Letters from the United States Navy to Southern California Edison show portions of the land around the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station “may be contaminated from activities conducted during SCE’s occupancy and use.”
NBC 7 Investigates previously reported about secret negotiations happening between the Navy, SCE and San Diego Gas and Electric to discuss the condition of the land where the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) sits.
According to a source familiar with the negotiations, the meetings have been going on for almost two years and involve all the players with a stake in the prime coastal property.
SDGE and SCE lease the land the nuclear plant occupies from the Navy. The utility companies are attempting to end that lease early.
In a letter sent to NBC 7 Investigates on Oct. 2, Maureen Brown, a spokesperson for SCE, said: “There is no current radiological contamination” and “readings (at the SONGS property) are normal background radiation levels."
New documents obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act appear to challenge what SCE said about the current condition of the property.
According to an August letter from the Navy’s Engineering Command, the Mesa site could be contaminated because of how SCE’s used the land.
The Mesa site is 135 acres of land in and around the reactor domes and across Interstate 5. In the documents the site is called Japanese Mesa or the "Mesa.”
The letter was sent to SCE’s Manager of Government Lands, Messeret Yilma, a month before the NBC 7 story aired. It continues to describe how SCE’s own internal reports show the site may be contaminated.
According to the letter, “SCE’s request for partial termination” of the lease “is held in abeyance” until “SCE restores the contaminated site to levels that achieve unrestricted use/unrestricted exposure (UU/UE) closure.”
Details about the lease negotiations and the property’s condition were initially provided to NBC 7 Investigates by a source close to the discussions. According to the source, at that time SCE and SDGE had not provided complete information on the condition of the land around the nuclear plant. In the August letters, the Navy requested more information from SCE before the land can be taken back and the lease ended.
The lease is set to expire in 2023. According to the lease, any contaminated land is to be restored for unrestricted use by the Navy. The dynamic can be described in a simple equation, the more the land is contaminated, the more cleanup needed to satisfy the Navy. The more extensive the cleanup, the more money it costs the utilities.
Representatives from Camp Pendleton and the United States Marine Corps are also involved in the lease negotiations.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission Inspection Reports from the 1980s, obtained by NBC 7 Investigates through the FOIA, show what former NRC employee and longtime nuclear expert Joe Hopenfeld calls “sloppy” handling of radioactive materials at SONGS.
One example among several named in those reports describes how contaminated soil, asphalt and concrete located “close to a containment structure” was dug up and moved to the Mesa site. Shipping records show 390 55-gallon drums were shipped off site four years later. The exact location of where the gallons were dumped is not detailed in the documents.
NBC 7 Investigates has asked SCE for this information, but has not received the information.
Multiple attempts to reach SCE and SDGE for this investigation have gone unanswered. In response to the previous NBC 7 Investigates story, Brown sent a letter that said in part, “none of the contamination identified by inspectors in the [NRC] report exceeded allowable limits.”
In an email to NBC 7 Investigates, NRC Public Affairs Officer Scott Burnell said the agency will make sure the utility has “properly decommissioned the site (or any portion of it)” before they can be released from its “regulatory requirements.”
The Navy has not directly responded to inquiries for this story, but in letters to SCE have said any contaminated land has to be restored and cleared by a California regulatory agency.
Dan Hirsch, President of Committee to Bridge the Gap and director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at U.C. Santa Cruz, said this and the other incidents described in the NRC inspection reports should have resulted in an enforcement action.
“NRC found in fact, Edison had been doing that, disposing of this material on property they had been leasing and yet the NRC didn’t take any enforcement action,” he said. “Frankly it’s typical. The NRC for decades has been viewed as one of the most captive regulatory agencies around.”
In the letter from Brown, SCE said there were instances of “low-level surface contamination” on tools taken to the Mesa in the 1980s, and they handled everything according to regulations and the NRC found “our corrective actions” acceptable.
According to an NBC 7 Investigates source, an environmental specialist working for the Navy discovered the utility mixed five ground samples together but the exact locations of where the samples came from is unknown. This information was found in the utility’s radiological reports, according to the source.
“They average them together and try to find a way to force the numbers lower than they should be,” Hirsch said.
He calls it a common practice in the nuclear industry.
This is the full response from the NRC:
The NRC will ensure Southern California Edison has properly decommissioned the site (or any portion of it, if a partial site release is sought) before the company can be released from its regulatory requirements.
The Health Physics Society is a reasonable option for a sober discussion of radiological survey readings and potential doses to workers or members of the public.