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Nuclear Safety Issues

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The Issue

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Southern California Edison is storing 3.6 million pounds of high-level radioactive waste material at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The utility is moving the radioactive material from cooling ponds into thin-walled steel canisters which will be entombed in a concrete bunker two feet above the water table and only 108 feet from the ocean.  

It gets worse: the nuclear storage is located on seismic fault lines, in a tsunami zone, and with rising sea levels to inundate the storage vault. This storage is largely unprotected and vulnerable to terrorist strikes. 

If the system fails then our environment, our economy, and health and safety could be imperiled. That would affect 8.4 million people in Southern California who live within a 50 mile radius.

The nuclear power plant at San Onofre operated at its oceanfront location in northernmost San Diego County from 1968 to 2013 until closing because of repeated equipment failures. The plant’s twin dome reactors remain as landmarks from Interstate 5 and the coastal railway. Located just south of Orange County, the storage at the plant is only 46 miles south of Long Beach and 50 miles north of downtown San Diego. 

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A Chernobyl Echo At San Onofre

By Kate Brown        Published in the LA Times          November 19, 2019

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The San Onofre nuclear plant was permanently shut down in 2013 after a radioactive leak was discovered in a new steam generator. Humans will need to manage the plant’s nuclear waste for thousands of years. (Los Angeles Times)

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California’s San Onofre Nuclear plant is a Chernobyl waiting to happen

By: KATE BROWN       November 19, 2019

Nuclear accidents often aren’t surprises. Whistleblowers had warned of the dangers before such disasters occurred in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and 25 years later in Fukushima, Japan. As one of the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations, the U.S. may be no better prepared.

Many U.S. states have aging nuclear power plants brimming with four decades of self-heating, highly corrosive and toxic radioactive waste. Last month, the California Coastal Commission gave Southern California Edison permission to dismantle the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and move its 3.55 million pounds of nuclear waste from wet to dry storage.

Local activists cheered after the troubled San Onofre plant was permanently shut down in 2013 after a 75-gallon-a-day radioactive leak was discovered in a new steam generator. Closing it didn’t stop the threat. Now activists must wait until the plant’s nuclear waste is removed to a yet-to-be-built national nuclear waste repository or until the waste decays in several thousand years, whichever comes first.

Last year, as a crane operator maneuvered to place a 50-ton cask of spent nuclear fuel into a storage vault, the massive cask got caught on an inch-thick steel guide ring and hung there for about an hour. Workers at the site were not prepared for such a dangerous complication.

If the canister had fallen and leaked radioactive gas or liquids, the 18-foot plunge could have led to a panicked evacuation along the coast of California. Even with thoughtful planning, safeguarding people and the environment from a nuclear accident is a complex problem, affirmed a recent report by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

After Chernobyl, scientists employed by the nuclear industry asserted that the world’s worst nuclear accident killed only a couple dozen people.

In an examination of more than 25 archives in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, I found that most of the official Chernobyl accounts are incomplete or misleading. Forty thousand people were hospitalized the summer after the accident from Chernobyl exposures, not the 300 Soviet officials claimed.

The effect of the Chernobyl disaster on the region’s population is staggering. Radioactive contaminants migrated toward population centers in dust, water, airways and food. Thyroid disease, autoimmune disorders, anemia, and diseases of the circulation system, digestive tract and lungs increased year by year. Leukemia, pediatric thyroid cancer, and cancers of the mouth, throat and stomach followed.

Belarusian and Ukrainian leaders begged the United Nations General Assembly for aid to move 200,000 more people from contaminated land, and for a long-term study on low doses of radiation on health. The aid never came. It didn’t help that other U.N. agencies, especially the International Atomic Energy Agency, asserted that increased health problems in Chernobyl-contaminated territories had nothing to do with nuclear fallout.

To this day, the scientific community will say that little is known about the effects of chronic exposures to low doses of radioactivity on human health. Belarusian and Ukrainian farmers have been left to deal with the costs of the accident, not a now-defunct power company of a long-gone Soviet government.

Southern California Edison shuttered the San Onofre plant, but the danger lives on. The nuclear waste storage facility sits on an erosion-prone bluff 2 feet above the mean high tide. Seismic activity often occurs, and four tsunamis hit the region between 1812 and 1930. Geologists say the potential for another tsunami is elevated in the area, which has 8.4 million people living within a 50-mile radius.

