Utility Fined $116K for Near-Drop of Nuclear Canister

(CN) – Southern California Edison, operator of the now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, did not come away unscathed from a 2018 incident when workers nearly dropped a stainless steel canister containing nuclear waste 18 feet: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended over $100,000 in penalties Monday for the safety breach.

The commission proposed an $116,000 fine against Edison for a fuel-loading incident this past August, when a stainless steel canister containing nuclear waste was suspended on an internal ring for 45 minutes – and could have fallen 18 feet – while being lowered into a vault on the beach.

The proposed penalty is twice the base penalty for the safety violation, which the commission categorized as a “Severity Level II Violation,” representing a “very significant regulatory concern.”

At the January meeting where the commission considered whether it should issue penalties related to the incident, Edison’s chief nuclear officer and vice president of decommissioning at the San Onofre plant Doug Bauder said even if the waste canister had been dropped it would not have been compromised and there would be no radiological hazard, as the canisters could withstand being dropped up to 25 feet.

Commission staff confirmed that assertion by Bauder on Monday, saying if the canister had been dropped 25 feet it would have remained intact, “could still perform vital functions” and there would be no release of radiation.

Edison suspended the burial of nuclear waste canisters following the incident and has yet to resume. The utility will continue burying the waste once the commission has completed its analysis of operations at San Onofre and gives the OK to move forward.

In a statement following the commission’s webinar on the penalty decision Monday, Edison accepted the enforcement finding and civil penalty.

“The event should not have happened and as the licensee we take full responsibility,” Edison said in a statement.

“Since the Aug. 3 event, SCE and its contractor have reviewed every aspect of spent nuclear fuel transfer operations and created a more robust program through better procedures, better training, and more intrusive oversight,” the statement added, detailing some of the safety measures being taken following the incident including installing cameras and load-monitoring equipment with an alarm system.

Many more people will also be involved in nuclear waste transfer operations once they’re resumed. Previously, two people were onsite at the “storage pad” during the transfer, now there will be nine people directly involved in the process, according to the commission.

But the commission declined to fine Edison for failing to notify the regulatory agency within 24 hours of the fuel-loading incident, as required by federal law.

Nina Babiarz, a board member with nonprofit group Public Watchdogs, said in a statement the commission’s decision shows it “is captive to the industry it regulates and incapable of enforcing federal laws passed to protect the public safety.”

As for public concern regarding the integrity of the stainless steel canisters manufactured by Holtec International which sustain scratches during the downloading into their vaults, the commission found the scratches to be “small or minimal and do not pose a safety concern.”

Rep. Mike Levin, who represents the north San Diego County and south Orange County communities where San Onofre is nestled and has created a taskforce of local stakeholders and experts, said in a statement while the enforcement decision is a “first step,” the commission “has not done enough to answer all of the legitimate questions about spent fuel safety at San Onofre.”

“I strongly urge the NRC to consider additional steps to prevent future safety violations, and I hope that its ongoing investigation into the gauging of Holtec’s canisters is thorough and conducted with integrity,” Levin said.

The commission expects to release its final inspection report on San Onofre by mid-April.

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