San Onofre nuclear restart plan faces more NRC questions

Thu Feb 28, 2013 6:15pm EST

* NRC, utility discussing details of Unit 2 restart plan

* Shutdown raises questions about license specifications

* Utility to submit additional analysis by mid-March

By Eileen O'Grady

HOUSTON, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Southern California Edison, operator of the shuttered San Onofre nuclear plant in California, and its regulators are discussing ways the utility can avoid a lengthy public airing of problems that led to a year-long shutdown of the twin reactors.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued 35 new requests for information from Southern California Edison (SCE) as its staff reviews the utility's proposal to restart the 1,070-MW San Onofre 2 reactor.

The parties met this week to discuss SCE's responses to 32 NRC questions submitted to the utility late last year.

Both reactors at the 2,150-megawatt San Onofre nuclear station, owned by Edison International and Sempra Energy , have been shut since January 2012 following the discovery of excessive wear that prematurely damaged thousands of tightly packed tubes inside large steam generators that were installed in the reactors in 2010 and 2011.

Loss of the plant's output has strained Southern California's power grid and state agencies are planning for a second summer without the plant. {ID:nL1N0B7IM7]

Ted Craver, chairman of Edison International, told analysts this week he would like to see unit 2 back in operation by late summer when the grid is most vulnerable.

The unprecedented tube damage has raised questions among elected officials and anti-nuclear groups about changes made to the design of the replacement generators, how they were manufactured and future operation of the plant, located about half way between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Plant critics want San Onofre's steam generator problem to lead to a "license amendment" process that would include public hearings and cross-examination of witnesses to better understand whether the generator design and proposed restart plan comply with the unit's current license.

The utility is talking to regulators about using a "confirmatory order" as a way to settle differences over the interpretation of NRC technical specifications without a full-blown license amendment proceeding, an NRC official confirmed at a public meeting between NRC and utility officials this week.

"There have been discussions about all paths and all options" to settle the issue, said Art Howell, manager of the NRC's special project group overseeing the generator problem at San Onofre.

"The confirmatory order is a central issue," said Kendra Ulrich of Friends of the Earth, an anti-nuclear environmental group.

Ulrich said such an order would allow SCE to "bypass" the more public license amendment process and move ahead toward a restart that Friends of the Earth views as an "experiment" that could endanger 8 million people living near the plant.

"The issue is whether or not the right of the public to an adjudicated hearing, to cross-examination and to the assurance that this (restart) is safe is actually upheld or whether the NRC acquiesces to demands of the industry," Ulrich said.

SCE spokeswoman Jennifer Manfre said the utility will follow "whatever route that meets the needs of everyone, with safety being the top priority."

At issue is SCE's plan to restart Unit 2, which calls for running the unit at 70 percent of capacity for five months, then shutting it to inspect for additional wear on damaged tubes.

The point of contention between the NRC and SCE is whether the plan to operate the reactor at a reduced rate complies with technical specifications in the unit's operating license.

Even though SCE said it will only operate Unit 2 at 70 percent power, the NRC staff said the license requires that steam generator tubes be able to operate safely "over the full range of normal operating conditions," including full power.

In its response, SCE said its commitment to limit the unit to 70-percent power should be sufficient to meet the NRC technical test, but also agreed to supply an additional analysis by March 15 to show the tubes retain structural integrity when the unit is running at 100 percent power.

"We are confident (the supplemental analysis) will demonstrate that steam generator tube integrity is maintained for the initial operating period at 100 percent power," Tom Palmisano of SCE told the NRC staff on Wednesday.

A decision on whether or not San Onofre 2 can restart may come in late April or May, NRC officials said.