Lawsuit looks to force nuclear regulator to turn over records from San Onofre ‘near-miss’ incident

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court seeks to force the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to hand over unredacted documents regarding an incident in August 2018 when a 50-ton canister filled with nuclear waste from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was left suspended for about 45 minutes.

“The information sought will show the extent to which the NRC has colluded with the utilities it is supposed to regulate so as to prevent the disclosure of on-going safety violations and whether the NRC failed to take the necessary steps to enforce safety regulations at the nuclear site,” said the complaint filed by San Diego attorney Michael Aguirre.

An NRC spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending legal matters.

At issue are 13 pages of records concerning what happened on Aug. 3, 2018, at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, known as SONGS for short, operated by Southern California Edison.

Workers at the plant were in the process in which dozens of canisters filled with highly radioactive spent fuel were transferred from storage pools to a newly constructed dry storage facility at the north end of the facility. During the transfers, each canister is lowered into a protected cavity.

On Aug. 3, operators thought they had successfully lowered the canister but discovered it instead got stuck on the inner ring of the cavity, left unsupported by support rigging, about 18 feet from the floor of the enclosure. Eventually, the canister was safely deposited.

Edison officials said workers and the public were never in danger if the canister had fallen but called the incident a “serious near-miss.” The NRC conducted a special inspection and eventually fined Edison $116,000 for failing “to establish a rigorous process to ensure adequate procedures, training and oversight guidance.”

graphic of stuck canister at SONGS

The incident came to light six days later, when a worker for a subcontractor at the plant spoke up at a meeting of San Onofre’s Community Engagement Panel.

Earlier in the meeting, Edison Vice President Tom Palmisano said downloading operations had been suspended to rest the crew and perform maintenance. Palmisano later told the Union-Tribune since the canister had not fallen, he did not mention it at the Aug. 9 meeting — a decision he said he regretted.

Aguirre and his law firm filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the NRC, looking to obtain records of all communications between the NRC and SONGS officials. Eventually, the agency turned over 13 pages of records but five pages were withheld and eight pages were redacted.

The NRC said it did so because it determined the records were exempt from release because they could reveal trade secrets or consisted of names of people whose disclosure could “undermine the physical security at the NRC, thereby creating a risk of harm to facility personnel and other individuals living or working near the facility.”

Aguirre’s lawsuit calls on the court to order the NRC to produce all 13 pages without redactions. It also asks the court to supervise the agency to make sure the NRC has searched for all records of communications that occurred between the NRC and SONGS officials from Aug. 3 to Sept. 14, 2018.

“Disclosure will shine light on whether the NRC’s actions are failing to protect public health, safety, and welfare,” the complaint said.

The suit cites that under the Freedom of Information Act, the burden is on government agencies to justify their decisions not to disclose public records.

A proceeding will be held to determine the facts of the case, with the NRC to file its response to the lawsuit. San Diego U.S. District Court Judge John A. Houston has been assigned the case.

“We’ve been exhausting our administrative remedy, pulling out the documents one document at a time,” Aguirre said. “It’s 2022 and we started in 2018, so it’s been at least three hard years of work and I think we have a pretty strong case.”

Now offline, SONGS has not produced electricity since 2012 after a leak in a steam generator tube led to its closing. The plant is now being dismantled, a process that is expected to take about eight years to complete at a cost of roughly $4.5 billion.

Some 3.55 million pounds of radioactive spent fuel is kept at the storage facilities at SONGS because the federal government has not constructed a repository to ship the waste from the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants. The situation at San Onofre is hardly unique. About 86,000 metric tons of spent fuel has stacked up at 75 operating or shutdown nuclear plants in 33 states, according to the General Accounting Office.

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