two nuclear reactors are deteriorating.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, pressed members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to answer the specific concerns outlined in letters from Irvine and other cities.

"It is your duty," she told NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane and four other commissioners, "to ensure that the appropriate actions are taken to address safety concerns related to the compromised tubes before San Onofre’s reactors are permitted to go back on line."

Boxer said nearly 9 million people live within 50 miles of San Onofre. She told east coasters there's only one major freeway in South Orange County to evacuate all those people — and it's completely jammed at rush hour.

Commissioners from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it’s a complex problem they’ve never seen before and it will take significant expertise to figure out the causes. In the meantime, San Onofre's generator number 3 will be shut down for “some time” and plant operators are planning to remove the nuclear fuel from that unit this month.

NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane told Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer and members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee the commission is waiting for a response to a formal letter sent to Edison International, the operator of the plant, asking what they think happened and how they plan to move forward with generator number 2. Macfarlane says the NRC won’t let San Onofre go back online unless they’re convinced the plant is safe to operate.

Both reactors at the San Onofre plant have been shut down since January, after radioactive steam leaked from one of the damaged tubes.

The NRC said Edison International was allowed to replace San Onofre's steam generators without a license review. Boxer suggested such remodeling might warrant more careful review.

The Senate hearing also focused on where spent nuclear materials should be stored, now that the facility at Nevada's Yucca Mountain appears to be off the table. Senator Boxer suggested an interim site is not ideal, since many communities object to moving "very toxic fuel" through their neighborhoods. She suggests the NRC look at whether to let waste stay where it is and move it once, not twice, because "some states" won't let the waste pass through and California was going to get stuck with "everything."

A public hearing on San Onofre safety will be held in south Orange County October 9th.