Monday, April 12, 2010

A spate of earthquakes, a documentary about a plane crash, and an old power plant...

April 12th, 2010

Dear Readers,

A pair of old nuclear reactors operates -- most of the time -- about a dozen miles from where I live. I'm downwind of them a lot of the time.

Recently, two events -- an ongoing series of local earthquakes, and a documentary about a local plane crash -- reminded me what a nightmare-waiting-to-happen nuclear power plants really are.

"SONGS" (as the radiation factory calls itself) stands for San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. I call it SONWGS, which stands for San Onofre Nuclear Waste Generating Station. The waste from "SanO" has been building up since the first reactor opened in 1967. That unit operated until 1992, but nearly all its fuel remains on-site and is expected to stay there for the foreseeable future. (The proposed national repository, Yucca Mountain, has been all but canceled by the Obama administration and in any case, is inadequate -- and was more than a decade behind schedule when it was mothballed.)

The strongest of the recent earthquakes (and the only one I felt) was a 7.2, centered in northern Mexico, less than 100 miles from San Onofre. San Onofre is only built to withstand a 7.0 earthquake whose epicenter is no closer than about five miles away. That's hardly the same as a 7.2 earthquake directly underfoot. It's one thing to be shaken, it's another to be ripped apart.

It costs a lot to "over-engineer" a building, but nevertheless the assumption made at San Onofre is that it has been over-engineered to withstand at least a 7.5 trembler, which is much, much worse than a 7.0 earthquake. (On the logarithmic Richter Scale an 8.0 earthquake creates ten times the ground shaking of a 7.0.) Thus, the "experts" are routinely claiming that they are certain that San Onofre has been built to withstand five times more ground-shaking than it is actually designed to withstand! They delude themselves in many ways, and try to delude the public along with them.

Despite assurances, there is NO basis to assume San Onofre has been over-engineered at all, and every reason to think it might not survive a "design basis earthquake" (7.0). For example, many other buildings, built more recently, did NOT survive earthquakes with magnitudes LESS than their design basis. Building earthquake-resistant structures is an inexact science, if not pure art.

The other event which occurred recently, and made me think about possible outcomes of San Onofre's continued operation, was the premier run of a documentary, Return to Dwight and Nile. The documentary covers the 1978 crash -- mainly, the immediate aftermath -- of Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182 in North Park, San Diego, about 50 miles from San Onofre. Shown only a few miles from the crash site, the movie brought many in the audience to tears.

PSA Flight 182 was a Boeing 727 three-engine jet, packed with 135 souls on board, originating in Sacramento, the state capital, with a brief stopover in Los Angeles, the state's largest city. On final approach to Lindbergh Field in San Diego, the jet collided with a Cessna 172 which had inexplicably changed course from the heading Air Traffic Control (ATC) had given it. The jet did not inform ATC that it had lost sight of the Cessna, despite having been told by ATC to maintain visual traffic separation. The tower was not using radar even though it was available to them. Just prior to the accident joking and laughter can be heard on the Flight 182 cockpit voice recorder...

Famously, a person on the ground managed to snap two photos of the doomed and plummeting jetliner moments before impact. The photos show the plane at about a 50 degree angle to the ground, right wing down and in flames, visibly gashed. "Ma, I love yah" are the last words on the cockpit voice recorder, coming about one second after the captain told the passengers, "Brace yourself" and a few seconds after his last transmission to ATC: "Tower, we're going down, this is PSA."

Many of the passengers happened to be PSA employees and probably knew that bracing themselves wouldn't have helped. After the crash, pieces of bodies hung from trees and were in piles knee deep in the impact zone. The mushrooming cloud of black smoke was visible for miles. 144 people died altogether, including the two occupants of the single-engine prop plane and seven people on the ground.

The normal commercial airline route from Los Angeles to San Diego overflies San Onofre Nuclear (Waste) Generating Station. There is a small uncontrolled airport near San Onofre, from whence crazy people have sometimes stolen airplanes. From whence airplanes have sometimes taken off only to crash into the sea less than a mile from San Onofre.

