San Onofre and America’s spent fuel pools are easy terrorist targets
An EnviroReporter.com Special Investigation
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS, sits south of San Clemente along the Southern California coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. A four-month investigation reveals that the shuttered plant’s spent nuclear fuel rods are vulnerable to earthquakes and terrorist attacks which could result in a “black swan” event – a foreseeable but ignored disaster of epic proportions. Spent fuel pools’ vulnerability nationwide is well known to nuclear watchdogs like the ones that succeeded in shutting down SONGS. The phlegmatic government and nuclear power industry responses to these threats are inadequate to the challenge. EnviroReporter.com exposes the vulnerabilities and proposes solutions that should be enacted.
This introduction to our four-part Black Swan SONGS series reveals that even though SONGS’ was permanently shuttered in June 2013, its security posture is questionable at best and possibly not robust enough to withstand a concerted terrorist attack. The methods, men and material needed for such an strike are already in place as are the targets. Ready solutions do exist.
PART ONE – SONGS’ LETHAL LEGACY
Should one of SONGs’ spent fuel pools be cracked by an earthquake or lose power to circulate the cooling pools, the water would drain or evaporate away and the heat of the extremely radioactive rods could ignite a blaze that would be nearly impossible to extinguish. According to a 2007 Nuclear Regulatory Commission disaster scenario involving SONGS’ pools on fire, everyone within ten miles of San Onofre would get a fatal dose of radiation. Yet new dubious NRC studies discount any problems.
PART TWO – SONGS’ RISKY BUSINESS
Newport-Inglewood Fault threatens San Onofre with quake 2.5 times as strong as plant’s maximum tolerance. Post 9/11 security measures Collins reported on in 2001 seem nonexistent now. SONGS spent fuel pools are vulnerable to rocket attack which can be prevented. If SPF catches fire, it would be an inextinguishable fire. Fallout radiation doses would be life-threatening up to 10 miles out.
PART THREE – HIT MEN FOR HOT ZONES
FBI establishes connection between Iranian terrorism and Mexican cartel gunslingers in sting. Syria and Iran threaten U.S. Cartels recruit U.S. gangs and soldiers for hit men. Threat to SONGS spent fuel pools and dry casked nuclear rods detailed along with weaponry, explosives and potential terrorists. Backpack C-4 bomb risk.
PART FOUR – STOPPING SONGS’ BLACK SWAN
Series finale shows how to protect San Onofre and Peach Bottom nuclear reactor complex’s spent fuel pools and dry casks of highly-radioactive nuclear fuel rods from terrorism. Even with exposing the failings of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission helped by an error-plagued Department of Defense report, common sense can prevail. SONGS is within the perimeter of a Marine base and there lies its external security answers. Each other nuke complex in country has unique challenges to reduce black swan threat to as low as reasonably achievable.
The giant concrete domes of the nuclear reactors hard on the Pacific look no different now that the plant is closing. They are ominous and foreboding but may seem less so because both of the two remaining reactors, Units 2 and 3, have been shut down for good.
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station or SONGS, sits south of San Clemente along the Southern California coast. It is owned primarily by Southern California Edison [SCE] and San Diego Gas & Electric. It now faces an uncertain future as the company haggles with the government and public over the billions it still wants to squeeze out of its ratepayers to foot the bill for its multi-billion dollar boondoggle.
Southern California faces an even more uncertain future thanks to the amount of radioactive material at the site, so much highly toxic material that if unleashed could kill a huge chunk of the Southland making it uninhabitable for thousands of years. This makes it a pre-placed high-value terrorist target.
Even though SCE’s decision to permanently shutter the reactors removes the possibility of a reactor meltdown, the nuclear complex is a disaster waiting to happen. SONGS will never generate a watt of electricity again but its spent reactor fuel situation is in critical danger of catastrophe that would far exceed a reactor core meltdown.
This series reveals that SONGS’ security posture is questionable at best and possibly not robust enough to withstand a concerted terrorist attack. Nearly twelve years ago, this reporter exposed the plant’s vulnerability to terrorist attack in an LA Weekly article that came out two months after 9/11. Despite assurances then of robust security, none of it was evident to reporters on repeated visits to the site. SCE assured this reporter years ago of having weaponry that NRC documents obtained by EnviroReporter.com show weren’t even available to the agency at the time.
Two new Nuclear Regulatory Commission studies have risen alarm bells about what the NRC plans to do with the thousands of tons of highly radioactive spent fuel rods jammed into spent fuel pools (SFPs) around the country, including SONGS.
One of the NRC reports posits that it’s safe to leave spent fuel rods in pools at reactor sites for up to 60 to 100 years after the plant closes, in addition to the decades the rods would stay in the pools while the reactors were still operating. The study even goes so far as to discourage transferring the rods to safer dry casks saying that it doesn’t matter at all and the workers risk dropping one.
