Monday, August 6, 2012

San Onofre Nuclear (Waste) Generating Station: Our Fukushima?

Date: August 6th, 2012
To: Laguna Beach City Council
From: Ace Hoffman, Concerned Citizen (Carlsbad, CA)

Dear City Council members, honorable Mayor Egly,

Laguna Beach is about as far to the north of San Onofre Nuclear Waste Generating Station (SONWGS) as I am to its south, where I reside in Carlsbad.

The waters that go past San Onofre will go past you or me afterwards, depending on current conditions. The winds will do the same.

In Japan, they are burning collected radioactive garbage to make it all someone else's problem. Japanese authorities recently opened a beach 40 miles away from the Fukushima reactors for the first time, nearly a year and a half after the triple meltdowns there. However, the plants continue to spew radioactive crud, so perhaps it was still too soon.

On the same day, far more Japanese people flocked to protests against nuclear power than flocked to the reopened beach. But you can guess which got more media coverage here in the U.S.A..

Closer beaches to Fukushima remain highly contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive isotopes. A constant resupply of these poisons pours forth from local rivers and streams in Fukushima Prefecture. Some beaches near the reactors won't reopen any time in the foreseeable future, and nor will their towns be re-occupied.

Not because of the earthquake, or the tsunami, or "human error", or design flaws, but because the reactors were THERE. They were there, and they were going to be there until they failed. They all will, unless someone stops them.

Laguna Beach and Carlsbad are both much closer to San Onofre than 40 miles. Let's not make the same mistake here. We care what happens in Japan, and they care what happens here. We've seen the deformed babies from bomb testing in the Pacific Islands, and from Chernobyl, and we know it is happening in Japan, we just aren't seeing it.

Our national regulatory agencies -- the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) -- have both failed to protect the public time and again -- their response is "as predictable as clockwork", unlike the reactors they promote (DOE) and regulate (NRC).

By law -- a preposterous law -- our state's agencies cannot consider safety issues at San Onofre. But they can -- and do -- ensure that its owners will make a profit. The state agencies forced the bill-payers to pay for the failed steam generator replacement project the first time. I want my money back!

Of course, San Onofre isn't another Fukushima -- not yet, anyway. But SanO is already a global, national, state, local, and personal issue for us all. In fact right now, it's the laughing-stock of the world's nuclear fleet.

And what ARE the differences between San Onofre and Fukushima? Fukushima's reactors were designed in America. Our steam generators (and many other parts) were made in Japan. America has 23 reactors virtually identical to Fukushima's. SanO's 2200 pounds-per-square-inch (PSI) primary loop is, indeed, a significant difference: It's one more thing that can go wrong! Pressurized Water Reactors, or PWRs, are more complex than Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) by one whole loop at about 1200 PSI more pressure than the BWR's primary loop (and 1000 PSI higher than a PWR's secondary loop).

Both reactor types use enormous amounts of fresh water or sea water for their final coolant if they have "once-through cooling" (OTC) like SanO's reactors have and will always have, since they have been granted exemptions and extensions time and again so they don't have to build "cooling towers" (which still use a lot of water) on the other side of the tracks and highway.

At the local level, SanO is front-page news day after day these days: Excessive steam generator tube wear, seismic compliance issues, whistleblower intimidation and retaliation, the list goes on.

Thankfully we haven't experienced the "end-game" to all this: A meltdown or other catastrophic release of radioactive byproducts. There has been no Fukushima-type tragedy in America -- yet.

Does that fact PROVE that San Onofre can survive EVERY man-made or natural disaster, or have we just been lucky, or untested, or both?

There are two ways the nuclear industry (or the airline, space, chemical industry, etc.) prepare for accident scenarios. One is essentially physical, the other is essentially mathematical. The physical technique is called "Design In Depth" (DID). The mathematical technique is called "Probabilistic Risk Assessment" (PRA).

