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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.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station - Photo by Jason HickeyEven 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.

Shuttering SONGS

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.”

SONGS 84 & 130 acre areasThe 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.”

Black SwanThe 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.

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  1. Please participate in this action to change the waste storage plan at San Onofre…

  2. Our nuclear waste at SONGS is being handled by liars and thieves. Read more here… http://conta.cc/1WFtEGI

  3. Southern California Edison issued a ‘white paper’ November 4 on its contention Mitsubishi left it, essentially, high and dry when it came to the defective generators that led to SONGS’ shutdown: http://assets.fiercemarkets.com/public/sites/energy/reports/1104songsWhitePaper.pdf

  4. EnviroReporter.com received this notice today from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

    No: 13-089 October 28, 2013
    CONTACT: Maureen Conley, 301-415-XXXX

    NRC Extends Public Comment Period for Proposed Rule and Environmental Study
    on Extended Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel

    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is extending by three weeks, until December 20, the deadline for public comments on a proposed rule and supporting environmental study on the effects of extended storage of spent nuclear fuel beyond the licensed operating life of commercial reactors.

    The NRC has also rescheduled the five public meetings on extended storage that were postponed due to the government shutdown and will hold an additional teleconference to receive public input on Dec. 9. The rescheduled meetings will be held Nov. 12 in Oak Brook, Ill.; Nov. 18 in Carlsbad, Calif.; Nov. 20 in San Luis Obispo, Calif.; Dec. 2 in Perrysburg, Ohio; and Dec. 4 in Minnetonka, Minn. Additional details about the meetings, including information on how to register, can be found on the NRC website. NRC staff will also host a public status update teleconference on Oct. 30. Details are on the website.

    The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register September 13 for public comment through Nov. 27. Known as “waste confidence,” the proposed rule would replace a similar provision in NRC’s environmental regulations that was vacated last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The rule does not authorize extended storage of spent fuel at reactor sites – a separate license is required for that. Rather, waste confidence is a generic finding of the environmental impacts of storing spent fuel for extended periods beyond the licensed operating life of reactors. The draft Waste Confidence Generic Environmental Impact Statement forms the regulatory basis for the proposed rule. The draft statement is available on the NRC’s waste confidence webpage.

    Public comments may be submitted several ways: Online through the federal government’s rulemaking website, http://www.regulations.gov using Docket ID NRC-2012-0246; by e-mail to Rulemaking.Comments@nrc.gov; by fax to 301-415-1101; by mail to Secretary, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington DC 20555-0001, ATTN: Rulemakings and Adjudications Staff; or by hand delivery to 11555 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md., between 7:30 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. on federal workdays.

    Comments may also be provided orally or in writing at the public meetings, part of the agency’s extensive public outreach effort on the waste confidence project. All comments will be considered no matter how they are submitted.

  5. Bit of confusion there between National Research Council and Nuclear Regulatory Commission – they should sort it out with the TLA ( Three Letter Acronym ) Commission.
    As to whether a zirconium fire could happen, I’ve run across a lot of blogs assuring everyone that it had already happened. Haven’t seen any retractions yet. Zircalloy’s melting point is over 400 degrees Centigrade higher than the nichrome used in toaster heating elements. Fresh fuel is kept separate for the first few months, and after five years it can be dry casked, ie air cooled.
    Apparently China is planning spent fuel storage which will use it for industrial or space heating, which seems a more practical approach. There’s plenty of other things more worthy of being worried about.

  6. @John ONeill: The Hiroshima analogy is a unique way to justify nuclear power and in that context true. Unfortunately, it appears that your characterization of the zirconium cladding not burning isn’t in accord with a 2006 National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences report called Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report:

    “The first two of these objectives could be compromised by a terrorist attack that partially or completely drains the spent fuel pool.2 The committee will refer to such scenarios as “loss-of-pool-coolant” events. Such events could have several deleterious consequences; Most immediately, ionizing radiation levels in the spent fuel building rise as the water level in the pool falls. Once the water level drops to within a few feet (a meter or so) of the tops of the fuel racks, elevated radiation fields could prevent direct access to the immediate areas around the lip of the spent fuel pool building by workers. This might hamper but would not necessarily prevent the application of mitigative measures, such as deployment of fire hoses to replenish the water in the pool.

    “The ability to remove decay heat from the spent fuel also would be reduced as the water level drops, especially when it drops below the tops of the fuel assemblies. This would cause temperatures in the fuel assemblies to rise, accelerating the oxidation of the zirconium alloy (zircaloy) cladding that encases the uranium oxide pellets. This oxidation reaction can occur in the presence of both air and steam and is strongly exothermic—that is, the reaction releases large quantities of heat, which can further raise cladding temperatures. The steam reaction also generates large quantities of hydrogen…”

    “These oxidation reactions can become locally self-sustaining (i.e., autocatalytic3) at high temperatures (i.e., about a factor of 10 higher than the boiling point of water) if a supply of oxygen and/or steam is available to sustain the reactions. (These reactions will not occur when the spent fuel is under water because heat removal prevents such high temperatures from being reached). The result could be a runaway oxidation reaction—referred to in this report as a zirconium cladding fire—that proceeds as a burn front (e.g., as seen in a forest fire or a fireworks sparkler) along the axis of the fuel rod toward the source of oxidant (i.e., air or steam). The heat released from such fires can be even greater than the decay heat produced in newly discharged spent fuel.