In 2003, in Angola, Africa, someone STOLE a 727 jet! It was never recovered.

At any moment, San Onofre could be hit by an earthquake or by a commercial jetliner, falling uncontrollably or guided by terrorists. And it's simply not worth the risk.

San Onofre's nuclear waste cannot be safely contained or transported. Nor can it be easily or entirely or efficiently or (for that matter...) cost-effectively transmuted, let alone destroyed. Virtually all of the waste ever created at every nuclear power plant in America is still located on-site where it was created -- and NOT even in the famous "containment domes" (only the fuel in the operating reactor is inside the domes, not the waste). The waste currently being stored at San Onofre contains the equivalent potential radiological impact of more than 50,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs. Each operating reactor contains about 1000 Hiroshima-sized bombs worth of radiation. Each year, about 50 bombs worth of plutonium is included in that production of radioactive "byproducts." Rogue country's nuclear power plants do the same...

The vulnerabilities increase daily as more and more nuclear waste piles up with nowhere to put it. Waste so deadly that one sugar-cube-sized chunk of it, if it were dispersed locally, would be enough to contaminate a medium-sized city for thousands of generations and fatally poison tens or hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions.

Waste so deadly that in official public documents describing "worst case scenarios" only a tiny fraction is released -- on the order of 0.001% or even 0.000001% of the total inventory of one shipment or one storage cask (and most of what is released is assumed to remain nearby, in chunks...).

When the atomic bomb was used against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many people died due to the immediate effects of the blast: First there is the intense broiling heat of the gamma radiation burst (which lasted only milliseconds). Then there comes an intestine-yanking, eyeball-popping, object-tossing, window-shard-making concussion wave. That's soon followed by tornado-force winds and the debris they carry, along with horizontal sheets of fire, which suck the oxygen out of the collapsing buildings. Then a rain of radioactive fallout, "hot" chunks, some as big as your thumb, fall from the sky, a black rain, an inescapable, choking dust.

Then, in the aftermath, the lack of proper medication for so many gravely-injured people kills thousands more... But it was the long-term effects of the radiation exposure which killed the most people and which is STILL killing people. And deforming them. And debilitating them. So far, hundreds of thousands have died from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki radiation. Radiation which will keep on killing, because some of the isotopes are very long-lived... and because genetic damage can appear many generations after exposure... and because there is no safe dose of radiation. None whatsoever.

Unlike conventional weapons, which only kill noncombatants who happen to be in the vicinity of the blast, uranium and plutonium weapons kill randomly for many millennia after they are used -- including so-called "depleted" uranium weapons, which are only "depleted" of one radioactive isotope of uranium, but not other radioactive isotopes. The use of uranium weapons in any form is truly a crime against all of humanity. So too is the use of nuclear power to generate electricity, or for propulsion for military vessels.

When Chernobyl exploded and spewed radiation into the water, air and soil globally, "only" dozens of people died from the blasts, the fires, and the gamma radiation at the power plant, and other immediate effects. The entire nuclear industry's success -- such as it is -- is based on the lie that these deaths were virtually the ONLY deaths from Chernobyl. Nuclear power proponents don't even acknowledge the continuing deaths of the "liquidators" -- the brave (though often compelled into service, and kept ignorant about the risks) Russian citizen-soldiers who smothered the flames and built the cement enclosure -- known as a sarcophagus -- around the stricken plant (which leaks and must be rebuilt, and which will need to be rebuilt many times over the coming millennia). The nuclear industry denies that anybody who survived those first few days after Chernobyl's "accident" was harmed in any way. But in fact it is an ongoing catastrophe.

Nuclear power proponents ignore all the damage to the local population around Chernobyl because they say all excess radiation fades to "background" dose levels, which, they say, are harmless. Wrong! Wrong because many types of man-made radioactive isotopes are especially good at getting inside the body, where they can do the most harm. These isotopes are rare or unheard-of in nature but are created in copious quantities in nuclear power plants. And wrong because "natural, background" radiation DOES cause cancer. Adding to the background radiation dose just causes MORE cancer.