Design In Depth requires building engineered solutions for all "foreseeable" accident scenarios. As practiced in the nuclear industry, however, it assumes the designers of the reactors have successfully thought of everything that can go wrong and have properly engineered a solution for it. It assumes that small-scale physical models and computer programs will accurately simulate real-world outcomes of complex thermodynamic processes. It further assumes the construction personnel will all do their jobs properly, and the plant will be properly maintained for decades to come. But in fact, these assumptions are dangerous. Computer simulations failed to predict the flow rates in redesigned steam generators at San Onofre. Traffic in fraudulent parts is a huge problem in the electronics industry, and improper alloys and fabrication procedures is a huge problem in the metals industry and may also be a factor at SanO. All these problems can be very difficult to detect.

Probabilistic Risk Assessment assumes that there are things that the engineers cannot design a solution for (within economic constraints, or perhaps not at all): Earthquakes too large and/or too close, tsunamis too high, terrorist actions too difficult for terrorist groups to carry out, meteor impacts, solar flares causing a planetary blackout ... things like that. To every one of these unstoppable occurrences (and many others) a probability is assigned: One in a million, one in ten million, one in a billion, one in a trillion (for meteors, it's assumed to be even less likely than that). After assigning so many zeros after the one, they write it like this: "1 *10^-9" or something similar. Beyond one in ten million, often the engineers are not required to do a thing about it. For example, a dry cask or a spent fuel pool is NOT significantly protected against a jet aircraft impact, and the reactor itself barely is (those domes are for protection for a small hydrogen explosion within (similar to what was seen in Fukushima). San Onofre is directly under several major airline routes. Planes fall uncontrollably from the sky sometimes. Has San Onofre's risk been properly assigned for this and a thousand other dangers?

And what if something presumed to have a one in a million, or one in ten million, chance of occurring actually happens?

That's where "mitigation" comes in.

Before Fukushima, the nuclear industry never talked about "mitigation." Instead, it always assured the public that accidents simply wouldn't happen.

After Fukushima, the industry found a new mantra: Mitigation.

Mitigation is a gentle term for an awful thing. Crops are destroyed, homes are devalued, entire cities -- yours, mine, and everything in-between and far out beyond -- are destroyed. Lives are lost. Even with a "proper" evacuation -- something the world has never seen -- some number of children in the impacted zone won't survive to adulthood, some number of young adults won't survive to old age. Some old folks will weaken and die before their time, too. Severely deformed beings will die shortly after being born, unable to feed themselves, or even to breath. The number of spontaneous abortions will rise significantly.

That's "mitigation."

Cancer is caused by damage to the body's DNA. It often requires a dozen or more progressive changes to your DNA to occur before it manifests itself. These changes often take many years to transpire, which is one reason a constant low dose of radiation can be particularly insidious -- it can accelerate each step.

Fukushima might kill thousands of people around the world, but it will mostly impact those who were closest to the plant during its worst days, and those who continue to live in the shadow of its plume.

I would not buy land in Fukushima.

Around Chernobyl, over sixty cities have been abandoned for a quarter century already, and will remain abandoned (by people) for decades or even centuries to come. Animals cannot read "no trespassing" signs and do not carry geiger counters; they cannot detect the radiation around them in any way. Many of them -- wolves, rats, predatory birds, vultures, and others -- will eat their deformed young, and "simply" have more young. But that's not really a "healthy" environment.

Even so-called "low-level" radioactive emissions are dangerous, and can destroy thousands of molecular bonds inside living cells, causing inflammation as well as cancer, heart disease, and even loss of brain function. The list of ways radiation harms us is far longer than this essay.

If SanO melts down, people will not buy land here. Our homes will be lost forever, with no compensation: The federal Price-Anderson Act limits a utility's liability to fractions of a penny on the dollar.

We have all been users of San Onofre's electricity. Thus we have all been generators of its waste product, known as "spent fuel". We have all ingested its poisons, such as the (poorly measured) radioactive noble gases it releases constantly during operation, or the -- slightly better measured -- 300 to 1000 curies of tritium it also releases every year when it's operating.

Tritium is so deadly, that the normal legal release limit for the entire reactor, for the entire year, is about a thirtieth of a teaspoon of tritium. Tritium is one of many extremely hazardous elements -- some of which do not exist in nature at all -- which are produced in copious quantities at San Onofre.

