Thursday, October 13, 2022

Guest Presentation: The San Onofre Nuclear Waste Dump by Roger Johnson

Important Issues for the 15 million people who live within 100 km of San Onofre

1. Back in 2012, San Onofre’s new steam generators failed and began leaking radiation. Evidence emerged that Southern California Edison knew they were flawed but installed them anyhow. They were shut down because they were too dangerous and it was too expensive to fix them. The ageing reactors were shut down for the last time. This accident appears to be part of a long history of accidents and safety violations at the plant. SONGS has by far the most complaints about safety by plant workers and contractors when compared to all the other nuclear power plants in the country. SONGS is now closed only in the sense that it no longer produces electricity. It is not shut down because the most dangerous part, the nuclear waste storage, remains open indefinitely. SONGS continues to store an enormous amount of deadly nuclear waste which has been accumulating since 1968. This highly radioactive “spent fuel” will continue to be a major threat to the health and safety of all communities in southern Orange County and northern San Diego counties for the indefinite future.

2. The entire plant except for the Waste Dump is now being decommissioned and demolished at a cost of 4.7 billion, paid for by taxpayers. About 1.1 billion pounds of rubble will be removed by 2028. Much of the rubble will be buried or shipped away but the dangerous highly radioactive uranium fuel rods will stay here indefinitely.

3. The domes will disappear but the nuclear waste will remain. The nuclear waste, the most dangerous part, will be placed in temporary storage in the ISFSI (Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation). Some refer to this as the SONGS Nuclear Waste Dump, others call it the San Clemente Nuclear Waste Dump. It is likely to remain here for decades, perhaps the rest of the century, or perhaps until there is an accident.

4. Geographically, SONGS is located at the border of Orange and San Diego counties. But few realize that the government officially locates it in San Clemente. According to the NRC, San Clemente is the official location of the San Onofre nuclear power plant:

5. The nuclear waste problem is part of a large serious and unsolved national dilemma: how and where can the nation safely store the nearly 100,000 tons of deadly civilian nuclear waste? The country has only one deep underground permanent storage facility. That is WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) in Carlsbad, NM but it is licensed only for military nuclear waste. WIPP had a major accident in 2014 with fires and explosions (caused by kitty litter) and it cost taxpayers $2 billion to repair it. The only permanent deep geological storage facility in the world is now under construction in an island off the coast of Finland.

6. The Achilles Heel of all things nuclear is the inability to safely store nuclear waste. After three-quarters of a century, there is still no solution in sight. That is a good reason not to produce any more. California wisely recognized this serious flaw way back in 1976. The state passed its now famous Moratorium on nuclear power which declared: No more nuclear power in California until there is a solution to the problem of safely storing nuclear waste. California never allowed any more nuclear power plants to be built (San Onofre and Diablo Canyon were already built) because there has been no solution to the problem of safely storing nuclear waste. There still is no solution. The Moratorium put a halt to President Nixon’s proposal to line the coast of California with nuclear power plants.

7. What is “nuclear waste” or “spent fuel?” How can something that is “spent waste” be dangerous? Did the nuclear industry choose these euphemistic terms to make it sound harmless? No one should think that nuclear “waste” or “spent” fuel is safe. Spent fuel means the profitability is spent, not the radioactivity. Nuclear power reactors have to be completely shut down for weeks every 18-24 months because the used or “spent” fuel rods (still highly radioactive) are no longer profitable and have to be replaced. There is no electricity produced for weeks while they reload which is one of the reasons that nuclear power is unreliable. But what to do with the old fuel which remains extremely hot, extremely radioactive, and extremely dangerous? It is so hot and dangerous that it has to go in huge cooling pools for about seven years, even longer if there are no canisters available for subsequent dry cask storage. But once in dry cask storage the dangerous radioactive waste has nowhere to go because currently there are no interim or permanent storage facilities in the United States. This is a major problem with no solution in sight. This problem is a good reason not to produce any more nuclear waste.

