Sunday, December 26, 2010

Things are, once again, worse than ever at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station...

December 26th, 2010

Dear Readers,

It always breaks my heart when I hear nuclear workers say they wouldn't be doing it if they thought they were putting their children at risk. These same workers take their children to McDonald's. No risk there, huh? A disproportionate number of them smoke tobacco, and inevitably, their children become smokers more frequently, too. They likewise ignore the dangers from CT scans, x-rays, sunlight and tritium, and they, and their children, get cancer and die, just like the rest of us. Death leaves no voter behind. Even if they "wise up" as they whither and die, it does society no good. Their voting days are done. Today, they might be on the local school board, stopping opinions they don't agree with, and a long-time employee of the nuclear power plant. But tomorrow perhaps, they'll feel a sudden pain that won't stop, or they'll cough up blood, or -- like me -- they'll piss blood, and then their life changes.... but all too often, it's too late by then.

And they don't know if it was the cigarettes or the hamburgers or the x-rays or the CT scans or the sun or their job or something else, but it doesn't really matter, it's over. And if they DO survive, a lot of times, radiation is given in ample quantities before, during, and after treatment, and it's hard to complain about getting too much radiation when the doctor's telling you he thinks he sees a lump... Radiation to find the cancer. Radiation to cure it. Radiation to be sure it remains gone. Radiation to prevent its recurrence. Radiation to keep the hospital's liability down.

The main key to cancer survivability is early detection followed by timely and skilled medical care. No infections, no tools left inside the body, all the holes sewed up nicely. No matter how good it gets, it's not nearly as fun as not getting cancer in the first place.

Many, if not most, cancers are the result of a series of changes in the DNA structure. Although the final initiating event will likely be one random change to the DNA of one cell in the body, out of 10s of trillions of cells, frequently many cells are in the "pre-cancerous" stage by then, which makes "curing" cancer very difficult indeed.

On Tuesday, December 14th, 2010, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a Special Hearing on San Onofre's ongoing problems with worker honesty, integrity, and related morale issues. The dangers to children from environmental radiation were not discussed, although they should have been. Scores of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station workers showed up at the hearing, wearing "SONGS" dress shirts, polo shirts, jackets, patches, name tags, and/or beepers. The CEO of Edison International (the parent company of Southern California Edison (SCE), which operates the facility (with a lot of sub-contractors such as Bechtel and The Shaw Group)), had flown in, and he sat in the front row along with several other Edison corporate celebrities and NRC mucky-mucks, as well as a couple of recently-retired, 25-year SONGS veterans who are now whistleblowers.

Facing the audience were four SCE executives at one table -- the top one yet another new guy -- and four NRC inspectors at another table. At its peak, there were about 150 people in the room.

During the "formal" part of the meeting, we were told that all the important "metrics" show improvement, and nothing unsafe is happening at the plant. The NRC feels that they are getting the proper feedback from the utility workers so that they can maintain a "Safety-Conscious Work Environment" ("SCWE") and proper regulatory control. We were told that all the workers now carry a "blue book" which tells them how to behave, and many members of the audience held up their "blue books" to show that they carry them all the time, along with their beepers.

However, when the public comment period began and the whistleblowers started speaking out, a completely different picture emerged. Things are, once again, worse than ever at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Regarding the steel I-beam that was dropped into the spent fuel pool last month (which I had written about in a previous newsletter), we were told that it "only" weighed about 40 pounds. The NRC assumes that even if the I-beam had fallen vertically it wouldn't have been able to damage a 1,400-pound reactor fuel assembly, considering that the reactor fuel assemblies are designed to withstand a second reactor fuel assembly falling on top of them vertically at "terminal velocity" through water.

We were told that even if a fuel leakage issue was somehow caused by such an accident, or any "foreseeable" accident, the radiation would be contained inside the spent fuel pool building, which is very large and "negatively pressurized."

Of course. in order to have negative pressure, you have to suck air out, at least somewhat, because everything leaks, at least somewhat, and people have to go in and out through doorways, and fuel has to go in and out.

Fans draw the excess air out, but not to worry: Everything goes through a HEPA filter! HEPA filters were designed for the nuclear industry, and the standards are written by the Department of Energy (DOE).

