San Onofre: Nuclear waste dump for the rest of this century?

Siren signaling nuclear emergency at San Onofre
Siren signaling nuclear emergency at San Onofre

          Many in South Orange County were startled a few days ago when they heard the ominous sirens of San Onofre wailing on and off for hours.  The shrill 440 Hz tone was only a test, but it could have been a warning signal that there is invisible radioactivity in the area possibly requiring evacuation.  Those who have heard this tone before dread the day when it might be for real.  By the way,  the 440 Hz frequency of the Edison sirens is the same tone musicians use to tune up their instruments.  Musicians will recognize it as the familiar  A above middle C, the tone that orchestras use to tune up to before a concert.

            The orchestra metaphor is appropriate here because a lot of orchestration has been going on for weeks, most of it by Edison.   The day before the emergency test, Edison ran full page ads in the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register (the second time they have done this) proclaiming that the failure of the Edison generators was entirely the fault of Mitsubishi, the Japanese company that built the generators with  Edison design and supervision. The second part of the orchestrated Edison media blitz was that rate payers, not Edison stock holders, must pay for Edison mistakes to insure Edison profits. It was no coincidence that the Orange County Register chimed in and joined the Edison chorus by stating in an editorial that Edison must be guaranteed a profit (at public expense) no matter how bad their performance.

            It is the same old story:  The public takes the risk, the public pays the cost, and Edison reaps the profits. Edison is now pursuing the same strategy they have always used to sell nuclear power:  repeat over and over that safety is their number one concern, and then proceed to take great risks at public expense.  Edison has always treated nuclear danger as a public relations image issue.  With its huge public relations staff and budget, it has bought every Chamber of Commerce in Orange County.  Edison has already billed every customer every month for decades for the decommissioning, yet they want the public to pay even more now that the costs have gone up.  Even Unit 1 is still not fully decommissioned, and now it looks like it will take most of the rest of this century to decommission the failed units 2 and 3.  Edison believes that it can use slick ads to  influence public perceptions about the huge costs and dangers associated with decommissioning.  Mitsubishi is more professional.  It has politely declined and says the battle will be fought in courts, not in newspaper ads.

            The timing was no accident.  Edison is required to do emergency warning test alerts, and their public relations offensive was partly designed to deflect attention from the real message of the sirens:  San Onofre remains extremely dangerous in spite of the fact that it no longer produces electricity.  You can shut down the defective steam generators, but you cannot shut down Uranium.  The nuclear fuel has all been moved outside the containment domes, and most of it now resides in pools where it will require constant cooling for more than a decade before it can be sealed in concrete casks.  The nuclear industry likes to call this dangerous radioactive fuel “spent fuel” as if to suggest that it is used up.  The term “spent fuel” means only that it is more profitable to put in new uranium fuel rods and put the old fuel rods in storage until they can be carted away or until their radioactivity decays to a safe level.

            How long will they remain in storage at San Onofre?  The answer is alarming:  INDEFINITELY.  For decades, the nuclear industry went ahead and generated more and more radioactive waste because the plan was to entomb it  2200 feet underground in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.  But then the scientists discovered that even this was not safe, and the people of Nevada (led by Senator Harry Reid) understandably decided they wanted nothing to do with radioactive waste.  The plan was abandoned, and now there is no plan other than to store high level toxic radioactive waste right where it was generated. (That means here.) 

            This highly radioactive waste is so dangerous that no one else in the country will accept it. So what is too toxic for 2200 feet underground in Nevada will instead be stored indefinitely about 2200 feet from the San Clemente town border.  When you drive past the plant on the 5, you will be about a football field away from thousands of tons of highly radioactive uranium, about a third of it stacked in the open in concrete casks.

         There are 40 of these casks at San Onofre, each one weighing about 200 tons.  They might be transported by rail north through Orange County or south through San Diego County but there is growing fear that they may never go anywhere.  The dirty little secret is that they are guaranteed only for 20 years (the ones at Three Mile Island are leaking already) and the NRC has no plan and (no experience) for how to re-cask them when they fail.  What we have in the making is a nuclear graveyard right in the middle of two metropolitan areas with a population of over 18 million.  Some see San Clemente as a wonderful place to raise a family.  Others are beginning to see the area as a nuclear repository.

