Safety at San Onofre seriously misrepresented by NCT -- April 8th, 2001

North County Times

From: Russell D. Hoffman
Concerned Citizen
Carlsbad, California

Subject: Safety at San Onofre seriously misrepresented by NCT

Date: April 8th, 2001

To The Editor:

It is impossible, in the amount of space you give your reader's, to describe, paragraph by paragraph, all the misrepresentations in your front-page-center article in today's paper, written by the always-biased-for-nukes Phil Diehl (is he paid by the nuclear industry or does he just have a cushy job waiting for him when he leaves the NCT?). I thought newspaper reports were supposed to be balanced. But what other industry would get such kid-glove treatment as SONGS gets in "Inspector Tracks Safety At San Onofre"?

The article describes as "small" a fire which caused "tens of millions" of dollars damage, blazed for nearly three hours, and knocked out power at Unit III from February 3rd until at least mid-June, a fire which started just 12 hours after the power plant was brought back online after a month-long refueling outage -- which was rushed to completion in 32 days rather than the normal 40 days. Downtime costs about two million dollars every three days in lost revenue for SDG&E and the other shareholders. And rolling blackouts cause numerous businesses to suffer financial burdens which SDG&E will never compensate them for.

The fire started, according to the article, when a circuit breaker "failed suddenly. It sent sparks and bits of hot metal flying..."

This is serious! There are hundreds if not thousands of circuit breakers at San Onofre. Huge ones. Old ones. The inspectors featured in the article, James Sloan Jr. and his partner John Kramer, somehow missed the fact that one was going to "suddenly" fail.

This situation could only come about in one of two ways:

One is that the circuit breaker was obviously showing signs of fault but no one noticed.

If this is the case then the safety procedures at San Onofre are clearly grossly inadequate. Either the inspectors should be fired, or additional numbers of inspectors are needed, or more likely, both. And some SDG&E workers weren't doing their job (inspectors are supposed to be inspecting working plants, not finding problems for the operators), so they should likewise be fired, retrained, or more of them are needed to "safely" operate the plant (something I don't think can be done in any case). And obviously, if this could have been tracked down before the event, then at this moment one would assume that ALL of the circuit breakers in the plant were likewise inadequately maintained and inspected. In ALL units.

The other thing that could have happened is that there was absolutely no way to know that this particular circuit breaker was going to fail, because it showed no signs that it was suddenly going to send sparks flying every which way.

But if that's the case, then clearly it can be expected that the entire electrical wiring system at San Onofre is A) riddled with circuit breakers which can fail unexpectedly, explosively, and potentially can cause catastrophic consequences, and B) the entire wiring system is built with its circuit breakers in such a way, and in such positions, that when they fail explosively (which they obviously can do) they are capable of causing a wide variety of secondary problems (which they obviously can do), including but hardly limited to the problems caused at San Onofre, specifically, damaging all three lubricating systems for the 200-ton turbine, which undoubtedly was spinning at high speed at the time. This is a very dangerous situation and we as a community are very lucky things didn't get a lot worse than they did.

One can read old newspaper accounts about what happens when a large turbine spins out of control. It can crash through just about anything. It can damage other circuits, pumps, pipes, valves, compressors, anything it runs into or over. This isn't so farfetched: That's why the turbine has three lubricating systems. They aren't all supposed to fail at once, but they did. 200 unlubricated spinning tons of weight on a couple of bearings get awful hot awful fast. The bearings seize, the shaft or the bearings (or both) crack, and the whole unit flies off like a whirling dervish. We almost lost North County (and San Diego and Orange County, too). We were lucky.

But Phil reports that safety is on track at San Onofre. Oh yeah? I don't think so.

The hundred million dollars or more that this accident will probably cost someone (insurance, ratepayers, government, probably everyone but SDG&E) is just a small piece of all the money we've poured down the rathole called nuclear energy.

It's time to switch to proven long-term renewable energy solutions, including all of the following: Wind, Wave, Tide, Solar, Geothermal, Hydroelectric and Biomass. It's time to build a worldwide power grid to supply those renewable energy systems to the people, and it's time for Phil Diehl to retire to work for the nuclear industry, where such self-serving hype as he writes will always, no doubt, be welcome.

But he shouldn't write for a paper interested in balanced reporting.


Russell Hoffman
Carlsbad, California
April 8th, 2001

Note: Inspector Sloan, according to the article, was going into a theater when his beeper went off and he had to go to the plant because of the fire. Yet as the fire raged, he took the time, according to the article, to get a refund on his ticket (I wonder how he managed this, since movie tickets invariably say "no refunds or exchanges") and to take his wife home. It is interesting to note that he was apparently afraid to have his wife come near the plant during the emergency.


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First posted April, 2001.

Last modified April, 2001.

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