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In meeting with nuclear regulators, contractor at San Onofre acknowledges possible violations but calls design changes 'minor'

Rob Nikolewski, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Business News

SAN DIEGO -- The CEO of Holtec International conceded his company may have violated U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules when it made a design change to canisters that pack spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego County, Calif.

But Holtec boss Kris Singh, appearing Wednesday at a conference before NRC officials at the agency's headquarters in Maryland, said the changes were minor and posed no safety issues to the public.

"This, if you were to quote Shakespeare, is much ado about nothing," Singh said while delivering a 37-page PowerPoint presentation as part of a public NRC webcast. "At least that is our perspective."

In the bureaucratic parlance of the NRC, the "pre-decisional enforcement conference" centered on whether Holtec should have alerted the federal agency before making changes to the design of aluminum shims that help center the highly radioactive nuclear fuel in a "fuel basket" inside the canisters.

The New Jersey-based company in 2016 redesigned the canisters by threading stainless steel pins about 4 inches long and a half-inch thick into the shims to improve circulation of helium inside the canister to keep the spent fuel cool.

Holtec said it did not notify the NRC ahead of time because it considered the redesign to be minor.

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Adding the stainless pins "plays no role in the safety function" of the canisters, Singh said. "I don't mean a minor role, I mean no role."

Holtec is a major contractor at the San Onofre site, also known as SONGS.

The plant has not produced electricity since January 2012 and is in the process of being decommissioned. Southern California Edison operates SONGS and is in charge of its dismantling and overseeing the transfer of nuclear waste from cooling pools to dry storage facilities at the site.

In addition to designing the canisters, Holtec has also designed a newly constructed dry storage facility that is located at the plant, a little more than 100 feet from the Pacific Ocean, behind a seawall 28 feet high.

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