            The NRC is required to have a “plan” to dispose of this waste, so they  came up with the brilliant idea to kick the can down the road.  The NRC “plan” was to do nothing and let radioactive waste be stored on site for 60 years.  They are hoping that by 2073 someone will figure out a solution.  When the courts examined this “plan,” the NRC was slapped down.  The courts ruled that this is no plan at all, and it is unrealistic to believe that there will be a solution in the next 60 years.  The courts additionally ruled that the NRC could not license any new nuclear power plants or relicense any old ones until a credible plan is worked out.  The way it stands now, the nuclear industry cannot produce more waste at newly licensed plants until the public can be confident of a safe solution. 

            As a result, the NRC is now busy scheduling “waste confidence” public hearings across the country.  There was one scheduled for right here on Oct.  9 but it was cancelled because of government shutdown.  That raised many eyebrows because the NRC, a huge bureaucratic agency, is funded by the nuclear industry, not the government.  The NRC is probably the best example of “regulatory capture,” an agency financed by the very industry it is supposed to regulate.  The NRC is supposed to “protect people and the environment” (the official NRC logo), but instead it has a long history of promoting nuclear power at the expense of public safety.  The willingness of the NRC and the nuclear industry to generate radioactive waste without any plan on how to dispose of it is just one example. 

            If we can’t move it out of here, how long before all this radioactive waste decays and becomes safe?  Scientists measure radioactive decay in terms of a “half-life” which means the number of years it takes for half of the radiation to decay.  Guess what?  Uranium 235 has a half life of 704 million years. At that point in time, it will have lost only half of its radioactivity.  It will take another ten half-lives to decay to a level where it might be considered hazard free.  This illustrates the problem with nuclear power:  you can generate nuclear waste,  but there is no way to get rid of it.  Leaving it at San Onofre is a solution for the NRC but it is a nightmare for California.

            It is becoming clear that the decommissioning of San Onofre is now the number one problem for the future of all the cities and towns in Orange and San Diego Counties.  No wonder that hundreds showed up at the NRC meeting in Carlsbad on Sept. 26 to find out what is going to happen.  Surprise!  The NRC opened the meeting stating that public safety was its number one concern.  Then they went on for 3 hours explaining all the dangers.  .  The NRC even has a category called “high risk activities.”  Those who attended the meeting learned that decommissioning would go on for 50-60 years and cost over $4 billion, a sum Edison wants to pass on to rate-payers.

             One bombshell at the meeting was the disclosure that Edison secretly switched to High Burn nuclear fuel back in 1996.   High Burn fuel burns hotter and hence produces more steam which means more electricity which means more profit.  It is also more dangerous, more radioactive,  and more difficult to put in dry cask storage.  It must remain in cooling pools for 12-15 years, almost three times longer than conventional fuel.  This means that spent fuel rods will have to remain in cooling pools until about 2030. 

           Even worse, no one knows for sure whether it is even safe to store High Burn waste dry casks.  It may be that we are stuck with pools (which are far more dangerous) for decades to come.  This is one more example of how the NRC and the nuclear industry push relentlessly for more profit and are very willing to gamble with public safety.  They have repeatedly traded public safety for short term gain, and engaged in risky adventures for which they have no solution. One can only wonder if they will do the same thing with decommissioning.

            How safe are the cooling pools?  Even though they are heavily overcrowded, theoretically the radioactive fuel rods are safe as long as there is a constant supply of cold water.  Keeping the pool cool depends on constant electric power, constant fresh ocean water, and an intricate system of pumps, valves, pipes, and computer controls not to mention walls that must not crack.  A major earthquake, terrorist attack, human error, or act of sabotage could interrupt the water supply causing the pools to boil out very quickly.  In a few days we could have a Chernobyl or Fukushima scenario which would turn our towns and cities into an uninhabitable forbidden zone.  Insurance would not cover any home or business, and Edison would not be liable (thanks to the Price Anderson Act).  At Fukushima, the tab is already over $500 billion and counting.

            San Onofre was planned in the 1960s and was never designed to withstand terrorist attacks.  Its small police force has no defenses against missile and drone attacks, high explosives, cyber warfare, and countless other scenarios which could lead to catastrophe.  The Sandia National Labs reported that even a truck bomb on a perimeter road (like Old Pacific Highway) could disable the cooling pools and lead to a meltdown.