These are personal issues for me, since I had bladder cancer a few years ago at the tender age of 52 after living in Carlsbad for the past 20 years. The radiation from tritium is a known cause of bladder cancer. So is cigarette smoke, but I do not smoke cigarettes. I was successfully treated surgically, but thousands of Americans die each year of bladder cancer, and recurrences are not uncommon. I'm not out of the woods. I never will be. Nobody is.

But what are the chances? What should we worry about? I sure wouldn't smoke cigarettes!

One has to properly multiply "consequences" by "chance of occurrence" to determine overall "risk". But the nuclear industry underestimates the first two, and thus the third, all the time!

I believe the local communities' biggest danger is a massive release of radioactive fission products from a zirconium fire. This is what happened at Fukushima. Far worse accidents are also possible, but are (I hope), also far less likely.

There are three places a zirconium fire is possible. They are:

* The reactor itself, where the core assemblies are self-irradiated through a sustained critical reaction for 5 to 6 years, and then replaced. Approximately one-third of the core is replaced every 18 to 22 months. The nuclear reaction produces enormous amounts of heat and fission products, and also produces plutonium, which is about 100,000 times more toxic than uranium and can be extracted for use in nuclear weapons (or used as a "dirty" bomb right where it is).

* The spent fuel pools, where very-hot reactor cores (full of fission products, plutonium, and "decay heat") are left to cool for a minimum of five years. Half a decade is long enough to cool them thermally more than 99%, and much of the radioactivity is also gone, but it will take hundreds of thousands more years to completely reduce the radioactivity to so-called "safe" levels.

* Dry casks, which need convective currents of inert gases since the zirconium fuel rods are highly combustible -- especially if they come in contact with various chemicals commonly shipped by rail and truck.

Every dry cask is an additional potential disaster-waiting-to-happen, but dry casks have been used by the nuclear industry as the latest invention to get around various laws requiring "proper" disposal of their waste. A few years ago, dry cask storage was approved by the CPUC for California after the NRC had approved dry casks nationally as a "safe" way to alleviate the "overcrowding" in the spent fuel pools (closing the reactors permanently would have been a much better idea, and still is).

The oldest used reactor cores at SanO are being hastily transferred to dozens of "dry casks", with no real plan for the future except to construct more and more dry casks, and leave them there, turned sideways and piled three high, for perhaps as long as 300 years.

This is happening despite whistleblower warnings of fabrication problems and despite problems with other dry cask systems around the country (google "Oscar Shirani", an ASME-certified instructor and whistleblower on dry cask problems, who died of a brain tumor a few years ago).

"SONWGS" is a danger to us all. After years of denial by the nuclear industry, Fukushima proved that all reactor designs have fatal weaknesses. All are built and operated by fallible, corruptible, imperfect human beings. And if Fukushima didn't prove it, San Onofre's own problems have done so.

In Japan's case, three reactors melted down. In our case, the steam generators failed, which could have been just as catastrophic as Japan's meltdowns were -- or even worse (at least an order of magnitude worse -- per reactor).

SanO's energy output has not been missed all year. Renewable alternatives are available to fill the gap: We don't have to replace SanO with coal, oil, OR natural gas.

It would be good for our local economy AND our environment if San Onofre never operates again. A concerted effort towards solar rooftops, offshore wind turbines, passive heating and cooling, stored energy, and conservation would save Laguna Beach residents millions of dollars every year in energy costs. It could even allow Laguna Beach to become a net exporter of energy! The entire state of California can become a net exporter of clean energy within just a couple of years, but for that to happen, we all must do our part. And we must keep SanO shut down forever.


Ace Hoffman
Concerned Citizen
Carlsbad, CA

Please see:

My pdf on dry cask storage: NOT safe. Not cheap, either.

Spent Fuel: All dressed up, with nowhere to go:

Additional URLs below:


Ace Hoffman
Author, The Code Killers:
An Expose of the Nuclear Industry
Free download:
Carlsbad, CA
Email: ace [at]


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