8. With San Onofre partially closed, California was set to end nuclear power in the state with the closing of Diablo Canyon a few years from now. But Gov. Newsom strangely reversed himself on this issue and now argues that the plant should remain open. The legislature caved in and went along with him. Unfortunately, much of the public representation of this issue was completely distorted by the governor, the legislature, the nuclear industry, and the media. They irresponsibly started calling nuclear power clean, emission free, reliable, environmentally friendly, and cheap. In reality, it is just the opposite. No one seems to know why the governor did a reversal but he certainly deserves a big black eye for bringing back expensive, dangerous, unreliable, and environmentally damaging nuclear power. Instead of being a model for responsible limits on nuclear power, California is now derided as being a leader in the very unfortunate national drift toward what the industry likes to call a “Nuclear Renaissance.”

9. Contributing to this decision to revive nuclear power was a report by Stanford and MIT engineering professors and PhD candidates who advocated more nuclear power as a solution for energy needs ( The report completely ignored the downsides of nuclear power including public health concerns, safety, cost, reliability, environmental damage, and the production of more nuclear waste. The nuclear industry heavily promoted this report to the national and local media. Top DOE officials went on nationwide PR tours to promote the “Nuclear Renaissance.” Former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz went on the Bill Maher show to do the same. He is also a professor at MIT, an institution which profits handsomely from government grants to “study” nuclear issues. It is no secret that both MIT and Stanford receive huge government grants from the Dept. of Defense and the Dept. of Energy. In FY 2020, MIT received about $200 million in grants from these two government agencies. Stanford has also received enormous federal funding for its programs on nuclear issues. This report reflects poorly on both institutions.

10. It appears to many that there are powerful political and financial interests that want the nation to continue devoting large resources to all things nuclear. They want to make sure that nuclear funding is a priority and that nothing should be done to cast doubt on its safety. Nationally, they apply intense pressure to make sure that the public sees nuclear as a solution, not a problem. The government agencies that actively promote everything nuclear include the DOD, the DOE, and NRC, and now possibly HHS (see below). Many argue that it is the Pentagon which is propping up nuclear power because it needs the industry to help support its enormous nuclear weapons programs.

11. One government agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is devoted to promoting nuclear power. The NRC has become the poster boy for what critics call a Captured Regulatory Agency. It receives over 90% of its funding from the very industry that it is supposed to regulate. No surprise that it spends much of its time promoting the nuclear industry rather than regulating it. The NRC is also closely aligned with the private Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the Washington public relations arm of the nuclear industry. The NEI heavily influences the selection of commissioners which run the NRC.

12. The nuclear industry long ago recognized both the risks of storing nuclear waste and the dangers of nuclear power in general. It was reluctant to build nuclear power plants until it persuaded the government to pass the Price Anderson Nuclear Industry Indemnification Act of 1957. This act protects and indemnifies the industry in the event of an accident. Taxpayers will cover the huge cost of an accident, not the industry. Many say that not being financially responsible has led to an industry which is sometimes reckless, deceitful, and concerned more about profit than public safety. To counteract this perception, Southern California Edison expends enormous PR efforts with mottos like “safety,” “stewardship,” and “engagement.”

13.. In spite of all its investments in nuclear programs, the U.S. government has failed miserably in its promise to provide a permanent repository for nuclear waste by 1998. The government still has no plan. Nuclear power plants now successfully sue the government for every year the government fails to take the waste as they promised in the last century. This cost is passed on to the U.S. taxpayer. Estimates for the cost to tax payers are sometimes estimated as $50 billion. The DOE is in charge of the issue but it continues to fail decade after decade and still has no plan. Their only progress this year was a letter recently sent out offering financial rewards to any community that wants to become a nuclear waste dump. Some (especially Republicans who want to stick it to former Senator Harry Reid) still yearn for Yucca Mountain (near the California border) to be completed, especially since the government already spent $15 billion there. The project was ended because of serious fatal flaws. First, it was dangerously close (about 90 miles) to a major city, Las Vegas. Second, as they dug deeper, they discovered deep underground aquifers which might get contaminated. Third, there was enormous public opposition to the project. This is significant because the DOE has finally agreed that Local Consent is a must when choosing a location for nuclear waste storage. Finally, it is important to know that Nevada has no nuclear power plants and has produced no nuclear waste. In addition, Nevada has already suffered enormously from radioactive contamination from military nuclear testing. Since 1951, 1,021 atmospheric and underground nuclear explosions were conducted in the state.

