The Coast News Group
Community Commentary Opinion

Opinion: Measuring radiation risk from San Onofre

By Roger Johnson

Does San Onofre present a major radiation risk for Southern California?  Much has been written recently on these pages about this vital issue (Samantha Taylor, Jan. 17, Donna Gilmore, Feb. 11, Jordan Ingram, March 7, John Dobken, March 20, and Bart Zeigler, March 28). 

Since the government and the nuclear industry have failed to produce a plan for safely storing nuclear waste, our area has become a de facto nuclear waste dump.

Putting this in perspective boggles the mind.  The Little Boy atomic bomb leveled Hiroshima by the fission of only 2 pounds of uranium-235.  The plutonium pit in the Fat Man atom bomb that destroyed Nagasaki weighed only 14 pounds. 

The uranium and plutonium at San Onofre is not highly enriched so it can’t explode.  But if the 1,773 tons (not pounds) in our backyard were enriched, there would be enough to fuel about 17,000 atom bombs. 

The real danger for us is radiation: it has been calculated that each of the 123 canisters on the beach could release more radiation that the entire Chernobyl catastrophe.  Some of the radioactivity is short-lived, but some isotopes remain lethal for millions of years. 

This alarming state of affairs would worry almost anyone.  It also worries the nuclear industry because it wants the public to believe that nuclear power is safe, clean, and reliable. 

Cancer is now the number one killer in California, and the nuclear industry doesn’t want anyone thinking about plumes of radiation.

One way the industry fights back is by relying on Probabilistic Risk Assessment studies.  They begin with the conclusion they want (nuclear power is completely safe), cherry pick facts and methodology, and then employ math and statistics to “prove” that there is no risk. With all those numbers, it gives the illusion of scientific precision.  

One such assessment demonstrated on paper that the simultaneous failure of both emergency shutdown systems at the Salem nuclear power plant in New Jersey would happen only once every 17,000 years. It was a considerable embarrassment when both emergency backup systems failed twice within four days.

John Dobken, Media Relations Manager for SCE, likes to cite NUREG-1864 which the NRC trots out to show that Holtec canisters (the ones used at SONGS) are completely safe (see the March 7 and March 20 Coast News). 

This report analyzes risks to the public only for the next 20 years, not the indefinite future which is the current plan. 

It focuses on a fictitious nuclear power plant (FNPP) which does not exist.   This mythical plant is located 128 ft. above sea level.  The canisters at SONGS sit about 3 ft. above the water table.

The report says that tsunamis are not a risk because tsunamis mainly occur on the West Coast.  Take a wild guess on which coast San Onofre is located.  With sea level rise and tsunami possibilities, the entire complex could be inundated with mud and debris clogging vents needed to cool the 400 degree temperatures inside the canisters.  

The FNPP studied by the NRC is located far inland.  Nuclear waste at SONGS is located 108 ft. from the beach. Waves already crash near the top of the sea wall.  NUREG-1864 says there are no military bases in the area, a laughable assumption given that SONGS is located on a military base. 

The FNPP has only 4 airports in the area. We have 7 international airports within 50 miles plus LAX, Palm Springs, and Tijuana a bit further. Counting mid-sized airports, there are 19 from which planes could take off and crash into our new nuclear waste dump.

The NRC report studies only accidental crashes and ignores deliberate crashes.  Moreover, it assumes that only small planes would crash (like the Gulfstream IV, weight 73,200 lbs., fuel load 4370 gal.). 

What about an Air Bus 380 (weight 1,299,999 lbs., fuel load  84,535 gal. of high-octane fuel)? 

NUREG-1864 also conveniently excludes scary but possible terrorist attacks which might blow the canisters wide open.  Would Holtec canisters withstand truck bombs, ground-launched rockets, or missiles from cargo ships hundreds of miles away?  Does SCE not read the documents it cites, or is deliberate deception standard operating procedure?

At the Community Engagement Panel meeting on March 28, the head administrator of NRC Div. 4 (our region) put the onus on the public for applying pressure to get the waste moved to a safer location. 

Meanwhile, Edison undermines this effort with continuous steams of PR claiming that everything is safe, “Just Trust Us” (March 28 Coast News).

Dr. Zeigler is correct when he asks why government regulators pounced on Boeing over defects in its 737 MAX 8 while NRC regulators strive to conceal the possibility that much of southern California could become an uninhabitable wasteland.  Could this have anything to do with the fact that the NRC is a captured regulatory agency funded almost entirely by the industry it is supposed to regulate?   

The dirty little secret is out:  nuclear power is by far the most expensive, the most dangerous, the most unreliable, and the most environmentally unfriendly method of producing electricity.

Roger Johnson, PhD, lives in San Clemente


js December 12, 2019 at 10:53 am

anecdotal evidence: I know a family with two girls and one boy who grew up in the 1950-1970s on the nearby Santa Catalina island – all of them had cancer and only the other brother has survived after undergoing several bouts of brain cancer because of top notch neurosurgeons. Any connections to the nearby San Onofre that’s right on the ocean?

Donna Gilmore April 20, 2019 at 7:50 am

Hydrogen gas explosion risks exist in these canisters from multiple causes. See details and sources at below links. NUREG-1864 contains so many false assumptions the NRC should be embarrassed to have issued it. Other references from the NRC, NWTRB, and other sources the NRC and nuclear industry use contradict NUREG-1864.

Until these thin-wall cracking canisters are replaced with thick-wall transportable casks, none of us are safe. Even SoCal Edison admits each canister holds a Chernobyl nuclear disaster of radionuclides.

Edison and the NRC refuse to require nuclear fuel waste containers that can be inspected, maintained, repaired, and monitored in a manner to prevent radioactive releases and hydrogen gas explosions. These are pressure vessels with no pressure monitoring or pressure relief valves.

Now Edison plans to ask the Coastal Commission for a permit to destroy the spent fuel pools. Pools and hot cells are the only method to replace canisters. Edison refuses to build a hot cell.

Governor Newsom needs to direct state agencies to withhold permits and Decommissioning Trust Funds until these issues are resolved. The San Onofre Decommissioning Trust Fund could be used to replace the thin-wall (only 5/8″ thick) canisters with thick-wall transportable casks (10″ to 19.75″ thick). To do otherwise, risks the financial ruin of California and beyond. I wish I was exaggerating.

Derek M. April 15, 2019 at 7:07 pm

The details outlined are interesting, but have so many extreme statements that I’m not inclined to trust the author on even the more benign ones.

In my experience even an MIT historian can mess up the laws of physics so badly that without realizing it they implied the fine structure constant is not constant.

At every point where fear is used to push your opinion why not instead include information and data?

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