PART ONE – SONGS’ LETHAL LEGACY
1,800 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods could create a ten-mile kill zone in Southern California
According to a June 27 report from Friends of the Earth (FOE) on SONGS’ “lethal legacy,” the last 44 years of energy production at San Onofre have left nearly 1,100 tons of extremely radioactive spent fuel rods overcrowded in pools designed only to hold them for 5 to 7 years. Other estimates of the total amount of hot rods at the site range from 1,400 to 1,800 tons according to several credible sources.
Should a pool be cracked by an earthquake or lose power to circulate the hot pools, the water would drain or evaporate away and the heat of the extremely radioactive rods could ignite a blaze. Not just any blaze. A spent fuel pond fire would be nearly impossible to extinguish and, 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.
Since 1968, SONGS has generated nearly 1,800 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel made up of 948,956 rods packed into 4,021 assemblies. There is so much high-level radioactive waste at SONGS that it triples the amount of ionizing goo stored at the most contaminated site in the country, the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington.
The 29-page FOE study was authored by Robert Alvarez, a former senior advisor to the Secretary at the Department of Energy with expertise on the growing volume of waste piling up at reactors across America. Friends of the Earth funded the report as it did other work done to ensure San Onofre didn’t fire up its last damaged reactor without a surfeit of public hearings.
“The major risk from the reactors at San Onofre is over, but the radiation hazard from the pool-stored waste is even greater,” said Alvarez when the report was released. “As we saw at Fukushima, spent fuel in pools that were never designed for such concentrated and prolonged storage is highly vulnerable. Within six hours of losing water in the pools, more radioactive cesium could be released than was released in all nuclear weapons tests. The radiation dose to the thousands living within ten miles of the plant would be in the lethal range.”
The Friends of the Earth report and information uncovered by EnviroReporter.com suggest that these problems are not insurmountable. The closing of SONGS also shows that anything’s possible armed with the facts and the brass to back it up. That metal and more will be necessary to remedy the nuclear menace that SONGS could increasingly radiate over Southern California.
Solving these problems aggressively might even help put back to work some of the talented and experienced SONGS workforce, a thousand of whom have been laid off. Securing the spent nuclear fuel in dry casks and moving it to higher ground at SONGS are shovel-ready projects that could be funded by sources identified in the Alvarez report.
If geologic history is any measure, doing nothing to secure the spent fuel rods to withstand a huge earthquake at SONGS invites a black swan catastrophe. These radioactive wastes, including strontium-90, plutonium-239 and cesium-137 take thousands of years to cool down and remain lethal all the while. Failing to act to seal them off from the environment in case of any disaster or terrorist scenario, especially when the means and methods are available, is playing nuclear Russian roulette.
Even with the plutonium bullet chambered at SONGS, the company and the government continue to finger the trigger. The momentum created by the unprecedented closure of San Onofre may not be enough to secure the site from plaguing future generations. The will to force expedited dry casking of SONGS’ hot remains might only come when Southern Californians realize that the nuclear gun is pointed at them.
Government and company attitudes, policies and regulations have led to so serious a safety situation that it is unclear whether these entities can get the multi-decades-long job done. Regardless, the scheme to make customers pay for this calamity continues though moves are afoot to stop billing for power that will never be delivered.
The catastrophic installation of two defective steam generators, at a ratepayer-paid cost of $671 million, have also resulted in unsafe spent fuel conditions, highly radioactive shipments of old plant equipment through unsuspecting communities, significant worker discontent, the worst safety record of any nuclear power site in the nation and questionable security for an obvious terrorist target.
Southern California Edison formally unplugged SONGS June 12. It was an unexpected victory for local groups allied with nuclear watchdog organizations whose legal maneuvering finally trumped SCE’s efforts to fire up the last reactor at 70 percent power. Unit 2 was subsequently defueled removing the chance that the reactor could be damaged and suffer a partial or full fuel meltdown.
“Southern California Edison (SCE) certifies that it has permanently ceased power operation of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, Units 2 and 3 effective June 7 2013,” the company told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) June 12. The official end of the line had been reached for the reactor complex which had ceased operating in January 2012 after a multiple of heat transfer tubes were found ruptured or close to failure.
Local activists, longtime nuclear power opponents, and environmental organizations were stunned by the rapidity of events that led to the closure of the nuclear site situated on Marine Corps land halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Some of these folks and groups had been fighting SONGS for decades.
“San Onofre was a Fukushima disaster waiting to happen” said Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles in a press release. “The plant is located near earthquake fault zones and has over 8 million people living within 50 miles of the site [and] evacuation would be nearly impossible. The decision to permanently close the plant is a tremendous victory for the health and safety of Southern Californians.”
