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Vis-a-vis the recent news that the San Onofre Nuclear Power Station (SONGS for short) is going to start up again with new steam generators, much attention has focused on these two reactors that provide 2000MWs of low carbon energy for San Diego and the counties north of San Diego to the L.A. border.

[ It is the largest generator south of LA and Riverside counties. Every MW being lost due to the two reactors being off line is now made up with by the ever more powerful natural gas industry's main project: fossil fuel. When the reactors start up, millions of cubic feat of natural gas will not be burned up.]

But nevertheless, many have wondered about the future of, and reliability of, these two reactors. The first line of independent safety investigation are those whose live really do depend on the industry being safer, or at least safer than anything in the competition.

There is virtually no dispute that the health and safety of nuclear power plant workers is paramount. They, not the stock holders of, or the rate payers for, these utilities, are at risk whenever anything goes wrong generally.

There are two levels of safety as an issue: general industrial safety of any power plant worker concerning hazardous materials (solvents for cleaning, lubrication oils that are extremely toxic, vapors, fiber glass, etc etc), the hazard of lots of heavy mechanical equipment (cranes, fork lifts, machines like lathes and drills) and the danger of high voltage electrocution, from a 110V outlet used for lighting up to the 20,000v terminal voltage of the generator. 99% of all injuries in power plants result from these and things like hearing loss due to sounds and similar, yet very common, safety issues.

If a plant is unionized (and currently the expansion of gas turbines has often staffed by non-union personnel) union safety committees exist to enforce and report to the management safety violations that can cause both individual worker health hazards to issues concerning  the outlying or nearby community.

I was on several of these union safety committeesduring my 20 years at PG&E's Portero Power Plant.They can be highly effective and, when management gets the upper hand in negotiations or, is able to smash the union, it's usually the first thing that goes. Utilities by and large do not like any entity not controlled by the business to look inside or under the dirty linen of their plants. This is as true for public power utilities as private investor owned utilities as anything that gets found, and has to be corrected, is usually blamed on the frontline and plant supervision by the utility bureaucracy up the chain of command.

The other area, with regards to nuclear, is of course radiation safety. Each plant has a whole dept. dedicated to the safe running of the plant, per NRC regulations, and run by health and safety radiation engineers and operators.

There are special laws dedicated to insuring, on a state by state basis, the rights of whistle blowers to go outside even the independent union safety structures to complain when safety issues are not addressed. The protection of these whistle blowers is paramount for the safe running of these plants. Not just at the level of union members who do the front line technical, mechanical and operational work at a nuclear power plant, but at the mid-level engineering and accounting divisions as well where safety issues as an aggregate of other issues can be spotted such as, the failure to fill out hazardous waste forms, a consistency in certain parts failing, and so on.

The history of abuse in the nuclear industry (very broadly defined here such as fuel fabrication, component manufacturing, special fuel outage crewing and repair, etc) is established. The most famous, of course, was OCAW (Oil Chemcial and Atomic Workers) union organizer Karen Silkwood. She died, and many, including myself, think she was murdered, by her employer, the now bankrupt fuel fabricator Kerr McGee.

There have, over decades, been many "nuclear whistle-blower", some of whom are listed here.

Whistle-blower are important because knowing that their own work force could turn them into the authorities (OSHA, NRC, etc) or, worse, the news media, keeps nuclear plant management and boards of directors on their toes. Thus preserving these laws that protect them, and extending and enforcing them, is of concern not only union members and the labor movement specifically, but all employees of nuclear companies and the general public.

Recently there was an article in the KPBS web site that talks about and publicizes the case of a SONGS employees who wants such protection. But because all these laws are under state, not federal authority and the plant sits on Federal land, the whistle-blower in question is not covered. This needs to be changed.

Here are the pertinent paragraphs from the article:

"But in 2010, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission revealed that some San Onofre employees had told regulators they did not feel free to report safety concerns for fear of retaliation. What’s more, the NRC said that the plant had 10 times the industry median of complaints from workers

“That’s a huge problem for everyone in Southern California,” said attorney Maria Severson, who represents former San Onofre employee Paul Diaz. He said he was fired in 2010 after he came forward to his managers with safety concerns.

But Severson said Diaz is not protected by California’s whistle-blower laws – among the strongest in the nation -- because San Onofre sits on federal land ceded to Southern California Edison back in the 1960s."

