San Onofre

Early morning surfers catch a few waves with the San Onofre nuclear power plant in the background. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / September 19, 2012)

The former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Southern California Edison’s plan to restart the darkened San Onofre nuclear plant at reduced power for safety reasons is "not one that instills tremendous confidence in me."

Gregory Jaczko, who appeared Tuesday at a nuclear safety conference in San Diego, said Southern California Edison’s proposal to fire up one unit at the plant at reduced power and then shut it down for inspections is “a fairly novel idea.”

It's not unusual for plants to operate at reduced power for market reasons, but Jaczko said it is unusual to do so for safety reasons as Edison proposed, and suggests that the company still has concerns about running at a higher power.

Jaczko also said he thinks the agency in the future needs to more carefully review major equipment replacements like the steam generators at San Onofre, which caused the plant's shutdown.
 
Jaczko was head of the NRC when a tube in one of San Onofre’s newly replaced steam generators sprung a leak and released a small amount of radioactive steam. The leak led to the discovery that the tubes were wearing out at an unusual rate, and the plant has been shut down for more than a year.
 
Some of the plant's opponents have accused plant operator Southern California Edison of sidestepping NRC review of design changes in the new generators. Edison has contended that it followed all regulations and industry standards.

Jaczko spoke Tuesday along with former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has become an outspoken opponent of nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 disaster at Fukushima.

Jaczko did not weigh in on whether Edison had followed the regulations appropriately but said he thought the NRC needs to revisit its own processes for reviewing major design changes, specifically the "50.59" process, which allows plant owners to make design changes without applying for a license amendment if they determine that the changes will not change the plant's technical specifications or increase the likelihood or severity of an accident.

He said that it's not clear that the NRC would have caught the problems if Edison had gone through a license amendment process for all the design changes at San Onofre, but that it would have been more likely that they would have identified the problems earlier.

"I think clearly a major modification like this is not really what is intended with 50.59," he said. "At a certain point, a large component where there's many subsystems of multiple subsystems just needs to be reviewed."

Jaczko also said as the nation's nuclear plants age, "I think it's time that we need to reconsider prolonging the lifetime of many of these reactors."

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abby.sewell@latimes.com