The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station will be required to hold a public hearing before it can restart unit 2, which has experienced steam generator problems.

San Onofre discovered unexpectedly severe levels of wear in its steam generator tubes in early 2012, and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued the Confirmatory Action Letter in March 2012 to ensure the plant would appropriately explain and account for the steam generator wear before the plant could restart. In June 2012, Friends of the Earth asked the five-member commission in charge of the agency to require an adjudicatory hearing. The Commission instructed advisory body Atomic Safety and Licencing Board in November 2012 to examine whether the NRC’s procedures mandated an adjudicatory hearing in this particular case. In March 2013, the board heard arguments from the plant owner, Southern California Edison, from Friends of the Earth, and from NRC legal staff.

In April, SONGS operator Southern California Edison asked the NRC for permission to restart one of the reactors by this summer and run it at partial power – a request the agency has indicated it would do with no prior public hearing.
The ASLB’s decision concludes that this particular Confirmatory Action Letter process, in which San Onofre seeks to restart Unit 2, is effectively a license amendment proceeding. Therefore the Atomic Energy Act and NRC rules give the public the opportunity for an adjudicatory hearing.

The Board said that this decision applies only to the unique case of San Onofre process and not to the whole category of Confirmatory Action Letters.

It gave three reasons for its conclusions.

First, SCE’s plan to restart SONGS 2 and operate it at 70% power for a limited period to reduce wear would be a deviation of a licence condition to maintain tube integrity over the full range of operational conditions.

Second, the replacement steam generators for unit 3 and unit 2 were supposed to be like-for-like replacements, but the unusually high amount of wear seen suggests that they were not. If they were not, then they must be deviating from the original specifications assumed in the safety analysis report.

Third, the maintenance regimes written to prevent tube thinning has been proven inadequate in the face of the recent highly-accelerated wear. Those regimes stem from the safety analysis, which should therefore be changed, which is a licence amendment.