Two weeks before he resigned as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on May 21, Gregory Jaczko publicly wrist-slapped Southern California Edison, whose two-gigawatt nuclear plant now sits idle on the Southern California coast. Utility spokesman Stephen Pickett had just announced that the troubled facility could be back online before midsummer. Jaczko swiftly dashed that optimism. "Any discussion of a date for restart is clearly premature," he warned in a statement, adding that the commission had yet to hear back from Edison about recommendations made in March. Once Edison's response was in, he wrote, "we will take whatever time is necessary to conduct a thorough safety review."
The exchange shows why Jaczko so irritated the industry he oversaw. It was Jaczko -- a former science advisor to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. -- who in 2010 fulfilled Obama's vow to kill plans for storing nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain; Jaczko who cast the lone vote against the first new nuclear plant approved by the NRC since 1978, to be built in Waynesboro, Ga. Jaczko has also stood alone in opposing license renewals for several existing U.S. nuclear plants.
"He was the only commissioner pushing to enact safety revisions after (the Daiichi nuclear plant fire at) Fukushima," says Rochelle Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a Southern California watchdog.
Conflicts with industry aren't all that prompted Jaczko's resignation; his management style reportedly involved storming out of meetings that weren't going his way. But anti-nuclear activists are skeptical. "This is an agency that's been voted for the past three years to be the best place to work in federal government," says Michael Mariotte of the nonprofit Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "That doesn't happen if there's a psychotic person running the place." What really rankles people is that Jaczko "has been pushing the commissioners to do their jobs, which is unusual at the NRC."
Besides, Mariotte says, "maybe we need a bully" at an agency responsible for safeguarding the lives of millions. A little more bullying in the regulatory process, in fact, might have stopped Southern California Edison from making a costly mistake -- and spared local residents some terror.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station sits on a sand-swept stretch of coast in ritzy Orange County. Millions live within a 70-mile radius, including residents of San Diego and Los Angeles. "If there were an accident there, you could lose most of Southern California," Dan Hirsch of the anti-nuclear group Committee to Bridge the Gap told protesters outside the plant on April 27. San Onofre contains "20 times as much long-lived radioactivity as was released by the Chernobyl accident 26 years ago."
San Onofre has been under NRC scrutiny for several years -- the plant leads the industry in employee complaints about safety and morale. But its recent troubles began Jan. 31, when a high-radiation sensor detected a leak in a metal alloy tube containing hot radioactive water. By 4:10 pm, the pin-sized hole was hissing 3 gallons per hour, and operators began carefully reducing power by 1 percent per minute until the Unit 3 reactor was shut down. (Unit 2 next door had just been shut down for routine refueling and has not been restarted.)
Tube problems are all too common in pressurized water reactors (PWRs) like San Onofre's, where hot radioactive water flows through thousands of feet of tubing, heating non-radioactive water that circulates outside the tubes until it turns to steam. In 2000, defective tubes were discovered at California's Diablo Canyon Plant during a routine inspection; a tube ruptured at Arizona's Palo Verde nuclear plant in 1993, briefly releasing 100 gallons a minute of radioactive water, some of which escaped into the atmosphere. All those earlier incidents occurred in part because, after 20 or more years, the generators were wearing out. By the mid-2000s, many plant owners were petitioning to replace them. In every case, regulators said yes.
And that's the scary thing about San Onofre's generators: They're brand-new. Unit 2's generator was installed in the spring of 2010; Unit 3 in early 2011. As recently as Jan. 6, Pete Dietrich, Edison's chief nuclear officer, boasted that they "represent the safest, most efficient 21st century machinery." Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which manufactured the $800 million machines in Japan in 2009, predicted they would last 60 years.
But the fact is that no one -- not Edison, not the NRC, not even Mitsubishi -- could have known for sure how well the steam generators would perform in the real world. According to a report by energy education nonprofit Fairewinds, the utility passed off the new generator design to the commission as an "in-kind" replacement, when in fact engineers at Mitsubishi had made significant design changes, including the removal of a stabilizing component so they could pack 400 more tubes in each generator. That may have caused the tubes to dent as they rattled against each other during operation. "With little field experience, the design was tested largely in cyberspace," asserts Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The computer models showed no vibration problems. The plant showed otherwise."
Southern California Edison dismisses the Fairewinds report, saying its author, Arne Gunderson, last held a license to operate a nuclear facility 50 years ago. And "his was only a research facility that generated the same thermal power as a lightbulb," spokeswoman Jennifer Manfrè wrote in an email. The utility's engineers defend the steam-generator design changes as based on decades of industry observation. And while the modifications were indeed tested only on computers, they still cleared the NRC's preliminary safety evaluation for in-kind replacement, a "standard tool" used throughout the industry.
In a press conference two days after his resignation, Jaczko said that the debacle may prompt regulators to finally upgrade that standard tool. But the battle won't be Jaczko's to take up. On May 24, President Obama nominated his replacement: Allison Macfarlane, an associate professor of environmental science at George Mason University and author of a well-regarded book on nuclear waste. She's not exactly an "in-kind" replacement, but she is expected to balance the industry-friendliness of Jaczko's longtime nemesis on the commission, Republican Kristine Svinicki, who comes up for reconfirmation this June.
Sen. Reid, without whose approval no commission appointment moves forward, appreciates Macfarlane's nuclear-friendly but anti-Yucca Mountain record; Rochelle Becker likes her, too, saying she puts science before politics and industry concerns. "We just wish she was joining Chairman Jaczko on the Commission," she adds. "Not replacing him."