Southern California Edison Absorbed by Nuclear Energy Morass

Ken Silverstein | May 29, 2013


Southern California Edison’s nuclear energy woes are expanding. Now, it may be under a criminal investigation, all prompted by the release of two letters written nearly a decade ago detailing the concerns that the utility had with changes to the design of its two steam generators that have been shut down since January 2012.

The letters, written in 2004 and 2005, specifically warn of potential vibrations that could wear down tubes that hold radioactive material. This is an enlightening revelation because all of Edison’s correspondence to date have suggested that it was completely in the dark about the underlying issues that caused Unit 3 at its San Onofre Generating Station, or SONGS, to leak radiation more than a year ago. In fact, it has emphatically denied that it knew the design might have been flawed.

Now, the utility’s spin is changing. At the core of the accusations against it is whether the steam generator design that it had originally ordered from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was “like” the one it had before or whether it was notably different than the one it had to replace. If it was considered similar to its previous one, then it could avoid long and costly public hearings. However, if the design had changed and it would impact “safety,” public discussions would be required.

In the 2004 letter to Mitsubishi, former Edison Vice President Dwight Nunn says that this project will involve the largest steam generator ever built in the United States. He says that Mitsubishi’s process will need to conform with the utility’s needs, pointing out that the industry's experience with “Anti Vibration Bar supports” has shown itself to be a difficult obstacle in which to overcome. He then points to an example where more than 180 tubes were found to have “wear indications” after only one cycle.

“Our discussions with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to date have not resulted in a plan that will successfully address this industry concern,” writes Nunn, who left his job in 2005. “Both San Onofre and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are having difficulty in formulating such a plan.”

In 2005, Nunn repeated his concerns: He said that the industry’s experience with the “tube wear” issue is “not encouraging.” “This is of a great concern to Edison, because our steam generators are one of the largest in the industry. Therefore, I have asked a special joint team ... to be formed,” which will identify the factors that cause such wear as well as the design processes that could mitigate it.

Criminal Probe

In a conversation with this writer, Friends of the Earth said Southern California Edison has been “untruthful.” It said that while Mitsubishi does not have “clean hands” here, it merely designed the steam generators to meet the utility’s specifications. And, it emphasized that design changes did require Edison to seek a licensing amendment. The environmental organization added that the utility downplayed the design changes it had made so as to avoid public hearings.

Upon releasing the two letters, Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said that the she is now left to believe that Edison “misled” regulators. She is calling on the U.S. Justice Department to begin a criminal investigation.

Already, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is looking into whether any information had been withheld from it, as well as whether the utility can restart its healthy Unit 2. Meantime, the California State Public Utility Commission is considering who will pay the roughly $700 million that this debacle has cost: ratepayers or shareholders. For now, no federal agency will comment on the two letters, and Mitsubishi has said that it needs to review the newly released info.

“The correspondence shows that Edison knew they were not proceeding with a simple ‘like-for-like’ replacement as they later claimed,” says Senator Boxer, in a public statement. “In Edison’s own words ... ‘It will require Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to evolve a new design beyond that which they currently have available ... [they] aren’t ‘like-for-like replacements.’”

Tough Stuff

Nevertheless, Edison came firing back. It reiterated that it would never install unsafe or unreliable steam generators. It said that it did not design the steam generators and that the utility was limited as to what it could do to assist Mitsubishi. It said that the letters underscore those very points and that it devalues the concerns raised by Senator Boxer and Friends of the Earth.

“Contrary to Sen. Boxer’s suggestion, (the law) does NOT require that replacement equipment be ‘like-for-like’ or identical to the equipment being replaced,” says Pete Dietrich, chief nuclear officer for Southern California Edison. He adds that the rules permit it to make changes to design without a licensing amendment if the changes result in improvements, or specifically it does not result in any changes to the facility’s “safety analysis report.”

“At no time did SCE hide the differences from the NRC, nor did it seek to mislead the NRC,” Dietrich says. “Any suggestion that seeks to draw from the November 2004 letter a contrary conclusion is simply incorrect” and it misreads current law.

