Asbestos found at San Onofre Units 2 and 3; nuclear plant set for demolition officials say issue ‘not unexpected’
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Areas in the Unit 2 and Unit 3 containment domes at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station are under restricted access after workers recently discovered particles of asbestos and the plant’s operator, Southern California Edison, has hired a contractor to test and clean up the areas. Workers on Aug. 2 found what are called “friable” amounts of asbestos — materials that when dry can be easily reduced to powder by hand — as part of the preparations to eventually dismantle buildings at the plant, which is in the process of being decommissioned.
Officials with Edison said asbestos was commonly used in nuclear power plants back in the 1970s and ‘80s when the two containment buildings were constructed. “It was not unexpected for us to find this,” said Edison spokeswoman Liese Mosher. “We have all the appropriate safeguards in place for our people.”
Mosher said no amounts of airborne asbestos have been detected so far. Only plant workers whose jobs require them to enter the affected areas are allowed in and protective equipment is provided. “We have all the appropriate safeguards in place for our people,” Mosher said. “As always, the safety of our employees and the public are our No. 1 priority.”
Edison has hired a firm called Arcadis to assist with remediation and testing. The utility would not speculate on a time table for how long the job will take. The friable amounts of asbestos were found in Unit 2 and 3 cable trays — three-sided boxes that electrical cables are routed through in nuclear power plants, almost like a larger version of a breaker box found in homes. Wipe samples also found some asbestos in some rooms next to Unit 3. None was found in general office areas of the plant.
Years ago, Mosher said asbestos was also found in the now-dismantled Unit 1 dome. “I don’t think it’s a big deal,” said Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and former director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Asbestos has been found in nuclear plants in other places … (Asbestos) is something that causes the hair on poeple’s neck to go up. That’s because it has caused harm in the past.”
Until the mid-1970s asbestos was commonly used to insulate steam pipes, turbines and boilers in power plants across the country. Workers were vulnerable to inhaling asbestos fibers and even unknowingly carrying it home on their clothing. Even though asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, high levels of exposure have been linked to malignant mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that affects the thin lining of the body’s internal organs.
Edison this week notified the SONGS Community Engagement Panel, a group that holds public meetings every three months to discuss the plant’s decommissioning plans, of the asbestos issue. “I think the good news is there are methods in place” to clean up the areas, Lochbaum said. “Southern California Edison doesn’t have to devise some way to deal with this. They just need to go out and find what’s worked in the past and do it again.”
Ray Lutz, national coordinator for the San Diego area advocacy group Citizens Oversight and a frequent critic of Edison, said he was not taken aback by the news. “There’s been so much of that asbestos in old buildings so I’m not surprised at all,” Lutz said. “I’d actually be surprised if they didn’t find it. They’re just going to have to take special precautions to take that stuff out … But that’s really the least of our worries compared to the radioactive stuff that they (Edison) have to deal with.”
The discovery comes as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the midst of an inspection at SONGS following an incident at the plant’s newly constructed dry storage facility. On Aug. 3, a 45-ton canister filled with spent nuclear fuel ended up getting wedged into a 20-foot enclosure. Workers thought the canister had been inserted correctly but instead it was suspended on an inner-ring, some 18 feet from the cavity’s floor. An oversight team noticed the mistake but the canister remained stuck for about 45 minutes to an hour before it was safely lowered.
Tom Palmisano, vice president of decommissioning and chief nuclear operator of the plant said the “very robust design” of the canister would have prevented any radiological leak — even if it had fallen 18 feet — but he halted all future transfers of canisters at the plant until the NRC has completed its inspection.
Others have questioned the durability of the canisters. Twenty-nine canisters have been transferred so far this year and 44 more are scheduled to be completed by next year. A team of three NRC inspectors spent five days at the plant in September. Their report is not expected to be released until November at the earliest.
Rob Nikolewski Reporter San Diego Union-Tribune