The lack of preventive measures at San Onofre is disturbing. There is no procedure in place to remove the 50-ton casks of highly radioactive waste from their vaults in response to changing environmental conditions such as erosion or rising sea levels. There is no budget to inspect the spent fuel, nor funds to transfer radioactive waste from thin-walled to sturdier thick-walled casks. In the event of corrosion and loss of containment, there are no procedures in place to repair or slow the leak of radioactive contaminants.

Humans will need to manage San Onofre’s nuclear waste for thousands of years. Scientists may be dubious about evidence of health problems from previous nuclear disasters, but the history of cigarette smoking and climate change illustrates how easy it is for industry advocates to generate doubt as a way to sidestep costs associated with controversial issues.

Greg Jaczko, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, recently changed his mind about the safety and feasibility of nuclear power after witnessing how lobbyists campaigned to undercut recommended safety regulation changes following the Fukushima accident, which is expected to cost more than $500 billion to clean up over the next four decades. Sadly, the International Commission for Radiological Protection no longer says, “it couldn’t happen here.” Instead, the group schools the public on how to deal with radioactive contaminants in their environment “as a key factor to control radiation exposure.”

Instead of responding retroactively to more radioactive leaks at San Onofre — or worse, a full-scale disaster — industry and government officials should proceed with what regulators call “the precautionary principle.” It places the burden of proof of harm on industry and government agencies, not on those who will be injured. Since no insurance covers the full cost of a nuclear accident, taxpayers will be responsible for shouldering part or all of the cleanup and health-related costs.

Storing spent nuclear fuel on the sites of shuttered nuclear power plants is foolhardy. Radioactive waste should be removed sooner than later from our ever-more vulnerable coastlines — and to prevent another nuclear accident at San Onofre.

Kate Brown is a professor of science, technology and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her latest book is“Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future.”

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Admiral Hering discloses NRC and Edison’s Mismanagement 

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In May 2019 technical experts and community advocates held a congressional briefing in Washington, DC entitled, “Decommissioning: A New Era in the U.S. Nuclear Power Industry; a Critical Need for Congressional Oversight” (Link).  They shared insights, concerns, and solutions for improving the nation’s current precarious nuclear safety system in the United States.

Participants included Greg Jaczko, PhD, former chair of the U.S. NRC; Rear Admiral Len Hering, Sr. USN (Ret.); and others.

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Potential Impact: A Waste Storage Accident Could Cost $13.4 Trillion

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In early 2019 SLF released two expert reports on the potential economic impacts and the technical problems of the San Onofre nuclear waste storage.

A collaboration of physicists, former military personnel, and engineers with considerable nuclear experience issued the reports. A potential impact of a nuclear waste accident at San Onofre could exceed $13.4 trillion.

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 T. English, PhD, S.Chakraborty PhD, Len Hering Sr. RADM USN

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R. McCann PhD, E. Stryjewski PhD

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Containment Challenges

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January 2, 2019: This KPBS TV interview describes the problems with the storage of spent nuclear fuel at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station site using thin-walled canisters.

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Nuclear waste continues to accumulate across the nation with no permanent repository on the horizon. However, interim storage with the Holtec system used by Edison at San Onofre is unacceptable.

The current thin-wall steel canister design is welded shut, and it cannot be inspected, monitored, nor repaired. The metal canisters are prone to corrosion and cracking, particularly with the corrosive marine layer, rising seas, earthquakes, or an explosion. If damage were to occur, moving them to a permanent disposal site would become impossible.

In August 2018, a whistleblower reported that a fully-loaded canister came within a quarter-inch of falling 18 feet. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) investigated Edison mismanagement and the Holtec canister system. Regulators have since ordered a halt to the loading of Edison’s spent nuclear waste into the seaside storage vault.

SLF supports a fully independent and transparent review. A current pursuit is to gather quantitative research about nuclear waste storage. Dry cask storage is only experimental.  The technology is so new and has not been tested with radioactive waste over a long-term scientific study.

“If Holtec’s system is damaging the canisters, that’s a defective system,” said Torgen Johnson of the Del Mar-based Samuel Lawrence Foundation. “In any engineered system if you have metal-to-metal abrasion that wasn’t intended, you have a defective system and that system needs to be recalled. Clearly, we have a defective system here.”

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Nuclear Waste by the Numbers

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3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste stored at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

8.4 million people living within 50 miles of the plant 

108 feet between nuclear waste and the ocean

2 feet – mean water table below nuclear waste, with rising seas

37 nuclear waste fuel assemblies packed into each steel 50-ton canister 

100,000s years – radiation from Uranium, Plutonium, Cesium remains lethal

Source:  Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune


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