Red Flags

13 Red Flags at San Onofre:

Thirteen alarming reasons why the NRC Inspection of the San Onofre nuclear waste dump is probably a sham

In the wake of a near-miss nuclear disaster at San Onofre, and public admissions that the canisters being used to store deadly nuclear waste have defective components, an embattled Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is refusing to allow independent observers at SONGS, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

BACKGROUND:  On August 3, 2018, workers at the USA’s largest privately operated beachfront nuclear waste dump nearly dropped a canister filled with a 105,000 pound payload of deadly nuclear waste. If the can had not caught on a thin metal flange, near the top of the “vault” it would have plunged 18 feet, with a chance of precipitating a disaster requiring the permanent evacuation of millions.  The Beachfront Nuclear Waste Dump at SONGS is owned and operated by utility giant Southern California Edison (Edison).  On Friday, Public Watchdogs sent a letter of protest to Linda Howell, Region IV Deputy Division Manager at the NRC, requesting that the organization be allowed to monitor the alleged inspection at San Onofre.

Each of the massive thin-walled canisters being deployed at the dump contain, on average, more deadly radioactive Cesium that what was released during the Chernobyl disaster, earning them the moniker “Mobil Chernobyl.”  Unlike the nuclear waste storage containers used at other locations, the canister system at San Onofre is only guaranteed to last ten years.

After conducting extensive interviews with the NRC and reviewing the NRC’s Inspection Charter, Public Watchdogs researchers have concluded that the inspection at San Onofre is most probably a sham and a cover-up. There are “13 red flags” that show the NRC isn’t taking the incident seriously:

RED FLAG #1:  The NRC is not conducting an investigation

Instead of conducting an investigation of an event that could have resulted in a mass evacuation, NRC has opted to issue a belated “inspection” of the facility in an “Inspection Charter.”  There is nothing “special” about an NRC inspection. The NRC routinely conducts thousands of inspections every year.  Given that we nearly lost a huge portion of Southern California on August 3, it is appropriate for the NRC to conduct an formal investigation, not an inspection.

RED FLAG #2:  NRC allowed Edison to wait three days to report a “near-miss” disaster.

The accident happened on Friday afternoon, August 3, at 1:30.  Edison waited until Monday to report the incident to NRC. The fact that Edison felt completely comfortable wating three days to report a near-miss nuclear disaster to the NRC is deeply troubling. The NRC, for its part, seems equally unconcerned, noting in its Inspection Charter that Edison provided a “a courtesy notification and described it as a “near-miss” or “near-hit” event.”  According to NRC, “the reporting requirements of the incident are still being evaluated …”

RED FLAG #3 NRC failed to put investigators on the ground immediately.

In a Public Watchdogs interview with the NRC’s Region IV Deputy Division Manager Linda Howell on Friday, September 7, Ms. Howell disclosed that once the NRC  learned of  the “near-miss,” on Monday, August 6th,  it failed to put boots on the ground. Instead, it opted to participate in several long-distance “conference calls” with the utility.

RED FLAG #4:  NRC waited 15 Days to issue an “Inspection Charter.”

Not only has the NRC failed to “investigate” with an Augmented Inspection Team (AIT) it waited more than two weeks to issue its inspection charter.”  The slow response and lack of urgency displayed by NRC in this represents an appalling dereliction of duty.

RED FLAG #5:  NRC waited 38 days to inspect.

Now, 39 days after the “near-miss” disaster, the NRC has finally decided to send an employee to Southern California Edison to determine if the case merits an AIT.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Read on …

RED FLAG #6:  The NRC may not interview witnesses.

According to Linda Howell, the NRC “inspectors” may, or may not bother to interview the actual eyewitnesses to the “near-miss” canister drop to determine if errors were made or safety protocols violated. When I asked Ms. Howell if the NRC would interview David Fritch, an eyewitness Safety Inspector who publicly reported the incident, she replied “I do not know if they will.”

RED FLAG #7 It is probable that important witnesses are now “unavailable.”

Most of the employees working on the transfer of the nuclear waste trash cans at San Onofre are probably on either paid leave, are temporary workers, or have been furloughed. By waiting 38 days to investigate, the NRC has made it impossible to obtain an accurate accounting of what happened by the actual workers. They must now rely on Edison’s version of the events, which may in fact be a revisionist history favorable to Edison.

RED FLAG #8: Edison has likely had time to lobby, bully, intimidate, and “spin doctor” witnesses.

Edison has had 38 days to “get its story together.”   During it own internal investigation, Edison has had the time and discretion to lobby, bully, intinidate, and even spin-doctor the witnesses into reporting a version of events that are favorable to Edison.  This is especially troublesome given that employees who were endangered are motivated to keep their jobs, and do not wish to jeopardize their employment status or status with co-workers by reporting inconvenient and unpleasant facts.

RED FLAG #9: The NRC has not ordered a work stoppage.

You would think that the first thing the NRC would do is order Edison to STOP loading nuclear waste, yet amazingly, no such order exists. Edison is free to resume its operations at any time. There is no written NRC order stopping the work.  According to the NRC inspection charter, Edison — and Edison alone — will decide when it will resume loading the nuclear fuel.

RED FLAG #10: Edison has only made a “verbal commitment” to stop.

A verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it is written on.  Yet curiously, the NRC has accepted a verbal assurance from Edison that it will NOT be loading its canisters of deadly nuclear waste until the inspection is completed.  No documents exist obliging Edison to honor its voluntary commitment.

RED FLAG #11: For security purposes, Songs has been downgraded to the level of a “Medical waste Facility.”

Even though each of the “Mobile Chernobyls” at San Onofre contains more deadly nuclear waste than what was released during the entire Chernobyl disaster, the emergency response planning for the facility was downgraded by the NRC to that of a medical waste facility. [1]

RED FLAG #12: Edison has the worst safety record of all nuclear reactors in the USA.  

During its last few years of operation, Southern California Edison’s SONGS nuclear facility had the worst safety record of any operating nuclear reactor in the USA.

RED FLAG #13: NRC has denied independent monitoring of the investigation. 

On Friday, September 7, Public Watchdogs documented the denial by Region IV Deputy Division Manager Linda Howell in this letter expressing grave concerns about the NRC’s lack of public transparency.

For background or additional information, contact Charles Langley, Public Watchdogs Executive Director at (858) 384-2139.

Related Stories and Resources:

Letter of protest to NRC

NRC refuses to allow independent monitoring

Letter to Linda Howell protesting NRC denial of independent public observers

Orange County Register: Spent Nuclear Waste Burial Halted

OB Rag: August a cruel month for San Onofre nuke plant


[1] Source: see page 17, Radiological Regulatory Failure: Nuclear Risks to the Public Health and Safety Exposed.

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