Saturday, February 19, 2022

Nuclear Waste: A problem today, tomorrow, and far into the future...

February 18, 2022

I live in Carlsbad, less than 20 miles south of San Onofre Nuclear Waste Dump, and have been studying nuclear power for more than 50 years.

Along the way I have interviewed, studied with, or read the books and articles by, numerous nuclear experts including metallurgists, engineers, nuclear physicists, mathematicians, statisticians, epidemiologists, medical professionals and many others.

A nuclear power plant's main product is radioactive waste. Not "electricity"! Yes, electricity is created and immediately distributed; but the waste that is created remains, and must be very diligently stored for many eons afterwards. The effort required is enormous, is not cheap, and will not get cheaper over time.

Imagine having to repackage nuclear waste 100 years from now -- about the longest the current containers might last. Who would want to have that burden, just because 100 years earlier, people refused to use clean renewable sources for electricity?

Before use, nuclear fuel is "mildly" radioactive (you can hold a fresh fuel pellet in your hand with just a thin glove). After use in a reactor, the same -- but now "used" -- fuel pellet is **millions** of times more toxic. You can't go near it for even a second and it will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, mainly because of the presence of plutonium (often described as "the most hazardous stuff on earth).

The millions of pounds of used nuclear fuel at San Onofre is extremely dangerous and absolutely MUST NOT ever get released to the environment.

In addition to the plutonium, other highly toxic elements in the used nuclear fuel include radioactive strontium, cesium, iodine and many other elements. Living things mistake many of these radioactive elements for biologically useful, stable atoms, but when the radioactive elements decay, the energy released is extremely damaging. A single radioactive decay can damage thousands of chemical/biological bonds inside the body.

Despite these dangers, the United States has never found a solution to the problem of storing nuclear waste. (See below for a link to a review of past attempts.)

Nuclear waste has several properties which make it extremely difficult to safely store: It is extremely toxic, it is thermally hot, radioactively hot, and perhaps most importantly, over time it degrades any container you put it in, and accelerates anything else that causes degradation. There is no chemical bond which cannot be broken by a radioactive decay. Metal alloys weaken as they are bombarded night and day with radioactive emissions.

Nuclear waste is also a potent potential target for terrorists.

Additionally, any number of environmental disasters -- from earthquakes to tsunamis to meteors -- can destroy any container that is used to store nuclear waste.

Accidents also can happen: There are hundreds of locations where radioactive waste is stored in America, including about 70 spent nuclear fuel locations. All are vulnerable to some degree or other.

How safe is San Onofre? In my opinion, not very safe at all! The containers are incredibly thin: About 5/8ths of an inch on the sides, a few inches on top, and a few more at the bottom. An RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) would be able to breach a nuclear waste canister. It would only take a few "bad actors" to overwhelm the typical security force that protects the waste. Guards only carry pistols.

Southern California is a very precious place! I have lived here for more than three decades and cannot imagine having to move and never come back because one -- just one -- of San Onofre's nuclear waste casks was breached for any reason. But that is entirely possible: Each canister holds more radioactive cesium, for example, than was released by the Chernobyl accident.

We all can see the trouble Japan is having with the waste from the triple meltdowns at Fukushima. Far more radioactivity is being stored at San Onofre than has been released at Fukushima. Three reactor cores worth of nuclear fuel melted down at Fukushima. At San Onofre, one third of each reactor core was replaced every 18 months to two years for the entire operating period of the reactors. Nearly all used reactor cores remain on site, so San Onofre's spent fuel dump contains dozens of reactor cores, and their radioactivity is extremely high even though the reactors have not operated for more than 10 years.

There is only one reasonable, long-term solution for the world: Stop creating nuclear waste.

But as to what should be done with San Onofre's nuclear waste, that is *our* problem right now, and that is the risk we are forced to take thanks to SoCalEd making poor energy decisions.

Their first poor decision was to build Unit 1, which never ran very well but created mountains of waste. Then Units 2 and 3 suffered serious vibration problems which resulted in a primary coolant leak, and which could have been catastrophic if the failed steam generators had been just a little more severely damaged than they were in 2011. The plant never ran again.

Prior to that event, there had been numerous sudden shutdowns and extended outages. Over the years, Californians narrowly avoided catastrophe a number of times at San Onofre. Must we continue to risk destruction without even getting any benefit anymore? The answer is disturbing: Yes, we must.

I advocate for the use of much stronger casks, but this leads to the next problem: Stronger casks are much heavier, and transporting them is therefore more risky, considering the poor state of so many roads, bridges, underpasses, etc.. We would need many more casks and the fuel would need to be transferred from the current casks to the better, stronger casks, but any transfer operation is also risky, and exposes workers to additional radioactivity.

The fuel is likely to remain on site, in the current thin-walled casks for at least dozens -- and more likely hundreds -- of years.

So what is the best thing to do?

Californians should insist on two things: First: There must be radiation monitoring of EACH cask individually, as well as for the entire site as a whole, including radiation detectors with real-time public data streams so the public can know immediately if there is a problem, since evacuation, at least temporarily, is likely to be the only option if there is a problem, and the sooner the evacuation starts, the better. Second: A transfer facility needs to be available for immediately repackaging a leaking or damaged nuclear fuel canister.

The current system is NOT designed to be able to handle many very serious potential problems.

For example, if a tsunami were to flood the ISFSI* there is a real possibility that adequate cooling will not be possible, especially if debris clogs the vents. This could be catastrophic. There are underwater canyons offshore in the area around the nuclear waste dump which could collapse at any moment, and a wall of water hundreds of feet high could result (there is evidence in the hills to the east of San Onofre that sea water has reached such heights in the geologically recent past).

Another potential catastrophic hazard is from earthquakes: The ISFSI does not have "rebar" except on the bottom and on the top -- NOT in the part in-between. This was a serious design flaw, because it is entirely possible, in some earthquake scenarios, for the entire top to shift differently from the bottom, resulting in ALL casks bursting at the same time. (This would make the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters seem like a stubbed toe in comparison.)

Of course, such an event is "unlikely" in the extreme. But it IS possible, because the fuel exists, and the ISFSI was poorly designed.

All the money in the world can't make San Onofre safe, but SoCalEd is actually being paid to store the fuel because the U.S. federal government promised to take it away for permanent disposal somewhere, and cannot keep that promise. San Onofre should be made to pay for the problem they created, and they should be required to do a better job than they have done.

I've listed only a few ways they could greatly reduce the risk. There are many more, but SoCalEd only does the absolute minimum that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires. (The NRC has sole authority for "safety" at nuclear installations, which is a travesty in itself, since they are a "captured agency" which does what the nuclear industry wants them to do, not what the people need in order to be safe.)

Please see link, below, for a review of the first three quarters of a century of looking for a solution to the nuclear waste problem, including nearly two dozen quotes from my collection of over 500 books on nuclear power issues.

Best regards,

Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

Nuclear Waste Management: The view through the years...

* ISFSI: Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (as nuclear waste dumps like San Onofre are referred to by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

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