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San Andreas FaultAn earthquake of sufficient destructiveness to take down the electrical grid as well as destroy vulnerable access points to the plant on the adjacent Interstate 5 could, however, cut SONGS electric supply. If the water in the spent fuel pools ceases to be circulated by the pools’ electrical systems, the increasingly hot water will evaporate off and the rods will alight in a 900 degrees Celsius (1,173 degrees Kelvin) nuclear fire that cannot be extinguished with any amount of fresh or salt water.

SCE has failed to implement expensive but more secure “dry casking” of spent nuclear fuel rods. The company says that fuel assemblies should stay in the pools for 7 to 10 years to cool down enough to be put in the sealed casks that cost $1 million each. So instead of dry casking rods years past being ready for it – SONGS opened in 1968 – SCE has kept loading more fuel rods into pools designed for fewer of them. According to the NRC, fuel rod assemblies can be transferred to dry casking within five years of being removed from the reactor.

“Only 25% of San Onofre’s highly toxic spent fuel is stored in dry casks,” PSR-LA said addressing the threat. “The remaining fuel is stored in pools, which remain vulnerable to earthquakes and power failure. If exposed, the fuel can self-ignite and release vast amounts of lethal radiation.”

That means that SCE, which has a 78.1 percent stake in SONGS and a $2.7 billion fund to completely cleanup and decontaminate the complex, hasn’t fortified its intensely radioactive rods that have to be kept out of the environment for up to a million years. The company says it needs $300 million to complete the fund. SCE is not alone in this venture, as San Diego Gas & Electric owns 20 percent of SONGS and 1.79 percent is owned by the city of Riverside.

“The high level waste–the spent fuel rods–has no place to be disposed of at present and will have to be put into dry cask storage on site for an extended period,” Hirsch said. Hirsch has analyzed the vulnerability of the spent fuel pools for decades and suggests that the dry casks be housed in hardened accessible bunkers with low profiles to protect against any number of terrorism scenarios.

It is a recommendation that has added urgency since the Friends of the Earth study was released. Called Reducing the Hazards of High‐Level Radioactive Waste in Southern California: Storage of Spent Power Reactor Fuel at The San Onofre Nuclear Station, [2.29 MB] the report revealed sourced information that 73 percent of the spent nuclear fuel at SONGS still sits in the two pools adjacent Units 1 and 2.

Cesium-137 makes up about 43 percent of the medium and long-lived radioactivity in the spent fuel, 168 million curies of which are in the pools. That amount of Cs-137, with a half-life of 30.2 years, is six times more than was released by all above-ground nuclear weapons testing and nearly 89 times the amount released by the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Belorussia in 1986.

The FOE report cited an NRC 2007 report emergency planning and response exercise in an imagined scenario of an earthquake at San Onofre severe enough that it cracks a pool which drains and catches fire. The NRC postulated that six hours after the spent fuel pools water drained, the exposed rods would catch alight sending about 40 million curies of cesium into the air.

“This is 150 percent more than released by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests,” the FOE report says. “The resulting doses to people living within a 10‐mile radius would be in the lethal range.”

The fallout from such a spent fuel pool fire would impact Southern California far more than the Fukushima nuclear disaster initially impacted Japan. Around 80 percent of the March 11, 2011 triple meltdown airborne radioactivity blew over the Pacific Ocean to the east of the site with the remaining isotopes from the destroyed reactors raining down on Japanese land.

Fukushima Dai-ichi destroyed reactorEven with that ratio, the government created a 12.4 mile evacuation zone that is a no-go area without official permission to enter. About 156,000 people remain displaced by the disaster, the worst nuclear catastrophe ever suffered on the planet, as of early 2013.

San Onofre would likely see the opposite ratio of fission fallout over land and water with most of the deadly cargo moving east over land before falling out. The city of San Clemente, two miles to the north of SONGS along the coast, could bear the brunt of this fallout though the prevailing west wind usually doesn’t blow from San Onofre into town. It usually blows through the plant towards the bulk of Camp Pendleton and Riverside Country to the east.

Nearly 65,000 people live in the tony coastal enclave and some have expressed concern about evacuation routes should SONGS start releasing radiation for any reason. The notoriously crowded San Diego 405 Freeway is the only real escape route which makes rapid evacuation of the city challenging at best.

One of the weightiest problems SONGS’ spent fuel poses is its weight, literally. San Onofre has so many tons of highly radioactive artificial isotopes on site that it makes the facility one of the largest radiation waste storage sites in the country. Unit 2’s core has yet to be removed and weighs in at over 112 tons with Unit 3’s core coming in at 91.5 tons. Respectively, the Units 2 and 3 contain 566.6 and 644.9 tons in their spent fuel pools. Unit 2’s core is still too hot to remove from the reactor core. It weighs another 112.4 tons.