Nuclear regulators would allow changes in design if those alterations were similar to earlier ones and would not erode safety considerations. The letters, however, clearly state a concern over the vibrations that had previously led to the wearing down of tubes containing radioactive material. And that is exactly what happened to SONGS, which has remained off-line since January 2012.

As some of the details emerge, Edison's case is becoming weaker. The nuclear energy community is tight-knit. But, conspicuously, the other nuclear operators have avoided public comment on the matter. Under any circumstance, the public should withhold any judgement on this issue until a thorough investigation by all federal agencies has been completed.

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

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Mitsubishi Heavy Responds


As a follow-up to our call earlier, we are providing a link to the SCE document library addressing the CPUC investigation. You’ll notice on this link that there are several documents that we mentioned this morning.

As an additional resource, here is some information taken from the MHI 2012 Root Cause Analysis (page 16/64). This link may take a minute to load, please let us know if you have trouble with it. These quotes help explain the context of the 2004 and 2005 letters between SCE and MHI. The vibration addressed in those letters applies to out-of-plane vibration (because the counter-measures used to address out-of-plane vibration were thought to preclude in-plane vibration).

“In-plane FEI [fluid elastic instability] is a phenomenon that had not been experienced in nuclear U-tube steam generators prior to its being identified in the SONGS RSGs [replacement steam generators]. The practice in the nuclear industry at the time the SONGS RSGs were designed was to provide measures to preclude out-of-plane FEI in the U-bend region…

“The RSGs were designed to provide effective tube support (by means of AVBs [anti-vibration bars]) to avoid out-of-plane FEI…

“In U-bend SGs [steam generators], because the tubes are curved, for the same support conditions the critical velocity for out-of-plane FEI will be lower than that for in-plane FEI because the natural frequency of tubes in the in-plane direction is higher, due to the tubes’ greater stiffness in-plane, than the natural frequency of the tubes in the out-of-plane direction.”


Mitsubishi Nuclear Energy Systems, Inc.

Frank P. Gillespie,
Senior Vice President

1001 19th Street North
Arlington, Va.


The original steam generators (OSG) made by Combustion Engineering did not have any in-plane vibration protection because they were designed and operated so as not to need it.

When MHI manufactured SCE’s design spec’s, they built the replacement steam generators (RSG) that very different inside and they were operated at different conditions, which were never certified by the NRC as being safe to operate!

Further SCE was by contractual agreement in charge of the joint SCE MHI AVB team and had total control over what was decided by them; more on this will be made public shortly! I urge you to ask MHI if they will share their notes from those meetings as they would be very interesting and will probably be made public during the ongoing investigations anyway.

Counterpoint: S. Calif. Will Prosper Without San Onofre



San Onofre has been off line since radioactive leakage forced the shutdown on on 01/31/12 and Southern California has had no energy problems, since then, but SCE has been collecting about $70 million each and every month from ratepayers since then!  Even the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) is now holding formal investigations into how much to rebate ratepayers, a number that might easily top $2 Billion Dollars, especially if SCE is found guilty of knowingly installing and operating RSG that were of a documented unsafe design.

Each day, more Solar (of all flavors) is being installed and very soon the "new" capacity will more than equal what San Onofre could have added even if Unit 2 and Unit 3 were both in operation, which will not happen again because RSG Unit 3 failed in less than a year of service.  Even the NRC said that the failure of not one but eight RSG tubes during in-situ testing was a serious safety problem!  Left unsaid, is that this proves that multiple tube failures, (not just a single tube) is something that the NRC must now consider, especially in older reactors with only two very large steam generators.

As it is now SCE is asking the NRC for permission to restart only Unit 2 and run it at 70% power (35% of previous power from both Unit 2 and Unit 3) in an experiment to see what the condition of the RSG tubes in Unit 2 is after a few months, despite the fact that SCE has already told the CPUC that it does not make fiscal sense to operate only a single Unit at San Onofre.  Left unsaid is that the RSG tubes already have an unknown amount of fatigue damage thanks to the poor SCE design and/or how they would now react to a MSLB or other beyond basis accident, as noted in these documents:

Plus, here is an animation called: Dangerous San Onofre Generators

 If a picture is worth a thousand words,  then an animation is worth millions of words...