This, obviously, is a flaw that needs to be correct ASAP.

As a strong proponent of nuclear energy, I feel that not having such universal laws to protect employees does several things:
1. it erodes as the article notes the confidence of employees to come forward.
2. it erodes public confidence in the technology due to the clear lack of protected transparency.
3. it endangers the work force and, potentially, the general public.

Some whistle-blowers only come forward after they have been fired. Others get fired or quit and then become professional anti-nuclear activists (the well know nuclear celebrity Arnie Gunderson is one). But over all, whistle blower protection is critical for having the most professional workforce, union or not, running these power plants.

I should end by pointing out that nuclear energy represents the proven safest form of energy in the United States today. The general health levels of nuclear plant workers is second to none, with a health risk no more or less than others in heavy industry but better than workers in fossil fuel industries. It has also been the safest to the public at large despite propaganda to the contrary. Nevertheless to maintain this means a general strengthening of these laws mentioned above and an increase in unionization at those nuclear plants that are non-union.

David Walters
IBEW 1245 (Ret).

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (13+ / 0-)

    Dr. Isaac Asimov: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny ...'"

    by davidwalters on Sat Jun 30, 2012 at 02:05:33 PM PDT

  •  how did the steam generator issue at SONGS (0+ / 0-)

    get resolved so quickly?

    Are there any final reports detailing what went wrong, what got replaced, lessons learned, etc.?

    •  it's not resolved. Unit 2, at least, is still down (0+ / 0-)

      202-224-3121 to Congress in D.C. USE it! You can tell how big a person is by what it takes to discourage them. "We're not perfect, but they're nuts."--Barney Frank 01/02/2012

      by cany on Sat Jun 30, 2012 at 04:11:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  They are going goingto plug the leaky (0+ / 0-)

      and potentially leaky tubes and put it back. The problems are all around the supports for the tubes themselves in parts of the bends (the are 180 degree heat exchangers, basically) that are subject to the excessive vibration.

      The big issue who is going to pay or them? SCE or Mitsubishi, who built them.


      Dr. Isaac Asimov: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny ...'"

      by davidwalters on Sat Jun 30, 2012 at 06:51:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Unions protect whistleblowers & increase safety (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cany, gzodik, Deward Hastings

    Excellent post, David.

    If the land was ceded to SCE then it should be subject to California law. SCE should not be able to play the loophole game on safety.

    look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

    by FishOutofWater on Sat Jun 30, 2012 at 02:55:13 PM PDT

    •  Actually Fish, in this particular case (0+ / 0-)

      it's the problem of Federal law being out of sync with State law. The article is quite clear as to the state law being way ahead of the federal law with regards to this.

      There is NRC regs on this, but I believe there is like no way to enforce it. So a strong nuclear WB law is needed.


      Dr. Isaac Asimov: "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny ...'"

      by davidwalters on Sat Jun 30, 2012 at 06:49:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes, the NRC is supposed to protect whistleblowers (0+ / 0-)

        The problem is that the NRC is not reliable in doing so.

        Many of the NRC employees I knew (and still know) had jokes about the "Open Door" policy and other policies that protect whistelblowers on paper.

        Again, thanks. I have been wondering about what's going on at San O.

        look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

        by FishOutofWater on Mon Jul 02, 2012 at 08:03:04 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Why *nuclear* WB law? (0+ / 0-)

        Shouldn't there be a general whistle blower law applying to all industries?

        It should include severe punishment for any attempts to shut up the whistle blowers

    •  Agreed!! (0+ / 0-)

      Kudos David;

      A very important article.

      Thank you very much for writing this, and thanks for your service.


  •  ACTION link? Donate button? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    With diaries like this I would like to see ACTION and DONATE buttons......and talking points of the 7 words or less variety to make it easier to spread the word.

    I have really bad eyesight so if such is embedded in the diary, please ignore.......but....


  •  From the Wife of a SONGS Worker (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:


    "The fact that 59 safety allegations were filed with the NRC in 2010, and another 40 allegations were filed in 2011, and the bulk of them filed by employees, means that the people who work at San Onofre are fed up with Edison’s management. The workers at SONGS are desperately hoping the NRC will do something."

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Sun Jul 01, 2012 at 02:13:03 PM PDT

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