Real People Work at the San Onofre Nuclear Waste Generating Station,
And 8 Million Real People Like You Live within the 50 Mile Zone.
I was driving south on Interstate 5 into San Diego County, past the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The passing landscape was becoming very familiar and I knew I was getting closer to home. Earlier that evening I attended a city council meeting in Irvine and publically voiced my concerns about nuclear power for the first time. Standing in front of Irvine’s mayor and city council members for 3 minutes was both terrifying, and an adrenaline rush at the same time. Part of my mind was grumbling, “What are you doing here? You could be at home in the comfort of your humble farm house, without a care in the world!” Another part of my mind was shouting, “Stand up, raise your voice, and speak the truth, for the future depends on it!” As I drove home, my mind was still wrestling with these conflicting thoughts. Suddenly, a new thought entered my mind, “When did you start despising Southern California Edison?” This new thought disturbed me, because I knew it was true. I do have a disdainful opinion of Southern California Edison, but I did not always feel this way. In fact, there was a time when I had a grateful attitude towards my husband’s former employer. So how did it happen, this change of opinion? As I continued to drive home, I started to think back in my mind to pinpoint the exact events that caused my opinion of Edison to change.
My husband, James, started working at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station as a firewatch in 1983 when he was twenty-one years old. While working as a firewatch, he heard about a job opportunity to become an apprentice in the nuclear operations department. After passing a math and science proficiency test, undergoing a psychological exam, and a job interview; he was hired by Edison and started his training to become a reactor operator. My husband is a perfectionist, with an outgoing personality. In many ways he is the ideal type of person that you would want to have working at a nuclear power plant. If a procedure said to do the following steps, he would follow the procedure and do all the steps. If the rules for a particular area of the plant were that everyone needed to wear a hard hat, safety glasses, and hearing protection, he followed the rules. However, even though my husband has a mindset that is particularly suited towards working in a technical environment, he never had a philosophical allegiance to nuclear power as an industry. Working at SONGS was merely a job, a means of supporting himself and providing financial help to his mother and grand-mother. If a different job opportunity had presented itself at the same time, he could have just as readily built a career in a completely different industry. I believe that this is how life is for many people.
I was a nineteen year old college student when I met James in 1986. I did not know anything about nuclear power at the time. However, James was confident that everything he was learning about the plant systems and nuclear safety was correct, so it never occurred to me to doubt or question what Edison taught its own employees. The company had to comply with all the safe industry standards established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), so everything must be accurate, I reasoned.
When James and I were married in 1989, I knew that he was well on his way to becoming a licensed nuclear reactor operator. In fact, he missed a week of Phase 3 training during our honeymoon and had to take a makeup exam. However, because he had not attended the lectures and only had the written materials to study, he did not get a high enough score to pass. This caused James a tremendous amount of stress; he prided himself on usually getting higher than 90%. Back then, training instructors would often falsely threaten students and tell them they would get fired if they ever failed to pass a test. Having some jerk for a training instructor, did not make learning nuclear fundamentals, and the various plant systems any easier. So even though I knew that I was marrying a reactor operator, I didn’t really know what life was truly going to be like with a man that worked a rotating shift at a nuclear power plant. Yet, it didn’t take long for me to discover how the rigors of my husband’s job were going to affect me.
In the early years of our marriage there were two things that began to concern me about my husband’s job, and raised a red flag in my mind. The first concern I had was the level of stress I knew he experienced whenever he was in training. James was determined to do well on every written exam, and every control room simulator evaluation, and he could not relax until it was over, and he knew he had passed. The problem is that every fifth week was a week of training. The requirements for maintaining an active nuclear reactor operator’s license are extensive to say the least. Does your doctor go to training every five weeks in order to maintain his or her medical license? Does your accountant go to training every five weeks to keep their certification? Do we require our governors, senators, and congress members to take an annual exam on the Constitution in order to stay in office? No, because we usually assume that once an individual learns how to do their job, they remember how to do it, and we do not have to continue training and testing them every five weeks. If nuclear power is truly as safe as we have been told, then why does the industry require licensed nuclear reactor operators to endure such an obsessive compulsive training schedule? The regulations that govern commercial nuclear power are absolutely anal for a reason, it’s because the potential risks are so great.
