A Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) February 9, 2012 Inspection Report says operator error caused the San Onofre Nuclear Generator Station (SONGS) ammonia leak that resulted in the November 1, 2011 Emergency Alert at the nuclear power plant. This is just another in a long series of management and employee performance problems at the San Onofre nuclear plant.
For an insider’s perspective, here are comments from whistleblower, James Chambers. James is a NRC Licensed Nuclear Reactor Operator and worked at SONGS Units 2 & 3. He worked for Southern California Edison for over 25 years.
Yes, this is very significant. The reason is because this could be categorized as an “operator fundamentals” issue where something happens and the Operator does not know what to do, or he doesn’t call for help, or is distracted with other things.
When an alarm comes in, it is the responsibility of the operator to understand and, possibly, visually verify the cause. You never know if there is an “integrity” problem because not all operators do what they say they did. You have to realize that, as with many employees, because of years of abuse, there may be operators that just don’t care any more. The easiest way to deflect a problem is to apologize profusely, fall on your sword, and move on. This has been going on for years and years.
What is so significant is that they had to evacuate the Turbine Plant and surrounding areas and declare an emergency event, an Alert. This left some plant equipment in areas that could not be monitored or responded to in the event of Control Room alarms.
As far as the NRC is concerned, please bear in mind that the technical knowledge of the NRC is not really the best, or the same as plant operators. Many NRC inspectors have been laughed at by SONGS personnel because they have not been the brightest in the bunch. The NRC is not and can never be a saving barrier to a serious event–they just don’t have the knowledge nor the training. The public needs to understand this, because they just show up AFTER something goes wrong.
The “Full Flow” is a watchstation where the condensate water is purified in large spherical tanks, and the resin in these tanks is regenerated using acid, caustic, and ammonia. The waste water is ph “neutralized” and pumped into the ocean. This is a watch where people have routinely fallen asleep or are distracted by the internet. An operator was terminated in the 2009 timeframe for falling asleep at his watchstations which included the Full Flow.
So, there you have it, it was operator error. The greater problem, though, is that there appears to be a relationship between the NRC and SONGS which is preventing the NRC from intervening and shutting SONGS down. As you see in the write-ups, everything is going to be played down to nothing. They are always going to say it is OK, because, as many employees have opined, there are back room dealings that allow SONGS to continue to run in the face of overwhelming evidence that says otherwise.
Many employees, including myself, said it for years, when are they going to shut us down and clean up the joint? No one wants to work for a failed management team at the worst INPO rated plant because there is only shame and no pride. The opinion about the overriding relationship with the regulator, by many employees, was always that there was some other motivation that prevented them from intervening… You must decide what is really going on and why SONGS continues to operate.
If you look at the track record, what other justifiable reason allows an INPO 4 rated, INPO 3 (rated) two times in a row, degraded cornerstones, longest cross cutting issues in Human Performance in U.S. history, probably the worst industrial safety in U.S. history, a Chilling Effect letter issued because people were afraid to tell the truth, the largest number of Nuclear Safety Concerns (Employee Concerns), etc., what allows SONGS to continue to run?
— James Chambers
Excerpt from NRC Inspection Report about the ammonia leak – 4OA3 Event Follow-up (71153):
Green. A self-revealing finding was identified for the failure to take adequate corrective actions for degraded equipment associated with the Unit 3 full flow condensate polishing demineralizer system. Specifically, on October 27, 2011, operations personnel failed to take adequate corrective actions for an unexpected rise in ammonia day tank level and annunciation of an ammonia day tank high level, which eventually resulted in an ammonia leak from the ammonia day tank on November 1, 2011, that caused areas of the turbine building to become inaccessible requiring an emergency declaration at the ALERT level.
The issue was entered into the licensee’s corrective action program as Nuclear Notification NN 201713841. The performance deficiency is more than minor because the performance deficiency was a precursor to a significant event (Emergency Declaration), and is therefore a finding. Using the Manual Chapter 0609, “Significance Determination Process,” Phase 1 Worksheets, the finding is determined to have very low safety significance because the finding did not result in a loss of safety function for greater than the technical specification allowed outage time, and did not screen as potentially risk significant due to a seismic, flooding, or severe weather initiating event.
The finding has a cross-cutting aspect in the area of human performance associated with resources because the licensee failed to provide adequate procedural guidance to operations personnel for responding to full flow condensate polishing demineralizer system degrading conditions [H.2(c)](Section 4OA3.2).
The ammonia leak portion of the report, 4OA3 Event Follow-up (71153), starts on page 27 of the 02/09/2012 San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station – NRC Integrated Inspection Report 05000361/2011005 and 05000362/2011005