WASHINGTON, DC, May 29, 2013 (ENS) – U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer of California is asking the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into Southern California Edison’s statements to nuclear regulators about replacing steam generators at the shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant.

Located on the California coast south of San Clemente, San Onofre has been shut down since January 2012 due to premature wear found on over 3,000 tubes in replacement steam generators and a leak of radioactive material.

Senator Boxer Tuesday released a 2004 letter by an Edison executive to steam generator manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries that she said presents “major new evidence of misrepresentation and safety lapses by Edison.”

San Onofre

San Onofre nuclear power plant, San Clemente, Califoria (Photo courtesy NRC)

Edison replaced steam generators in 2009 and 2010 without review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because the company said the replacements met a federal test of being the same parts.

But the November 30, 2004 letter from SCE Vice President Dwight E. Nunn released by Boxer, and now posted on the SCE website, states that “although the old and new steam generators will be similar in many respects they aren’t like-for-like replacements.”

The letter expressed worry that the new steam generators, which though similar, would not be “like for like” replacements and could lead to the same kind of potential “disastrous” issues that did, in fact, cause the plant’s shutdown in 2012.

Boxer said, “This correspondence leads me to believe that Edison intentionally misled the public and regulators in order to avoid a full safety review and public hearing in connection with its redesign of the plant.”

“Ultimately, Edison asserted that the replacement was ‘like-for-like,’ enabling them to avoid a full license review and a public hearing,” Boxer said.

“In response to Senator Boxer’s statement, we believe that the determination for restart must be made based on technical merits, through the established nuclear regulatory process,” said Pete Dietrich, Southern California Edison senior vice president and chief nuclear officer.

“SCE’s own oversight of MHI’s design review complied with industry standards and best practices,” he added. “SCE would never, and did not, install steam generators that it believed would impact public safety or impair reliability.”

Dietrich takes issue with Senator Boxer’s assertion that “like-for-like” replacements were required for the San Onofre steam generators.

“In the November 2004 letter,” said Dietrich, “SCE emphasized the care that would be needed during the design phase because of the differences between the new and old units. These differences – which were intended to improve the overall performance of the new units – were permitted under the NRC’s 50.59 process, which allows changes to a nuclear facility if certain criteria are met.”

“Contrary to Sen. Boxer’s suggestion, Section 50.59 does NOT require that replacement equipment be ‘like for like’ or identical to the equipment being replaced,” Dietrich said.

Southern California Edison has been urging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to approve a quick restart of the San Onofre nuclear plant, but earlier this month the Atomic Safety Licensing Board ruled in favor a petition by Friends of the Earth requesting a full public hearing before any restart would be authorized.

Barbara Boxer

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer of California (Photo courtesy Senate Environment and Public Works Committee)

Boxer said she is shocked by the Nunn letter’s prediction of a “disastrous outcome.”

“Now that this precise failure has occurred, and there has been a leak of radioactive material, Edison claims that it could simply restart the nuclear plant at 70 percent capacity, and once again circumvent the full safety and licensing process,” Boxer said. “How could they first assert that tube failure would be a ‘disastrous outcome’ and now claim that it is no big deal?”

Boxer told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that she is worried because “San Onofre is over 40 years old, it is on a new earthquake fault, it is in a tsunami area and you’ve got eight million people within 50 miles of the plant.”

San Onofre is located 65 miles south of Los Angeles, with its 3.8 million people and less than 50 miles south of cities in the southern Los Angeles metropolitan area such as Long Beach, Irvine, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach with a combined population of roughly a million people.

The plant is located 55 miles north of San Diego, with its 1.3 million people.

“Given this new information, it is clear to me that in order for this nuclear plant to even be considered for a restart in the future all investigations must be completed and a full license amendment and public hearing process must be required,” Senator Boxer said. “This is simply a common sense approach.”

Alison MacFarlane

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane  appears before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on her nomination by  President Barack Obama for a new, five-year term, May 23, 2013 (Photo courtesy NRC)

Boxer told reporters that at a hearing held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which she chairs, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Alison MacFarlane said under oath that the NRC would not consider letting the plant restart until all issues are resolved.

“But then later they started to parse their words,” Boxer said mimicking the NRC saying, “Well there are three investigations going on…”

“Given this new information,” said Boxer, “it is clear to me that in order for this nuclear plant to even be considered for a restart in the future all investigations must be completed and a full license amendment and public hearing process must be required.”

“The San Onofre nuclear plant is the largest source of baseload generation and voltage support in the region and is a critical asset in meeting California’s clean energy needs,” Dietrich said.

Both reactors at the plant are currently shut down. Unit 2 was taken out of service January 9, 2012, for a planned outage. Unit 3 was taken offline January 31, 2012, after station operators detected a leak in a steam generator tube.

No blackouts have occurred due to the shutdown, but the natural gas plants used to make up for its power generation have caused more air pollution, and the additional cost has led to higher utility bills.

San Onofre is jointly owned by SCE (78.21 percent), San Diego Gas & Electric (20 percent) and the city of Riverside (1.79 percent).