14. When evaluating nuclear energy, the industry generally ignores the human or monetary costs. The front end of the nuclear cycle is the mining and milling of uranium. This dirty operation spreads radioactive contamination which has resulted in entire towns being bulldozed into oblivion. Miners have contracted a host of serious medical problems and many have died of cancer. Read The Uranium Widows which tells the story. Any evaluation of nuclear power should include the cost of accidents but usually these are ignored in financial analyses. A recent report in the NYTimes says that the cost of the Fukushima debacle is now approaching one trillion dollars. An accident at San Onofre would likely be much more (and would be charged to the taxpayers rather than those who caused it).

15. Locally, some say that we should ignore the nuclear waste problem because it is not in our jurisdiction. Wrong. Part of the reason the waste stays here is because the public is unaware of the magnitude of the problem and because local officials are unwilling to demonstrate leadership to oppose the current state of affairs. All candidates for office within 50 km of SONGS should be expected to weigh in on this important issue. Unfortunately, few say anything. Is it the complexity of the issue, a fear or retribution, or just plain ignorance about what is perhaps the most serious issue for the future of southern California? Should we sidestep the issue and do nothing because it is not in our jurisdiction? True, only the DOE has jurisdiction. But all local, county, and state officials have an obligation to demonstrate leadership, knowledge, and dedicated commitment to educating the public and taking positions on important matters.

16. Other hidden costs of nuclear power can be found in your electric bill. Everyone around San Onofre gets a surcharge every month which goes to paying for the huge costs of decommissioning the plant. Most people are not aware that they have been paying this every month for decades. Most people also do not realize all the hidden costs. In the early years of nuclear power, the industry boasted that it would be “too cheap to meter.” Now it is by far the most expensive form of energy production, especially if you count all the costs passed on to taxpayers. It is very expensive to build a nuclear power plant, very expensive to maintain it, and very expensive to tear it down. The cost of the nation’s troubled new Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia has now risen to about $30 billion. As for nuclear waste management nationally, it is estimated that the costs will run close to $100 billion:

17. The cost and difficulty of finding a host for a permanent nuclear repository are formidable. It will take many years to agree on a host (expect fierce political battles) and it may take decades to build if a suitable location is ever found. Some fear that a permanent solution may never happen. Many have therefore suggested one or more interim storage facilities across the country which could be built in a few years at ground level in safer locations at a lower cost. Opponents oppose this because they don’t like the idea of moving the waste twice. But this assumes that a permanent deep underground repository is a certainty which it certainly is not. Some even argue that it is not safe to move nuclear waste anywhere and it should remain where it is even if it is in a dangerous location on a beach in the middle of two of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. Over 15 million people live within 100 km of San Onofre.

18. What is in the SONG/San Clemente Nuclear Waste Dump? It now has 1,773 tons (USA tons, not metric tons) of nuclear waste, one of the largest accumulations in the country. The highly-radioactive uranium “waste” is in the form of small pellets about half the length of your little finger. SONGS now has over 300 million such uranium pellets compacted into long fuel rods. Assemblies of fuel rods are lowered into thin stainless steel canisters that were designed only for temporary use. No one knows how soon they will fail and what will happen when they do fail.

19. There are now 123 such canisters at SONGS. The older 50 are stored horizontally and newest 73 are stored vertically with the bottom just inches above sea level and located only 108 feet from the Pacific Ocean. Concrete is filled around them with a narrow air space between the concrete and the canister wall to provide air cooling. “Cool” means keeping the canisters about 500-700 degrees. Imagine leaving your oven at its hottest setting for months, years, or decades. Without cooling, the nuclear waste would get much hotter which could cause the canisters to fail with disastrous consequences.