The second thing that concerned me was the amount of required and forced overtime he worked. Right around the same time that my husband passed his license exam with the NRC, the operations department went to a 12 ½ hour rotating shift schedule. In many ways working a 12 ½ hour shift was easier on James, but it eventually had a destabilizing effect on me and our children. James’ regular work schedule was very challenging; every week for five weeks he worked a different combination of either 3 or 4, day shift or graveyard shift work days with a variety of days off in between. After five weeks the whole schedule repeated itself; which meant that he never had the same schedule two weeks in a row. On top of his regular schedule he worked an insane amount of over-time. I am not joking when I use the adjective “insane” to describe how much he worked. I am convinced that whoever created the work schedule for the operations department did it with a labor law handbook and a calculator. They sat down and figured out how many hours a week they could force a nuclear reactor operator to work, while paying them the least amount of money, and providing them with the least amount of benefits. Trust me; I am not exaggerating when I say this.
The real insanity began when the reactors needed to be refueled. Typically the reactors are refueled every two years. The work control department would issue a standard refueling schedule of 45 days for each reactor; but there were always delays. During the years that my husband worked in operations; the refueling outages were often pushed out to 60, 75, and even 90 or 120 days. Because of the tremendous amount of work that needed to be done to shut down the reactor, remove the reactor vessel head, remove the used fuel to the spent fuel pool, put in the new fuel, re-bolt the reactor head in place, start up the reactor, etc. etc. there was always forced over-time. Often during these refueling outages my husband was forced to work six 12 ½ hours shifts in a row with only one day off each week which equals 75 work hours a week. After months of forced over-time we just wanted our regular life back.
The real turmoil of working in the operations department was caused by work environment attitudes, and professional peer pressure. In the early 1990’s Edison made a financial decision to limit the number of licensed operators on each crew to a bare minimum. For a ten year period between 1993 and 2003, no new operators went through license training. This information can be verified with the NRC. The result of this financial decision is that all the operators who had licenses to work in the Control Room worked a maximum amount of hours. The presumed reason behind this Edison corporate decision is that in the long run it would cost the company less if they called an operator into work on a short notice work assignment and paid them double time, travel time, and meal money than to hire additional workers and provide them with all the benefits that came with the job. This financial decision, no doubt, looked very good on an accounting spread sheet, but what the bean counters at the corporate office did not factor into their calculations is the human element. They did not factor in the physical and mental demands of working a 12 ½ hour shift in operations, nor any of the stress that came with the job. The truth is that working in the operations department is significantly more difficult than working a regular day job in a cubicle. Reactor operators tend to get sick and hurt more frequently because they truly do a job that is more demanding and dangerous, but this was rarely factored into the operation’s management policy. The work environment attitude was that a person was just an idiot and a loser if they got hurt on the job or called in sick. The unintended consequence is that people felt pressured to come to work when they were ill. People were also afraid to report injuries out of fear of getting in trouble or receiving a poor job appraisal. For the licensed operator in the Control Room, leaving shift early because of illness or an injury was a nightmare because someone usually had to be called in for a short notice work assignment to fill their watch. Getting vacation time was also a problem, especially during a refueling outage, even when a worker had seniority it was nearly impossible to take a day off. My husband missed so many family events during the years he worked in operations.
