NRC slaps Japanese company on California nuke work

MICHAEL R. BLOOD Associated Press Writer Published:

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A Japanese company that manufactured the troubled steam generators at the San Onofre nuclear power plant might be looking for fixes with the wrong test equipment, federal regulators disclosed.

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission report found that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries failed to verify that more than 1,000 tubes being used in a generator mock-up to explore potential repairs matched specifications for tubing installed in the sidelined California generators.

Excessive wear to tubing that carries radioactive water has been at the heart of problems at San Onofre, which hasn't produced electricity since January, after the plant was abruptly shut down after a tube break released a trace of radiation.

The findings come as the agency plans to question officials from operator Southern California Edison Tuesday about the company's proposal to restart one of the hobbled twin reactors, then run it at reduced power in an attempt to stop vibration that has been damaging tubes.

The NRC said Monday a decision on that plan could come as soon as March.

Government records show the NRC issued a "notice of nonconformance" on Nov. 30 after inspectors visited a Mitsubishi plant in Kobe, Japan.

In addition to questions about the tube specifications used in tests, inspectors also found that a gauge used to measure strain on tubing was not properly certified, NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said Monday.

The agency wants the company to explain how the problems occurred and when the issues can be corrected.

The federal inspection came as Mitsubishi was preparing to use results of the testing done on the mock-up generator in other research, the report said. That raises the possibility that potentially flawed work could have been incorporated in other testing.

Earlier this year, federal officials blamed a botched computer analysis for design flaws that are largely to blame for unprecedented wear in tubes at the plant, located between San Diego and Los Angeles. They say the Mitsubishi analysis vastly misjudged how water and steam would flow in the reactors.

Southern California Edison referred questions on the Japan inspection to Mitsubishi, which had no immediate comment.

Gradual wear is common in steam generator tubing, but the rate of erosion at San Onofre startled officials because the equipment is relatively new. The generators were replaced in a $670 million overhaul and began operating in April 2010 in Unit 2 and February 2011 in Unit 3.

Overall, records show investigators found wear from friction and vibration in 15,000 places, in varying degrees, in 3,401 tubes inside the plant's four generators, two in each reactor.

The plant is owned by SCE, San Diego Gas & Electric and the city of Riverside. The Unit 1 reactor operated from 1968 to 1992, when it was shut down and dismantled.