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Previously Classified Documents Unveil Potential Fire Dangers At San Onofre

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Randy_Paige_08062010 Randy Paige
Randy Paige is a duPont award-winning reporter whose groundbreaking...
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SAN CLEMENTE (CBS) Previously classified documents along with other evidence uncovered in an exclusive CBS2 investigation point to potential hidden dangers at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating System.

Grace Van Thillo is one of nearly 8.5 million people who live within 50 miles of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Living less than five miles from the twin reactor domes, she says “it’s an accident waiting to happen.”

But she isn’t the only one worried about the plant’s safety. We consulted with nuclear experts who tell us they’re concerned about fire and the lessons learned 37 years ago at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Athens, Alabama.

Detailed in a PBS documentary, the fire at Browns Ferry happened when a working using a candle to search for air leaks started a fire. It melted the main and back up cables needed to cool the reactor.

In 1981, the NRC responded with fire regulations that require wiring for the main and backup systems to be physically separated at all nuclear power plants to prevent one fire from taking out both systems.

Now, more than three decades later, San Onofre continues to be in violation of those decades old fire safety standards.

“Browns Ferry was an amazing wake up call,” said Dan Hirsch, a lecturer in nuclear policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“You have to prevent fires in reactors or you can have a meltdown and you have to create significant separation between your backup and your primary cabling,” Hirsch said, adding that “The reactor in back of us [San Onofre] still hasn’t done that.”

The NRC allows San Onofre to compensate for its failure to keep enough separation between the main and back up cables by hiring workers to conduct hourly fire inspections in the areas where the cable are too close together. But some of those fire watches were never done.

We’ve obtained a previously classified report which shows one worker “deliberately failed to conduct required fire protection surveillances and falsified fire watch logs.”

And the report says it went on for five years between the dates of April 2001 and December 2006.

Then in 2009, another fire watch employee was “observed smoking what appeared to be marijuana in the licensee’s protected area.”

In both cases, the fire watch employees were fired – but the NRC did not fine or discipline Southern California Edison for its part in failing to recognize five years of non-existent inspections.

Through fire watches and other measures, San Onofre counts on its employees to maintain fire protection at the plant, so you might wonder if the utility also listens to its employees’ safety concerns. Well consider this: San Onofre leads the nation in the number of safety complaints filed by its own employees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

One of those safety complaints was filed by an electrical engineer who spent the last 11 of his 30 years in the nuclear industry at San Onofre. We have agreed not to reveal his identity.

When asked if the plant is dangerous, he responded, “at this point it is a dangerous plant.”

He says he told his managers back in 1999 about another fire risk – circuit breakers that could allow critical wiring connected to emergency pumps to overheat and catch fire. He says his supervisors ignored his concerns for years so he went to the NRC.

Last year, the NRC agreed the circuit breakers did not provide adequate protection and Edison agreed to change them by the end of the year.

Now more than a decade after he first identified the problem, he’s still waiting for confirmation that the work has been done.

In its inspection reports, the NRC says San Onofre’s violation of the 1981 fire protection standards is more than minor, but carries a very low risk significance because of the things plant workers are doing called “operator manual actions” and the “low probability of fire damage.”

But other nuclear experts we consulted share Dan Hirsch’s assessment:

“It’s a form of Russian roulette. It’s a form of tossing dice.”

Experts on both sides agree – a nuclear power plant can never be 100 percent safe and from the NRC’s vantage point, it is safe enough.

But the view from Grace Van Thillo’s backyard prompts a different conclusion. According to Van Thillo, “it will never be safe enough.”

Southern California Edison released a statement responding to inquiries regarding fire protection. Click here to read the full statement.

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