20. There cannot be a nuclear explosion at SONGS because the highly-radioactive uranium waste is not enriched to bomb grade. But there could be dangerous releases of radiation ranging from small leaks to massive widespread contamination. It could be even worse than the radiation released by a nuclear bomb. Each of the 123 canisters could release as much radiation as the entire Chernobyl disaster. How much of the radiation is released depends on the force of a rupture. Southern California Edison likes to argue that small leaks are manageable and major ruptures with strong motive forces are not possible. There arguments are based on the assumption that explosions, terrorist attacks, and major forces of nature can never happen. When the industry cannot deal with serious disaster scenarios, they categorize them as Beyond Design Basis. This means that they can completely ignore serious threats just by labelling them as “Beyond Design Basis.”

21. There are many possible disaster scenarios that the industry deliberately ignores. The possibility of cyberattacks is seldom addressed. Sometimes important dangers are ignored by claiming that they are a concern of another agency such as the Department of Defense. Natural disasters are uncommon, but they do happen. Heavy storms or flash flooding could wash mud and debris from the hills above the plant into the air cooling vents of the canisters. A tsunami could also wash deposits of salt, sand, and debris into the vents and block air cooling. Water alone might actually improve cooling, but when sea water evaporates it would leave behind a foot or more of salt and other solids. These solids would quickly become caked from the heat. Only a few inches of solids would block the small but crucial air intake passage at the bottom. Air cooling would cease. The canisters are already at 500-700 degrees F and loss of cooling would quickly lead to dangerous heat levels that the temporary canisters are not designed to withstand. According to the NRC, canister cladding will degrade if is not kept below 752 F. The NRC goes on to warn that the fuel must never be allowed to reach 1058F even for a short time. It is not possible to pump out the huge amounts of muddy water and solid caked debris from 73 canisters in a matter of hours. With intense heat and possible radioactivity, it is likely that no one could get anywhere near the cannisters in an emergency.

22. Another serious disaster scenario has to do with earthquakes. The Fukushima catastrophe was triggered by a large and unexpected earthquake which led to the uncontrollable failures of many systems mistakenly thought to be secure. A decade later, large areas continue to be uninhabitable. The cost of cleanup attempts has already reached one trillion dollars. California is earthquake territory and several earthquake faults run near the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant just as others do near San Onofre. Earthquake dangers in both places are now thought to be much more serious and much more likely that previously known.

23. A startling new report recently came out in the scientific journal Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America: (For easier reading, here is the LATimes report about it: This research studied in great detail the Palos Verdes Fault Zone which runs south from Los Angeles and terminates only about 13 miles from San Onofre. New calculations reveal that a major quake is overdue and that it will be 4 times more powerful than previously believed (7.8 vs. 7.4). The study warns of possible massive destruction up and down the coast. Keep in mind that San Onofre was designed to withstand a mere 6.5 quake, then retrofitted for a possible 7.0 quake. It is definitely not safe to store nuclear “waste” on a beach near this quake zone yet that is exactly what is being done. We also have to keep in mind that there are built in psychological biases and profit motives which make it attractive to ignore rare events. For example, one Probabilistic Risk Assessment of the Salem, NJ nuclear power plant some years ago concluded that the simultaneous failure of both emergency shutdown systems in a reactor would happen only once every 17,000 years. It was of considerable embarrassment when a double emergency backup system failure actually occurred twice within four days in 1983.