Another report analyzed in this series investigates the spent fuel pool of the Peach Bottom Power Plant reactor in Pennsylvania with the same design as the three reactors that melted down in Fukushima Japan. The NRC determined that a major SFP fire could only happen less than once is ten million years.
This EnviroReporter.com investigation shows that the SONGS complex astride the San Diego Freeway is one terrorist attack away from a mega-disaster that would dwarf the ongoing triple meltdowns at Fukushima. Despite several government reports analyzed in this series that maintain that the chance of nuclear accidents are infinitesimally low, this in-depth analysis of SONGS and the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania comes to a different conclusion.
Both reactor complexes are vulnerable to terrorist attack that could involve light arms and explosives, which could destroy their spent fuel pools. SONGS seems to have implemented none of the heightened security measures it told this reporter that it had initiated a month after 9/11. Weapons and explosives available on American streets can inflict serious destruction on both reactor complexes with relative ease. The violent men needed to mount such an attack are already on the streets of America, and some come with Mexican cartel connections.
An August 15 University of Texas report funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense adds new urgency to the issue. Though marred by factual inaccuracies and dubious generalizations, the research assistant-written “working study” acknowledges that every nuclear reactor complex in the country is under threat of terrorist attack and is coming up short securing against such a scenario. The consequences of even one successful attack could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans and cost trillions.
Despite its shortcomings, the U of T paper provides valuable information and a look into the mindset of the Defense Department regarding nuclear installation security as will be seen in this investigative series. It may seem a hopeful sign that the DOD paid for and publicized a report addressing a clear and present dangerous facing the 65 commercially operating nuclear power sites in 31 states with 104 nuclear reactors and over 200 spent fuel pools. It is not.
Not only was the DOD paper factually flawed, it came to the bewildering conclusion that there should be a generic approach to nuclear reactor and SFPs security instead of taking each plant on a case by case basis. That the supposedly most advanced and powerful military in the world would allow an amateurish paper stand as the best it can provide about such a potential terrorist target speaks volumes for how little regard DOD holds for the issue.
The Defense Department report is just the latest in a string of government studies that ignore the most obvious questions of all: how would terrorists, homegrown or foreign, attack each nuclear installation to literally get the most bang for the buck? And how would we make sure that such an attack cannot possibly succeed because the consequences are unacceptable on any level?
This four month investigation will show that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy, the DOD and America’s sixteen intelligence agencies have fallen fall short in their duties to protect the American people from a preventable nuclear calamity. The failure to even recognize the dangers uncovered in the Black Swan SONGS series can be remedied by doing the obvious: go look in person and on the Internet.
Even with the advantage of reporting on this subject since 2001, anyone can find out what EnviroReporter.com has found and puzzled together. That includes terrorists, who could find SONGS a spectacular target, one that would not only permanently cripple Southern California, but also take out the largest Marine base on the West Coast, Camp Pendleton.
SCE’s lack of concerted efforts to defuel the vulnerable spent fuel pools and a lack of vision of how to securely store San Onofre’s spent fuel rod assemblies in dry casks reveals an approach that puts more faith in probability than physical protection and deterrence.
SONGS is a ‘black swan’ event waiting to happen. Black swan theory uses the metaphor to describe a major surprise event that is unexpected and usually disastrous. The philosophy is the brainchild of intellectual luminary Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whose 2007 bestselling book The Black Swan explores these infrequent and unpredictable events. Taleb posits that humans rationalize these events in retrospect when they should be trying to build robust defenses against unexpected catastrophes. Act now instead of making excuses later.
The ongoing and worsening triple meltdowns at Fukushima Dai-ichi provide a nightmarish world of lessons to be learned. But the NRC’s response has been to do next to nothing other than produce detailed reports explaining away any chance that something could go wrong with the mountain of spent nuclear fuel in the U.S.
As with SONGS and Peach Bottom, nuclear reactors were built in a time when the specter of terrorism was far less than today. The Obama Administration says that the threat of al-Qaeda is real. Syria and Iran have threatened this country with terrorist retaliation should it use military strikes in response Syria’s use of chemical weapons. “Homegrown” terrorists have also become a serious concern.
No country should ever start a war if a known tactical weakness, in this case over a hundred of them, could undo the nation. It would be strategic suicide. The weaknesses identified in this series come with answers that are real and not the result of some tortured data crunching that spits out whatever “science” it takes to bolster a phony ‘it will never happen’ study.
A black swan event at SONGS is an avoidable apocalypse. The security of the San Onofre complex on both sides of the freeway could be made substantially safer tomorrow by immediate security measures also identified in Black Swan SONGS.