So just because they can't even stop a 40-pound I-beam from falling, there's nothing to worry about, because they'll still achieve a 99.99% containment of any radioactive crud that is released, thanks to the HEPA filters, right?

Well, not quite.

To use the word "HEPA" when you market your filter, you are required to achieve a 99.97% filtration of particles larger than 0.3 microns in diameter. At 99.97% efficiency, 3 out of every 10,000 large particles gets through, which can quickly add up to trillions of large particles "legally" getting through the filter. Most of the particles that are released above 0.3 microns will be right around the 0.3 micron size.

Anything smaller than 0.3 microns isn't required to be stopped at all, and of course, any accident will release a spectrum of particle sizes, and many accidents are likely to have average particle sizes in the 0.1 micron size. So HEPA filters aren't all they're cracked up to be! And industry standards are three times weaker than what you probably would go buy yourself at the store.

As a HEPA filter is used, the average particle size it can stop will get smaller as material cakes around the filter material, while the pressure to push air through the filter increases accordingly. If the caked material reacts chemically with the filter material, it can damage the fibers and greatly reduce the effectiveness of the filter. Radiation would, of course, damage the filter material, no matter what that material is.

A good eye can discern objects down to about 10 microns in size, so what HEPA filters do let through is, conveniently enough, invisible. HEPA filters do not stop ANY noble gases, which don't clump into large particles. AND is it just a coincidence that noble gases that might be released in an accident aren't normally measured, reported, considered, or believed to be any cause for concern? Noble gases are generally considered "harmless" because the body doesn't utilize them in any way. But the body absorbs them "accidentally" all the time, so they are in the body at a fairly constant rate.

HEPA filters also won't stop tritium. A single gram of tritium will undergo about 370 trillion (370,000,000,000,000) decays per second.

Fortunately, when they dropped the steel I-beam, it didn't get jammed beside a fuel assembly, which then got damaged as they tried to remove it... I'm just saying, it COULD have happened... Nothing went wrong THIS time. And the NRC feels they learned something.

Did they learn that since 40-year-old steel hooks fail (that's the probable age of the part) that perhaps the whole rest of the plant is falling apart, embrittling unexpectedly, deteriorating from the salty air, the radiation, the heat, the humidity, father time, and poor maintenance?


Instead, the utility replaced the hook and the NRC made a generic new rule: Lanyards should be used for lifts over the spent fuel pool.


Which reminds me of the (true story!) guy who was demonstrating safety procedures for a class of young mountain-climbers. He cut his main rope in order to show how the safety rope will catch you safely.

Only it didn't, and he fell 40 feet to his death.

Lanyards break, too.

At the nuclear power plant, the "Standard Operating Procedure" is that there is no such thing as a warning sign of an upcoming catastrophic failure. There are just "lessons learned." So here we sit, at the brink of disaster, and all we have are "lessons learned"!

And actually, we don't even have THAT!

Why not?

Because one lesson learned at San Onofre over and over again is that the records kept by the employees there are NOT ACCURATE! So whatever lessons COULD be learned will soon be forgotten.

I'm sure there are still a lot of good people left at San Onofre.

Let's guess that 90% of the workforce are decent, honest people. That seems kind of high to me, but if that's the case, then about 200 to 300 people, depending on how many contractors are on the staff at any one time, are dishonest at San Onofre. That leaves a lot of room for fraud and deceit!

But even if 99% are honest (a hopelessly optimistic number, judging by the "human factors" problems they are having at the plant) that would still mean that 20 to 30 people are running around the plant faking things, covering up problems, pretending everything went well when it didn't, not finishing jobs... how many screw-ups does it take to cause a meltdown? Just one.

A year ago I heard about problems with integrity in dry fuel cask fabrication, problems of not performing work to specifications. The whistleblower, a long-time San Onofre employee, was also a former Los Alamos technician and a former Marine sniper as well. Now we're hearing that pressure tests (which I assume should normally follow cask fabrication) are being done improperly too.

How DO you spell "recipe for disaster"? SONGS.


Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

The author, a bladder cancer survivor, has been studying nuclear-related issues independently for about 40 years. He is an educational software developer and author of THE CODE KILLERS (an in-depth look at nuclear power), available as a free download from: .