24. Decades ago, we learned that the 9/11 terrorist considered attacking a nuclear power plant. From recent events in Ukraine we now learn that nuclear power plants have been weaponized and are now considered choice targets. Nuclear power plants were not designed to defend against terrorist attacks but now this has become a serious issue. Most people don’t realize that San Onofre is extremely vulnerable. With 19 airports in the area, a big worry is deliberate crashes from large airplanes loaded with 50,000 to 100,000 gallons of high octane aviation fuel. SCE recklessly says no problem, the fuel would burn away harmlessly. It completely ignores what would happen if an A380 Air Bus smashed into their thin canisters. The nuclear waste at San Onofre is lightly defended with a skeleton security force and there is easy public access to see and get near the nuclear waste dump. An interstate highway goes past the plant and a public road is even closer. Over 20 public parking lots are nearby and the public beach is only 100 feet from the canisters. Terrorists might use truck bombs. Rockets and mortars could be fired from the parking lots. Organized squads of armed terrorists could easily overpower the small security detail. More serious challenges are bunker busting munitions and shaped charges which could easily penetrate the bunkers and canisters. The NRC has instructed plant guards that if they see a plane with suspicious tail markings they should immediately call the FAA. Steven Dolley, research director of the Nuclear Control Institute, commented “If you can see the number on the tail fin, you have half a second left.”

25. On the international arms market there are now ship-to-shore missiles designed to be concealed in standard cargo containers. With 1200 pound warheads and a range of 200 miles, they could be launched from any of the 10 million cargo containers (2% inspected) which pass by every year on their way to and from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Large multiple explosions could release massive amounts of radiation which would travel inland with prevailing winds. Continuous release of radiation over weeks and months and years is much different and much worse than a one-shot nuclear explosion.

26. Few realize that no home, car, or business insurance covers radioactive contamination. It is difficult to impossible to decontaminate homes and cars. Everything you own could be a total loss. Quick and massive evacuations of millions of people would never work. Large areas of southern California could become unlivable. Just imagine rushing home to get inside of your own house. You have to strip naked outside and use a garden hose to wash down. Then you must discard all your clothing, wallets, jewelry, watches, and purses and anything else that got exposed before you can enter without contaminating the inside of your home (remember that you could never use your car again). No pets should be allowed outdoors for fear of spreading contamination when they return. No one should open windows or doors or run heat or air conditioning in their car or home. No wonder insurance companies will not cover anything. If people can’t leave their house or apartment, where will they get food, and will it be contaminated? How will they go anywhere? How will they later find their kids who will be bussed from school to temporary shelters many miles away?

27. Some of the dangers from SONGS include a long history of accidents and safety violations. Some are humorous, some are worrisome, and some are really scary. In 2010, the roof covering the Unit 2 diesel emergency generator was experiencing dangerous water leaks. The cause? Dead pelicans and bird dung which clogged the gutters. The solution? Put a tent over the emergency generators. Many still remember back in 1977 when SONGS mounted a 420 ton reactor vessel 180 degrees backward. When the new steam generators began to leak radiation in 2012, SCE tried to conceal what happened and ended up being scolded by the NRC. SCE then tried to blame Mitsubishi which was trying to fulfill the SCE desire to cram in more fuel rods for more profit. Although SONGS has had many more safety issues than most other nuclear power plants, dangerous events plague the entire industry. As of 2014, there have been over 100 serious accidents at nuclear power plants (

28. Nuclear power is not reliable power. At Diablo Canyon, for example, one (or both) reactors were down and out of service 40% of the time in the last few years. About half of the nuclear power plants in France are now off-line or not on full power. Nuclear power plants shut down for many reasons, and once shut down they take a long time to restart. Some of the outages are planned, such as when the plants shut down for weeks during refueling operations. Other times there are maintenance issues, severe weather issues, power outages elsewhere, radioactive leaks, overheating, operational mistakes, terrorist threats, sabotage, the list is long.

29. How long will the uranium in nuclear waste remain lethal? There are dozens of radionuclides in nuclear waste but the main component is U-238 with small amounts of U-235 and Plutonium. The half-life of U-238 is 4.5 billion years. That means that about half of the lethal radioactivity will decay in 4.5 billion years. But it will take 10 half-lives (some say 20) before it completely decays. These are unimaginable time periods before the nuclear waste becomes safe so it would be extremely conservative to say that the nuclear waste will remain dangerous for millions or hundreds of millions of years.

