Labor union members and anti-nuclear activists alternately cheered, booed and shouted as hundreds packed the latest Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting to discuss the fate of the troubled San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
NRC officials held the public meeting in Capistrano Beach Tuesday to update the public on the process of restarting San Onofre after a January 2012 radioactive leak shuttered the plant. NRC officials say the decision won't come until spring.
Labor unions bussed in members from San Diego County to support Southern California Edison's efforts to reopen the plant.
Local and national environmental activists exchanged slogans with the union members in the parking lot of Capo Beach Church where the meeting was held. Some anti-nuclear advocates viewed the union members' presence as suspect, speculating they were present at the behest of Edison officials.
Ray Lutz of the anti-San Onofre Citizens Oversight Committee accused the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of bias and of ineffectively regulating the industry.
He said Southern California Edison "conspired" with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to knowingly install unsafe equipment manufactured by Mitsubishi.
"They worked the system; they've got their hands in the system at every level," Lutz said, referring to a letter last week two members of Congress sent to the NRC making such accusations.
Several elected officials had joined anti-nuclear activists in calling for a court-like hearing with sworn testimony about whether the troubled plant should re-open.
A representative read a letter on behalf of Mayor Bob Filner of San Diego, saying the restarting Unit 2 would threaten the lives of millions of Southern California residents living within 50 miles of the plant.
"Public safety should be considered first," the letter stated. "I urge not to restart SONGS until a full license amendment hearing is done."
San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts said residents of San Diego, "Should be able to sleep at night knowing that this power plant is safe."
Elected officials from Del Mar and Solana Beach also joined anti-nuclear activists in calling for a hearing. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, at the national, level is still considering whether to hold the hearing.
"I don't think you need to be a scientist to understand the dangers," said Solana Beach Mayor Mike Nichols. "Once you have an accident, there's no going back."
For their part, some union leadership has recently referred to the anti-nuclear activists as "loudmouth protesters."
"Thirty years I've spent training incessantly for tube ruptures. As soon as there's a problem, our training is to shut this down safely," said Danny Dominguez, head of the local branch of the Utility Workers Union of America. "We've had our differences with Edison, [but] my members and the rest of my co-workers would not operate the plant if it were not safe."
Val Macedo is the business manager for the Laborers International Union of North America local 89 and a board member for Southern California District Council Of Laborers. He represents more than 20,000 workers throughout southern California, supports Edison contractors and the restart of the power plant. As an employee of local 89 for 23 years and a business manager for three years, Macedo contends that the power plant is one of the safest places to work.
"I would never jeopardize the workers," Macedo said. "They are not only my members, they are my family."
NRC officials said a decision on whether to allow San Onofre to restart the least-damaged half of the plant at 70 percent capacity wouldn't come until at least late April.
Jim Andersen, an inspector on the special NRC team organized to comb data from the nuclear plant, said regulators have asked Edison to submit more information on 32 follow-up items. As of Tuesday, Edison had submitted information on 28 of the items, Andersen said.
Further review of the additional information may raise more questions, Andersen added.
Edison recruited a team of dozens of scientists from nuclear industry operators, trade groups and manufacturers who forensically determined what went wrong with the heat exchange tubes to cause them to wear and rupture. .
When functioning properly, the tubes contain radioactive steam and they act together to boil pure water to make steam that turns turbines to make electricity.
Implicated in the flaws were a number of different mistakes. According to the findings, generator manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries used faulty formulas that underestimated the heat and pressure that would occur within the tubes.
Additionally, a number other of conditions inside the generators caused the tubes to vibrate against each other and wear out ().
Edison's intensely technical assessments of these factors are still under review by the NRC, Andersen said.
Gary Headrick, the head of the anti-nuclear group San Clemente Green, said he and other residents felt as if they were test subjects used to decide whether the plant could operate safely or not.
"This is really hard for me to understand; Edison is going to take a defective reactor and run it at 70 percent and see what happens," he said. "We don't trust the NRC anymore."
"It will not be allowed to start up to gather data to evaluate [Edison's] results or evaluate our results," countered NRC chief SONGS inspector Ryan Lantz. "If we allow it to start up, it will be because we're confident that it's safe."
Two public reports will be issued in the coming months about Edison's response to regulators' current concerns, Lantz said. The decision will then move up the NRC management ladder to the officials who decide if Edison has proven that Unit 2 is safe to operate according to their plan.
Allegations of an Edison Cover-up
Some residents at the meeting called for a release of all the documents related to the steam generator designs. The demands stem from a letter sent by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and another lawmaker accusing Edison of knowingly installing unsafe generators.
Boxer said a nonpublic document she received "indicates that Southern California Edison (SCE) and MHI were aware of serious problems with the design of San Onofre nuclear power plant’s replacement steam generators before they were installed. Further, the Report asserts that SCE and MHI rejected enhanced safety modifications and avoided triggering a more rigorous license amendment and safety review process.”
All documents that are part of the inspection process are available publicly through online archives, said NRC panelist Dan Dorman. If some documents submitted as part of an investigation contain proprietary information about processes or technology at the plant, SONGS officials have to submit a sworn affidavit addressing why those documents should be hidden from the public.
NRC head Allison Macfarlane replied to Boxer's letter pledging a full investigation. Edison responded by asserting they didn't know of safety violations and were fully cooperating with investigators.
Correction: Because of reporting error, Supervisor Dave Roberts was misidentified in an earlier version of this story. Patch apologizes for the mistake.