The event that changed my opinion of Edison happened in 1994 when my husband contracted spinal meningitis from working too many hours in a toxic environment; because of a special requirement for the air conditioning in the Control Room, 90% of the air supply is recirculated and only 10% is fresh air. James was 32 years old when he got sick. Typically, healthy people in their thirties do not get spinal meningitis; usually only individuals with fragile immune systems like babies, the elderly, and those who suffer from other chronic illnesses will get it. When my husband worked day shift he usually left our house around 4:40 a.m. while the kids and I were still asleep, so I never saw him before he left. He would arrive home around 7:30 p.m. after we had eaten dinner. When my husband came through the back door into the kitchen he looked horrible. I was shocked when I saw him because I had not seen him since the previous evening, and he appeared to be fine then. I took his temperature immediately and it was 102.5 degrees. His temperature probably would have been higher, but he had already taken some fever reducing medication. I was instantly angry, because I knew that he did not just develop a fever on the way home. He had been working in the Control Room with a fever. I asked him why he had not come home earlier, and he mumbled something about it being nearly the end of the shift before he really started to feel bad. I found it hard to believe that none of his co-workers noticed how sick he was. I think that he did not want to ask to go home because it meant that someone was going to have to be called in early, and that was going to create a problem for the Nuclear Operations Assistant (NOA). If James had gone to bed, missed a couple of days of work and gotten better, the whole incident would have just been forgotten in my mind. However, what really happened is my husband went to bed, and then around midnight he got up and called his doctor’s office and spoke to the on-call physician. Something in his brain told him, “You’re going to die if you don’t get to the hospital.” He drove himself to the emergency room because he did not want to get me and our children up in the middle of the night. While the doctor was giving him a spinal tap, so the lab could determine if his meningitis was viral or bacterial, he passed out, fell off the exam table onto the floor and hit his head. My husband stayed in the hospital for four days, and was off from work for a month. He really should have gone on short term medical leave for three months in order to fully recover. Yet, after three weeks, the NOA called to ask when he could return. James felt pressured to go back to work, so he said he would come back the following week. He did not want it to appear like he was prolonging his illness. So what happened? They put him right back into the Control Room, when I knew that he was not completely better, and was actually going through withdrawals from all the pain medication he had taken during his recovery. Yet, no one in operations management seemed to think this was a problem just like they did not think it was a problem for him to be working in the Control Room with a fever. Honesty, integrity, and a sincere concern for the well-being of the worker has been lacking at SONGS for a long time.
What happened to my husband probably should have turned into an NRC investigation. Allowing a very sick worker to stand watch in the Control Room is clearly a violation of safe operating standards. The problem is that back in 1994 no one was going to tattle on the company. The point is that a whole lot of misconduct can go on at a nuclear power plant without the NRC ever knowing about it. 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.
My point in sharing this story is to give you a small glimpse into the inner workings of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, and to let you know that the criticism and scrutiny that Edison is currently receiving is well deserved and way overdue. San Onofre’s poor performance record with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) has done more to condemn San Onofre than anything I could tell you. The facts truly speak for themselves. The amount of time and resources it would take to “fix” San Onofre, if that’s even possible, would be monumental in scope. I believe it is time for the people of California to follow Germany and Japan’s example and start the process of permanently shutting down SONGS, and moving forward with safe, reliable energy alternatives. The health and safety of the 8 million real people who live within the 50 mile radius of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the economic future of the great state of California should take precedence over Edison International’s bottom line.
Written by: Bethann Chambers – The wife of a Licensed Nuclear Reactor Operator at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), who was retaliated against for raising safety concerns.
San Onofre Code of Silence
1. San Onofre workers are often reluctant to file a safety allegation against the utility he /she works for because they do not want to lose their job, or future career opportunities; which means there is a powerful incentive to stay silent.
2. The Utility that runs San Onofre, Southern California Edison, is not going to complain about the cost of running a nuclear power plant, or the mountain of regulation they have to comply with because they want to maintain their license to operate. Therefore, the Utility stays silent about the dangers because they want to continue to pass the cost of generating electricity onto the ratepayer.
3. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is not an all-seeing agency that knows everything that is happening at every nuclear power plant in the country. Therefore, the NRC stays silent about the dangers of nuclear power to preserve their own jobs, because the Utility (SCE) pays to be inspected.
4. Pro-nuclear organizations like the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) are not going to say that any particular nuclear facility is un-safe and needs to be shut down, because the more problems a utility has, the more advisors INPO and WANO can send to help solve the problem. Therefore, they have an incentive for staying silent as well, because the Utility (SCE) pays for INPO and WANO services.
5. Who gets the rotten deal in this tangled alliance? The general public and the ratepayer. The people of southern California pay higher electricity prices to “feather the beds” of the Utility (SCE), NRC, INPO, and WANO, and in return their health and safety are at risk from a mismanaged nuclear facility. Nuclear power is only safe as long as the radiation and contamination is fully contained. As long as the containment structure and the plant systems are never compromised, then radiation exposure does not occur. There is no margin of error in nuclear power operations; everything has to be perfect or suddenly it becomes extremely dangerous.
cross posted from “When did you start despising Southern California Edison?”