The Problem With San Onofre

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PM1When someone like Patrick Moore, who was one of Greenpeace’s founders, comes out in support of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), I take notice. Moore recently  wrote that, “ … I have had the opportunity to visit several nuclear energy facilities across America and common to all of them is their unwavering commitment to safety. It drives everything employees do, from reactor operators in the control room to every other worker at the plant. The nuclear energy industry has the highest safety record in this country and has demonstrated a commitment to continuously updating and improving its best practices based on lessons learned across the global industry….” This is a good endorsement, only I am not concerned about a possible lack of integrity among the people who work at San Onofre.

There is a strong argument for Nuclear energy on the SONGS’ website. A Nuclear power planet occupying 1/3 of a square mile can generate a billion watts of electricity. At our current technological level, a Solar facility generating the same amount of power would probably spread out over 50 square miles and a wind farm  200 square miles. This is a valid point, but I am not questioning the efficiency of Nuclear energy.

The nuclear facility at San Onofre has been closed down since January 2012 and, despite assurances that it is probably safe to run unit number two at 70% capacity, there is an independent study stating,  “… Unit 2 has hundreds of times more bad tubes and a thousand times more indications of wear on those tubes than the typical reactor in the country with a new steam generator, and nearly five times as many plugged tubes as the rest of the replacement steam generators, over a comparable operating period, in the country combined…” A Nuclear engineer has gone so far as to claim  restarting San Onofre, without repairing the underlying problems first, will effectively transform Southern California into a massive science experiment.

While this is highly disconcerting, I don’t believe they will start San Onofre up until the problems are addressed. The plant’s owners, Southern California Edison (78%) and San Diego Gas and Electric Company  (20%), are under enormous pressure and don’t have any room for error. Their competence and integrity is being questioned, in public view, as this drama unfolds. There would be personal and legal repercussions if they are allowed to start San Onofre up and there is a nuclear accident. So, regardless of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s final decision, I do not expect SONGS to become California’s Chernobyl. My real concern has to do with a far lesser, though more constant, level of radioactivity.

The health issues associated with handling uranium stretch back as far as our written records. A 1546 report from Schneeburg, Germany, mentions most of the miners dying of  a mysterious lung ailment. It was given a name in 1879, lung cancer. Half the miners at Joachimsthal, Czechoslovakia, died during 1930. More recently, the rate of lung cancer deaths among Canadian miners tripled between 1976 and 1984. We are only beginning to discover the extent of radiation sickness among the Navajo, as a consequence of their land being mined between the 1940′s and 80′s. One expert said that two days at the Cameron site will result in more exposure to radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers safe for an entire year. Another points out that “If this level of radioactivity were found in a middle-class suburb, the response would be immediate and aggressive.” $1.5 billion has already been paid out, in connection to 23,408 claims and there are suggestions that the amount will be much larger.

When Uranium is mined, it releases radioactive elements that can cause lung cancer, skin cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, kidney damage and birth defects. There have been reports of groundwater contamination from both of the methods used to extract uranium in the US – mines and in situ operations (which inject chemical laced solutions into the ground and pump out the resulting uranium enriched fluids) have polluted neighbouring water tables.  The groundwater near the Schwartzwalder Mine, in Colorado, was found to contain uranium 1,000 times higher than human health standards. There were 260 reported spills of uranium laced liquids at the Willow Creek in situ facility, in Wyoming, and in one case the water table reputedly had 8,000 times the maximum accepted contamination for drinking water.

According to a 2007 fact sheet from the Pembina Institute,in Canada, “The environmental impacts of uranium mining and milling activities are severe. These impacts range from the creation of massive stockpiles of radioactive and toxic waste rock and sand-like tailings to serious contamination of surface and groundwaters with radioactive and toxic pollutants, and releases of conventional, toxic and radioactive air pollutants. In fact, the impacts of uranium mining have been so severe, that many juris-dictions around the world have adopted bans on the establishment of new uranium mines (a prominent example is Nunavut, where any proposal for a future uranium mine must be approved by referendum).”

So where does the uranium used in San Onofre come from? from?  How is it mined? Are there any reports of groundwater contamination in those areas? or of increased cancer rates among either the miners or inhabitants of that area? And what about the population in the areas surrounding SONGS itself?

While I have yet to find answers for most of these questions, there have been some reports of high geiger counter readings in the area around San Onofre. Two Japanese visitors, from Fukushima, discovered them during an anyi-nuclear rally on San Celemente Beach. This prompted an associate professor at the San Diego State University Homeland Security Program, who had been monitoring Oceanside for the past year, to question the accuracy of their readings. More recently, Gene Stone of San Clemente took some  readings from a decommissioned steam generator about to be shipped from San Onofre to Utah.

A reporter from the Dana Point Times quoted him saying,“As I drove slowly past the old steam generator part, my Geiger counter spiked to 587. I drove by a second time a little faster and with my window closed and it showed 329….”

Stone then called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission office, in Texas, and, “They told me my iRad reading was pretty accurate but that they were within compliance limits for transportation laws regarding radiation. I was also told they would contact an NRC official who happened to be onsite to check it out.”

spokesman from Edison told the press, “The steam generator contains extremely low levels of radiation. The exposure that a person could receive standing 5 to 10 feet away from the transport for an hour would be equivalent to a dental X-ray.”

So, at worst, the neighbourhood around San Onofre may be exposed to a limited amount of radiation. Much less than what they receive at the dentist’s office, as they aren’t ten feet from radioactive equipment, though presumably more often. This is well within the levels that are currently regarded as safe.

Yet there are disturbing reports about the effects the radiation from nuclear plants could be having on children. a recent study, utilizing data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Preventionthat found that childhood mortality rates, in the close vicinity of 51 American nuclear plants, were significantly higher than in the general population. One of the plants in this study was San Onofre. The leukaemia rate for children aged 1-9 was 41% higher and almost 30% higher for children aged 10-19.

This contradicts an earlier study, published by the  National Center for Biotechnology Information, that states, “… childhood leukaemia death rates and clusters have been examined in detail in the communities within 25 miles of San Onofre. The cancer and total mortality rates near San Onofre have remained essentially identical to the corresponding rates in California and United States from 1960 to 1978. There have been no significant radiation releases to the population surrounding the San Onofre plant and the cancer rates show no patterns which have been influenced by the presence of the plant.” Note that this report dealt with the data from “… communities within 25 miles of San Onofre …”

Some European studies concentrate on neighbourhoods closer to nuclear facilities. A French study found that children living within 5 kilometers of a Nuclear plant had twice the leukemia rate that was found in the general population. Three German studies have now come to the same conclusion. While the proposed cancer connection has been denied in the UK, there are reports of higher leukemia rates near several nuclear facilities. The worst reports being of a tenfold increase at Sellafield, in Cumbria, and an eightfold increase at Dounreay, in Caithness.

In the wake of the European studies, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided to study the neighbourhoods of San Onofre and six other nuclear facilities.  Their report is scheduled to be completed in 2014. While definitive proof is almost impossible to obtain, in regards to specific cases, the NRC can document general trends. If their finding are anything like that of the French and German studies, they will find that there have been more incidents of cancer, and more fatalities, in the immediate vicinity of San Onofre than among the general population. The sector of the population most at risk will be children. The need to shut San Onofre down will be obvious.

While this is what many suspect will occur, others are trying to decide if there is a problem. There is a range of opinions and personal bias on both sides of this issue. Yet, given the potential cost in terms of human suffering, it seems reasonable to delay SONGS start-up until Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s report is finished.

(photo credit: San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station 2013 photo D Ramey Logan via wikipedia (CC BY SA, 3.0 License)

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