    “As fuel rod temperatures increase, the gas pressure inside the fuel rod increases and eventually can cause the cladding to balloon out and rupture. At higher temperatures (around 1800°C [approximately 3300°F]), zirconium cladding reacts with the uranium oxide fuel to form a complex molten phase containing zirconium-uranium oxide. Beginning with the cladding rupture, these events would result in the release of radioactive fission gases and some of the fuel’s radioactive material in the form of aerosols into the building that houses the spent fuel pool and possibly into the environment. If the heat from one burning assembly is not dissipated, the fire could spread to other spent fuel assemblies in the pool, producing a propagating zirconium cladding fire.

    It catches fire, alright. NRC’s conflicting reports on spent fuel pools safety are none too few. But when it comes to the zirconium cladding, here’s what it concluded in 2001:

    “… it was not feasible, without numerous constraints, to establish a generic decay heat level (and therefore a decay time) beyond which a zirconium fire is physically impossible.”

    Thanks for your comment, John.

  7. The difference between the Hiroshima bomb and spent nuclear fuel is that the bomb was built, with considerable difficulty , to explode; the fuel was designed to disperse heat.
    Nearly twenty thousand Russian warheads have been broken down into fuel and will, in due course, wind up in spent fuel pools in the United States, where they will pose far less risk to humanity than they used to.
    Inside a reactor pressure vessel, zirconium can react exothermicly with water if temperatures get high enough, but in a spent pool, the water is at atmospheric pressure. By the time temperatures have risen over 100 C, all the water will have evaporated, and until then steam will still be carrying heat away from the fuel. Solid zirconium will not burn, as it forms an impermeable oxide layer ( as does aluminium), and the melting point is 1855 Centigrade. Hence the NRC judgement that a spent fuel fire is ‘extremely unlikely.’

  8. @John ONeill

    From what I’ve read and from what Arnie Gundersen has stated is that the Spent Fuel Pool at Reactor 4 in Fukushima contains the equivalent of 1400 Hiroshima bombs.

    Now I don’t know if that’s enough to kill everyone in Japan and the northern hemisphere, but it certainly would make for a very bad day.
    (decades and/or centuries)

    NOT telling people of the long term and short term destructive potential and risks of NUCLEAR WASTE is what’s really harmful.

  9. @John ONeill: We would suggest reading the article again because we never said “spent fuel pools could kill everyone in Japan/ the northern hemisphere.” Especially pay attention to the parts describing the mechanics of a SFP fire and how hot it gets. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot hotter than a blowtorch and even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission knows – and has stated – how deadly it would be.

  10. What the hell kind of cretins would call the closing of a nucler reactor several years after it’s use by date “Premature” ? These reactors were designed to last 40 years and if anything the situation with San Onofre has confirmed this was about right.

  11. To be moved to dry storage, the heat output of spent fuel has to have dropped to the point where air cooling will prevent any damage to it. So if the pools drained, air cooling would continue – better than in a cask, where thick stainless steel walls impede convection.
    Another reason why the NRC assigns a very low probability to radiation release from the pools is the lack of flammability of the rods. Zirconium powder will burn – so will iron powder – but try setting fire to a slab of steel. You can google video of zirconium tube being blowtorched without melting or burning. The uranium oxide which makes up ninety eight percent of the ‘meat’ of the fuel rods won’t burn either – it’s an oxide, you might as well try to burn stone. Telling people that spent fuel pools could kill everyone in Japan/ the northern hemisphere is dishonest and harmful.
    Finally, crediting 300 megawatts of energy savings by customers with avoiding blackouts is a bit rich, when SONGS produced over 2,200 megawatts. As usual when a nuclear plant is shut down, most of the electricity deficit has been made up by burning gas or coal, CO2 emissions included.

  12. One chance in 10 million years for any kind of black swan event at any of 100 nuclear sites! I believe that assertion of extremely remote situational and temporal risk is ludicrous on its face. Are there any insurance companies willing to take this assertion at face value and issue a policy based on this conclusion by the NRC? I think not! They would laugh them right out of their offices! No! They would have them frog-marched out of their offices, and then they would laugh until they could not laugh any more. They would be weeping and shaking their heads in disbelief! I would love to see such a scene enacted for a Hollywood film. It would be an opening scene of the greatest disaster movie every made! “The End of Mankind”

    Bravo, Michael! This article drives home the point. People need to wake up and see the disaster that awaits them, if they do not act responsibly to protect themselves and their future generations. It’s simple, it’s too much risk, for far too long, in too many places.

  13. Michael,
    I am way beyond happy to see your new article about SONGS, as, based on the potential global disaster from removing the 1535 spent fuel rods from the Fukushima reactor #4, I have been very concerned and wondering about the plans for removal of the spent fuel rods from the two closed down reactors at SONGS.
    I know that we were all overjoyed to hear that SONGS was shut down, but that is certainly not the end of this scary nuclear drama, which will continue to go on for many years into the future. Your article clearly details this very frightening prospect, along with both the scientific and political factors involved in the ongoing dangers which will remain, far beyond our lifetimes.
    While Fukushima should have emphasized to our own Governmental nuclear authorities just how incredibly dangerous these spent fuel rods are, the EPA and the NRC, dishearteningly, seem to be just as devoted to downplaying the danger as is the Japanese government. Apparently it is always about MONEY….but it just never seems to be about human lives.
    As a long time Red Cross disaster volunteer, I have been keeping after the Red Cross about making plans for a possible nuclear disaster at SONGS, which could affect millions of people….and which would involve other agencies, such as the Police and Fire departments as well as FEMA.
    I plan to share your article with all of the above agencies,in order to let them know that the SONGS danger is NOT over, and will NOT be over for a great many years to come, and that disaster planning needs to be accomplished NOW!
    Thank you again Michael, for this vitally needed investigation and report, and I will be anxiously looking forward to reading #2.

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