            But this is only the beginning.  What is going to happen to all the low level radioactive waste?  Radioactive gases penetrate concrete of the containment domes.  What about the 18 foot pipes that Edison has used for 30 years to wash low level radioactive liquid waste into the ocean?  The NRC proudly displayed before and after photos of other nuclear power plants being blown up and reduced to rubble.  Can you imagine all the particulate that would end up in the ocean (surfers take notice) and in the air we breathe?  It would take over 4,000 huge dump trucks to cart all the rubble just from the containment domes.  The NRC said that “most” of the contaminated debris would be taken out of California but they did not rule out that some of it might end up in our landfills.  Carting radioactive rubble from one side of San Clemente to the other side (the Prima Deshecha Landfill off Ortega Highway) is no solution. 

            During the meeting on Sept. 26, the NRC introduced a new verb: Greenfielding.  They displayed before and after photos of nuclear power plants in operation, nuclear power plants being blow up, and then the contaminated rubble bulldozed and planted over with green grass (hence the term Greenfielding).  At this point in the presentation,  Edison chief nuclear engineer Pete Dietrich rose to object to the term.  Is the NRC suggesting that Edison must leave San Onofre with an attractive pristine appearance?  After a brief debate, the NRC conceded that it doesn’t have to look attractive or be pleasing to the public.  It only has to be acceptable to the U.S. Navy which owns the land.  So when Edison leaves, maybe it will end up looking like a gunnery range?

            If you are not upset yet,  here are two more items to spoil your day.  First,  the day after the siren test was the Great Shakeout whose purpose was to alert the public to the dangers of earthquakes.  This was quite appropriate since we just had a huge 6.4 quake in the Baja Peninsula.  On one hand you have Edison and the nuclear community trivializing earthquakes.  On the other hand you have the Great Shakeout people warning that earthquakes are real, possibly likely, and they can be very destructive.  But if you listened carefully to the Shakeout people, you noticed that they only warned about little things like fires and collapsed highways.  Never did they mention what a big earthquake might do to the cooling pools at San Onofre or Diable Canyon.  At Fukushima, it was the earthquake, not the tsunami, which crippled the reactors.  The same thing could happen here.  Fully functioning cooling pools are the only thing standing between us and major catastrophe for Southern California (and the economy of the entire nation).

            A second piece of troubling news is that a few weeks ago the National Science Foundation finally began its two year epidemiological study of cancer risks for those living near nuclear power plants.  San Onofre and five other nuclear power plants in the U.S. were selected for study.  By “near,” the National Academy of Sciences means the 31 mile radius around the plant.  So if you live within 31 miles, your personal health records (and those who died from cancer) will be part of the study.  Until now, the NRC avoided studying this major public health hazard by pointing to a now thoroughly discredited National Cancer Society Study in 1990 which failed to find cancer streaks (perhaps because it was poorly done).  More recent and more carefully conducted scientific studies have reported that just living near a nuclear power plant can cause cancer, especially in children.  A study of thousands of workers at nuclear facilities discovered a two-fold increase in death rate.  At issue are the low-level radioactive discharges that Edison has been dumping into the ocean and blasting into our air for three decades. 

            If you want to learn more about the dangers of low level radiation, read the BEIR-7 reports (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) published by the National Research Council in 2006 (http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=030909156X).   Scientists studied low level radiation and concluded that all radiation can be harmful, a conclusion that is completely at odds with nuclear industry propaganda.  The nuclear industry has argued for years that radiation is everywhere so why not subject people to more?  That strategy has worked well because no one can detect radiation, it takes years or even decades to get cancer, and it is difficult to prove whether your cell DNA was changed by radon underground or by radionuclides released by nuclear power plants on the surface.  The BEIR-7 report persuaded scientists that there is no such thing as a lower threshold below which radiation is safe.  This “Linear No Threshold” model is now widely accepted by scientists and is even grudgingly noted on the NRC web site.   

           Watch for an NRC announcement about a rescheduled “Waste Confidence” public meeting.  And if you feel like being a trouble-maker, write to Edison and ask them to change the frequency of their nuclear emergency warning sirens.  Who wants to think about deadly radiation every time you tune up your instrument?  And while you are at it, ask them to start putting public safety first and profits second.  Good luck.  The company is run by bankers who have profited handsomely from nuclear adventures.




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