Why are the RSG at San Onofre Unsafe


Read about the Un-Safe Steam Generators that SCE had MHI build even though they knew they in 2004 that had safety issues with their design?

More here:


NRC: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly ... and why it is unsafe To restart San Onofre


Just Awful

Opponents of nuclear power are probably ecstatic, because this fiasco will likely lead to a permanent shut down.  They shouldn't be.  The next best alternative is to build gas-fired peaking plants (SCE does not need inflexible base load plants), which will increase GHG emission.  Environmental advocates will instead push for more wind and solar.  The biggest problem with that scenario is that it's not operationally feasible without large amounts of hugely expensive storage that carries environmental risks of its own.

It'll be interested to see how Southern California residents react when they're subject to periodic load curtailments resulting from poorly though-out energy policy.  Of course by then the perpetrators will be long gone.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

Base Load or Utility CYA?


Face it we have had a few occasional Brown outs for any number of reasons over the years with and without San Onofre in operation and that is a fact.

The CA ISO (Independent System Operators) have said that we now have a 20% surplus without either San Onofre or El Diablo nuclear plants,  Now it is time for SCE prove that we don't have enough energy and if we EVEN NEED San Onofre any longer; this is the reason for the current CPUC investigation which is focused on the fiscal reasonableness of San Onofre. Much more factual information on this issue here:


BTW: Now that San Onofre has NOT been in operation for almost a a year and a half, we have had no energy problems to speak of because if we did then SCE and SDG&E would have been telling US all about it; which leaves US to wonder what is SCE (and SDG&E, a minor partner) doing beside trying to cover their own assets?


Jack - Ken Here

Hi Jack, as well as others who might have the same thought as Jack:

I do plan on approaching the issue of what would that region do if those nuclear plants were permanently shut down. It's a legitimate question, but one that has more appeal to residents of So. California than as a nation. I think the bigger question is what this will do to the nuclear revival, nationally.

I think it will hurt it. And I don't think that is a good thing.

But bringing the issue back to SoCalEd, it is one of whether it was honest from the get-go. It steadfastly maintained that it did not know of any vibration issues until the leaks were discovered. But the letters show that it knew of this potential problem before the generators were even installed. It's about trust.

Ok, no died. Only people lost money. I'm sorry, Jack, I can't get past the trust issue here.

Recall Anthony Weener, or whatever his name was? He took pictures of himself and put them on twitter. No one got hurt there. But then he stood before cameras and lied -- and he did so with such force that we were to believe the louder he spoke and the faster he shook his fist, he would be more believable. Ok, he apologized and all is forgiven. But we can't trust the guy in public office any more because of the way he handled the matter.

Getting back to nuclear energy: I'm not sure how it will end. But it may be that the utility has to sell those units to Exelon, Duke, Entergy or Dominion -- or a company that has a stellar reputation in the market place running nuclear plants and having the PR in place to handle all of this.




Buy SONGS for a song? N☢ Thanks...

Re: sell those units to Exelon, Duke, Entergy or Dominion -- or a company that has a stellar reputation in the market place running nuclear plants and having the PR in place to handle all of this. 

First forget the PR, what is happening at San Onofre is an engineering debacle of epic proportions, (San Onofre will be forever known as the Tacoma Narrows of RSG).

Next, why would any Utility want to buy 2 very old nuclear units that not only will require four new replacement steam generators ($800 Million and 4 to 5 years to fabricate) but are no longer needed, unless it thought it could profit from decommissioning them?

I predict that SCE will not only decommission San Onofre but will use the decommissioning as a way to re-establish the publics trust, after all, there are billions to be made from just operating the grid in southern California!

Peeling Back the Layers of the Onion

You are doing a great job pulling back the layers of this onion to reveal the true beast that is SCE.
Keep up the good work.