“A nuclear dragon has been slain,” Dan Hirsch told EnviroReporter.com in reaction to the closing. Hirsch is the president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear watchdog and policy group, which has battled SONGS since 1970. “Millions of people in Southern California are now safer and need not fear being the next Fukushima.”
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) lauded the groups that made it happen including Friends of the Earth which threatened SCE with a lawsuit should the utility fire up Unit 2 at 70 percent power. “I want to thank the community organizations that came forward with information that demonstrated that the plant redesign presented a great risk to the public,” Boxer said in a June 7 press release. “Now that the San Onofre nuclear plant will be permanently shut down, it is essential that this nuclear plant be safely decommissioned and does not become a continuing liability for the community.”
The historic significance of this environmental triumph goes beyond its invigorating effect on Southern California anti-nuclear activists. It has enlivened the people across the nation with the knowledge that an aging, malfunctioning nuclear power plant owned by huge corporations can be shut down using logic, sound science, law and determined opposition.
A pair of defective Mitsubishi-built generators doomed SONGS. Losing over a million dollars a day, SCE tried to expedite the process to get its damaged reactor online. That hope expired May 13 when the FOE and the Natural Resources Defense Council won a key decision from the Atomic Safety Licensing Board which ruled that starting Unit 2 would violate its existing operating permit. Unit 2 was required to run at full power or not run at all. Without public hearings with experts allowed, SCE could not fire up the crippled reactor.
“A recent ruling by an adjudicatory arm of the NRC, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, creates further uncertainty regarding when a final decision might be made on restarting Unit 2,” read a June 7 SCE press release. “Additional administrative processes and appeals could result in delay of more than a year. During this period, the costs of maintaining SONGS in a state of readiness to restart and the costs to replace the power SONGS previously provided would continue.”
Company officials assured the media June 7 that the energy grid can handle the power source loss mostly through successful conservation measures. The summer of 2012’s lack of SONGS power didn’t result in blackouts or even brownouts in Southern California largely because of SCE customers conserving 300 megawatts which is enough to provide electricity to 200,000 homes. The Southern California summer of 2013 also came and went without problems caused by SONGS’ demise.
“While Edison has been doing all that it can to prepare to supply power without help from the San Onofre plant, customer conservation is still a must,” said Erwin Furukawa, SCE senior vice president for customer service. “Now is the time to enroll in our conservation programs and start practicing conservation behaviors that can make a big difference for the grid.”
Not only did the electricity supply remain the same, so did SCE’s aggressive stance that the reactors were forced to be scrapped when it was the company, and the company alone that killed SONGS. “The premature shutdown of San Onofre is very unfortunate,” said Pete Dietrich, SCE’s chief nuclear officer and senior vice president, June 24. “We have an extraordinary team of men and women. We appreciate their years of dedicated service and will continue to extend to them the utmost respect and consideration.” [Our emphasis]
SCE will also continue to extend to its extraordinary team pink slips. The same day Dietrich dismissed any notion that something was wrong with San Onofre’s reactors, 600 non-union workers at the plant were shown the door. The company, in a disingenuous show of support “will work to ensure a fair process for the transition, including a job fair for displaced workers.”
The firing of these 600 workers so soon after the attempted restart of Unit 2 failed brings to mind two questions besides asking what the difference between “displaced” and “canned” is to SCE: What were those workers actually doing at SONGS for the fifteen months the reactor sat idle? And couldn’t SCE use these highly paid and trained nuclear reactor professionals to dry cask up the huge amount of spent fuel rods now stuffed into SONGS’ two vulnerable spent fuel pools?
San Onofre minority owner San Diego Gas & Electric now wants to develop the larger half of SONGS – on the east side of the highway – which is the logical place to put all the dry cask-ready fuel rods sitting in the spent fuel pools right now. These rod assemblies could have been dry casked years ago.
SCE’s position that closing its malfunctioning reactors was “premature” and “unfortunate” underscores the gulf between the reality on the ground and the corporation’s bottom line. Edison International, the huge multi-billion dollar international powerhouse that owns SCE which serves 14 million people, now maintains that their 4.9 million rate payers pick up the tab for their debacle. SCE says its responsibility is to its shareholders.
The Spent Fuel Pools Threat
The closure of SONGS does not change the status of up to 1,800 tons of spent fuel rods left in susceptible pools that could crack, leak or be destroyed and expose the environment to huge amounts of radiation. According to SCE’s own plant virtual tour video, there is only a seven-day supply of emergency fuel to power the spent fuel rod pools should outside sources of power be lost due to an earthquake.
The nuclear reactor complex has far more extremely radioactive spent fuel rods in vulnerable spent fuel pools (SFPs) instead of sealed in hardened and airtight dry casks. Most of SONGS spent fuel is cool enough for this transportable entombment. It’s cheaper to leave the rods in the SFPs than moving them to dry casks.