According to peer-reviewed scientific studies which have been suppressed in the United States and by all nuclear nations, the real number of dead from Chernobyl may already be over one million, making it by far the worst industrial accident in history. And the death toll from Chernobyl will continue to climb for thousands of generations.

Cancers from a single (brief) high radiation exposure to a population tend to show up in waves: Various types of cancers often have "typical" latency periods before appearing -- they are now discovering types of cancers that only start to show up more than 50 years after exposure! Cancers from long-term exposures presumably also tend to have a latency period, but it's harder to define, and even harder to analyze.

Children in the areas surrounding Chernobyl are especially at risk, not only because of their much-greater sensitivity to radiation's harmful effects, but because they are much more likely to play in the dirt, and are closer to the "ground shine" that still occurs nearly a quarter of a century after the accident, over thousands of square miles of contaminated soil around Chernobyl. (Nevertheless, the most common pathway into the body for radionuclides from Chernobyl is currently ingestion of contaminated food and water.)

Chernobyl is in our blood, in our brains (not just figuratively) and in our flesh and bones. Chernobyl kills silently. We are ALL victims of Chernobyl. Chernobyl must never be repeated, yet another Chernobyl-size accident (or worse) is threatened daily by more than a thousand nuclear reactors, including military reactors and research reactors, both of which are just as dangerous as commercial reactors.

In the blink of an eye, reactor operators can make a fateful error. Pilots do. Submarine captains do. Presidents do. So naturally, one must assume that control room operators can and do, too. But even if they and everyone else were infallible, nature still has its say.

The tsunami sea wall at San Onofre is only about 30 feet high. Dry casks, filled with used reactor core assemblies, are stored along the coast, and are said to be effective under up to 50 feet of water -- but it was never properly tested, of course, or even asserted to be true under oath. In 2004 there was widespread evidence of tsunami waves greater than 60 feet. And in the past few years there have been widespread allegations of fraud and cover-ups in the dry cask construction business, including at San Onofre.

Nuclear power is an expensive excess. We don't need it because there are safer ways to get electricity, which is, itself, only a transport method for getting energy to do work wherever we happen to need it or want it. There is no intrinsic reason our electricity must be generated by one source over any other. The cleanest possible energy source should be used, and nuclear power has no place in any proper energy portfolio. It's yesterday's solution that didn't work then, and doesn't work now.

Energy conservation (such as a widespread and rapid switch to L.E.D. lights, for instance) combined with pumped energy storage, offshore wind farms, solar panels on rooftops, and a variety of other renewable energy methods would rejuvenate our economy, eliminate excess CO2 production, reduce our risk, eliminate future costs of handling nuclear waste we don't make, and promote the public welfare, as required by law and common sense.

Like most of the world's nuclear power plants, San Onofre is old and dilapidated. It's falling apart. And even if it weren't, even if it were shiny and new, the combination of San Onofre's incredibly toxic, unbelievably unstable, unquestionably immoral, and undoubtedly uneconomic (in the long run), lethal waste amidst millions of mostly-unaware people and "routine" events like earthquakes and airplane crashes dooms Southern California for no good reason.

It's time to shut San Onofre and all of the other nuclear power plants for good.


Ace Hoffman Carlsbad, CA

The author has studied nuclear power for many decades, and has had a fascination for aviation and aircraft handling characteristics, as well as accident statistics, for even longer. He also writes award-winning educational science tutorials for The Animated Software Company.

Note: This post is dedicated to the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the 95 other victims when his plane went down recently... Also to the victims they intended to honor rather than join at Katyn. To the Polish people, who know the tragedies that can occur from mechanical and human failure, and to the liquidators of Chernobyl, who also know it all to well, and to so many others...


Ace Hoffman
Author, The Code Killers: An Expose
Carlsbad, CA