San Onofre and America’s spent fuel pools are easy terrorist targets

An Special Investigation

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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. 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.

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.

San Onofre's Risky BusinessPART 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.

Rocket laucher seized in checked luggage by TSA 2012 640PART 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.

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.

Black-Swan-SONGSThe 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 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.

SONGS next to San Diego Freeway - screen grab SCE Virtual TourThis 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 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.

NRDC San Onofre disaster mapSONGS 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.


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  1. Our friend Gary Headrick from San Clemente Green just sent this important notice to us:


    Here is an important reminder for the CEP Meeting I wrote about previously. Please do attend if you can. This will be our best chance to get independent experts to answer our serious concerns instead of Edison and their consultants.

    Edison’s Community Engagement Panel (CEP) has convened for the past three years to discuss the decommissioning of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Moderator, David Victor, has asked me to speak at the next meeting, (Thursday, 11/10, 5:30 p.m. at the Doubletree Hotel in Dana Point) because as he put it, “San Clemente Green is an extraordinary organization that engages much of the community, and thus what you say has special value and import in line with the broader purpose of the CEP to engage the communities”. The topic will be “from the perspective of the last three years, what have you seen-and where should we be headed for the next three.”

    To put it bluntly, they have been doing a lot of talking but not much listening. Instead they should be investigating the community’s concerns and exploring other options. The plan that the CEP is going along with now only works if Edison can predict the future accurately. The most recent proof of that not being the case is the failed steam generator replacement project which led to the shutdown. How can this body whose primary core principle is public safety even consider a plan that relies on technology that has yet to be invented, tested and proven?

    Our request will be to allow other experts who disagree with Edison’s plan to make presentations and take questions from the panel and the community at large. There are some very well qualified professionals in this field who think it is a bad idea to bury nuclear waste inches above the water table, one hundred feet from the waves, in an earthquake/tsunami zone using containers that are known to develop cracks in a marine environment, but can’t be monitored and can’t be repaired if they leak radiation or attain “criticality” (an uncontrollable nuclear reaction).

    While the CEP is not a decision making body, Edison likes to say that “the Community Engagement Panel and a number of community stakeholders have aligned to support their proposals “. That just might be because they have only heard one side of the story. Please attend to show support for this reasonable request to hear from other experts before it is too late. Edison’s current plan is unacceptable. There are far better options that Edison may not favor, but need to be considered for the sake of ALL.

    Thursday, November 10, 2016
    5:30p.m. to 8:30p.m.

    DoubleTree Suites Hotel – Doheny Beach
    34402 Pacific Coast Highway
    Dana Point, CA 92629

    Meeting Topic: CEP & SCE Progress and Priorities Report

    San Onofre Decommissioning education booths available from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

    SCE will validate parking when you leave meeting.
    Parking and other details at this SCE link.

    The meeting will be live-streamed via

  2. What can an individual do to get this implemented, I am trying , with many obstacles that keep presenting themselves to start a non profit to get the information to the public of the high level of radiation in Los Angeles.
    They have small geiger counters now that can be mounted on a car and transferred to an online map.
    What can people do though to get San Onofre cleaned up. My email is janlloyd and I would certainly appreciate any useful feedback or anyone who wishes to help start a grassroots political organization in time to make a difference.

  3. Here is the latest news on how our nuclear waste is being handled at San Onofre…

  4. SCE’s testimony in the upcoming decommissioning proceedings implies that the utility will attempt to expedite fuel removal from pools to cask system:

    Note the following statement on pp. 16 – 17 of SCE-08:

    “Now that SONGS 2&3 have permanently ceased operations, SCE is working with Transnuclear and the NRC to re-evaluate and possibly increase the heat loads that may be loaded into the twelve remaining 24-PTH canisters, and to license the design for the new 32-PTH canisters based on an increased heat load. If SCE is successful, the cooling periods required before fuel assemblies may be loaded into these canisters may be slightly reduced. SCE is also in the process of developing an IFMP that will include an analysis of the decay heat loads in every fuel assembly and all other materials that are currently stored in the pools. Upon completion, the IFMP will provide an optimized plan and schedule for removing all irradiated materials from the SONGS 2 & 3 spent fuel pools as soon as practicable in light of all known constraints.”

    While there is still no offsite facility for this lethal radioactive material; making it as safe as possible must be the immediate goal. Sadly a new generation of ratepayers will pay for the industry’s shortsightedness although they will never receive a kilowatt.

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