30. How dangerous is radioactivity? Electromagnetic energy is measured in wave lengths of radiation which range from very long radio waves to very short gamma rays. The human eye can detect only a small portion of this spectrum (called visible light). The most dangerous and damaging radiation is ionizing radiation which includes alpha, beta, and gamma rays. They damage cell DNA and can cause death and a wide variety of serious medical issues such as cancer, the number one killer in California and most of the country. The effects may not be immediate and sometimes do not appear for years or even decades. Several thousand Japanese continue to die every year, not from old age but from the effects of the radiation they received as kids in August of 1945 when they were on the outskirts of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

31. Who is most vulnerable to radioactive exposure? Women and children are far more vulnerable to radiation than men. The human fetus (because of rapid cell division) is about 50 times more vulnerable. Most radiation warnings developed by the government and the NRC are based only on the standard statistical adult male, the least vulnerable to ionizing radiation.

32. A normal part of the operation of all nuclear power plants is the regular discharge of low-level radiation into the atmosphere and into waterways. SONGS has been discharging radiation for over a half-century. The atmospheric discharges emit radiation which then blows with prevailing winds (usually inland) over populated areas. It also regularly pumps billions of gallons of low-level radioactive waste into the ocean every year through giant pipes 18 feet in diameter. The rise in sea temperatures and the death of marine life is why SCE was forced to build restoration reefs just offshore of the San Clemente public beaches. When the first reef failed to restore the marine environment, SCE was ordered to build a second reef all the way to the San Clemente pier to mitigate the harmful effects.

33. Does living near a nuclear power plant cause cancer? The only major study in the US of possible cancer clusters for those who live near nuclear power plants was done way back in 1991 by the National Cancer Institute. The study failed to reach any conclusion, and by today’s standards it was poorly conducted. More recent research in Europe has reported cancer effects. The National Academy of Sciences became involved in 2010 and has issued two major reports. They recommended new research around the country at seven locations near nuclear facilities. One location would be the 50 km radius around San Onofre (everyone from Huntington Beach to Solana Beach). The research was never carried out because the NRC blocked funding. Congressman Mike Levin was instrumental in getting new funding passed in 2022, this time via Health and Human Services. But now HHS secretary Becerra has halted the study saying it was “premature” despite the many lengthy reports scientists have published. Rep. Levin, Porter, and Carbajal have tried to convince him but instead of research Becerra wants more bureaucratic study groups. More public support (and outrage) is needed to get the actual research started. Could it be that the government and the industry is only interested in studying the problem, not actually researching it? Are they afraid of what would happen to the nuclear industry if cancer effects are discovered? Here we have a President who boasts about his “moonshot on cancer” but his departments block cancer research. Read these two reports from the National Academy of Sciences: Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities Phase 1 (National Academies Press 2012, 412 pages) available on line: and Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities Phase 2: Pilot Planning (National Academies Press 2014)

34. A new issue is the coastal train connecting Los Angeles to San Diego which has been shut down indefinitely at the Orange and San Diego county border because of beach erosion and coastal instability. The breakdown occurred in south San Clemente, only about two miles from the nuclear waste dump. If simple structures like railroad tracks next to the beach are in danger, how could anyone assume that thousands of tons of uranium on the beach two miles away are safe? At high tides, waves already crash near the top of the seawall with the nuclear waste just inside.

35. It is high time for public officials and candidates to weigh in on these issues and to exercise leadership. It is high time for the media to provide serious coverage of these important issues. And finally, it is high time for the public to learn more about the dangers of nuclear waste, probably the most important issue facing all communities in southern California. Everyone needs to pressure local, state, and federal officials and convince them that moving the nuclear waste from San Onofre to a safer location should be a high priority issue requiring widespread attention and immediate action.

Roger Johnson is a resident of San Clemente, California

The NUHOMS nuclear waste dump, holding Unit 1 reactor assemblies (53 canisters total):

NUHOMS and HOLTEC nuclear reactor assemblies with Unit 2 and Unit 3 domes in the background, Pacific Ocean on the right:

Close-up of the NUHOMS canisters:

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