Amazingly, SPFs across the United States don’t have “defense-in-depth” redundant nuclear safeguards. Unlike the nuclear reactor cores themselves, the pools are relatively light on containment. The SONGS pools are 17.5 feet off the ground in a seismically-reinforced building with a 3.16 inch welder liner plate made of stainless steel.

Spent fuel pools aren’t required to have emergency power back-up to make sure the water keeps circulating in the pools should the electricity go out. Some U.S. reactors recently were found to even be lacking gauges which indicate the water levels in the pools. One pool dropped to a potentially dangerous level because nobody bothered to look at it. Indeed, the FOE report says, there are nuclear reactor complexes that have suspect water restoration capabilities.

SCE’s SONGS video says that San Onofre has a 7-day supply of emergency generators fuel. A possible case of sabotage was discovered by SCE in October 2012 when it found someone had poured radiator fluid into one of the generator’s oil-based fuel supply. ABC 10News in San Diego reported last November 30 that the mixture would have caused more wear and could have precipitated the failure of the generator if it hadn’t been detected in a monthly check of the fuel supply. 10News also reported other suspicious acts at SONGS including important bolts that upon inspection were found to be loose and a package looking like a pipe bomb found onsite.

Clearly, reactors rank over spent fuel pools in regards to safety and have the giant concrete domes at San Onofre to prove it. Ironically, the pools catching fire would release vastly greater amounts of radiation into the environment than would a total core meltdown.

Fukushima Dai-ichi’s Unit 4 spent fuel pool has threatened to collapse for over two years but is now being buttressed by a superstructure being built around it. Nuclear experts and pundits alike have predicted that the top third of Japan, including Tokyo, would be lost if Unit 4’s pool crashes to the ground and ignites setting off an unforgettable fire. SONGS has twice as much spent fuel assemblies stuffed into its pools than Fukushima Dai-ichi does.

San Onofre spent fuel poolThe fuel assemblies are incredibly hot and kill quickly. A “fresh” spent fuel assembly just out of a SONGS reactor would be radiating in excess of 10,000 rems per hour (100 Sv/hr). At three feet, a person would be fatally irradiated within minutes. Even after 100 years, standing within three feet of the bundle would incur a life-threatening dose.

San Onofre’s spent fuel rods actually pack an extra punch. For 16 years SONGS utilized a contamination-concentrating high “burnup” nuclear fuel that saved SCE considerable amounts of expense. The fuel rods were left in the reactor longer to get the most out of the Uranium-235 energy. It also left them more intensely radioactive than normal spent fuel rod assemblies.

This has increased the temperature and radioactivity in the pools of hot rods. Once dry casked, says the FOE study, these hot boxes need to remain in surface storage to monitor and manage their radiation for up to 150 years before final internment at a high-level radiation dump somewhere yet to be determined.

There is little space left in SONGS’s two spent fuel pools according to 2001 figures. The Unit 1 pool was around 80 percent full and the Unit 2 pool was 82 percent filled. This was 12 years ago. Now stuffed with higher burn up rods, the pools are under even greater stress to cool and clean the circulating water. Neutron absorbing panels are deteriorating and in some cases bulged causing the spent fuel assemblies to be wedged into the under water storage racks. These panels were made initially to help soak up some of the extra radiation generated from the rods by placing them so close together.

“The conservatism/margins in spent fuel pool (SFP) criticality analyses have been decreasing,” says a 2010 NRC report. “The new rack designs rely heavily on permanently installed neutron absorbers to maintain criticality requirements. Unfortunately, virtually every permanently installed neutron absorber, for which a history can be established, has exhibited some degradation. Some have lost a significant portion of their neutron absorbing capability. In some cases, the degradation is so extensive that the permanently installed neutron absorber can no longer be credited in the criticality analysis.”

Worse yet the panels just get in the way of air circulation in case of emergency water loss according to the NRC. In the tightly-packed pool, the fuel assemblies are almost as close to each other as they were in the reactor core, about 9 to 10.5 inches apart. With the panels inserted, air and water circulation are restricted more which could lead to higher temperatures of the pool water.

“Conspicuous in its absence was any mention or discussion in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident by the NRC of reducing the density of spent fuel pool storage, which is substantially greater at U.S. reactors than at the Fukushima site,” says the Alvarez FOE report. “For instance the two pools at SONGS hold a comparable amount of spent fuel as the four damaged reactors at the Fukushima site. Underscoring the NRC’s conflicting claims about spent fuel pool dangers, the U.S. District Court of Appeals June 8, in a lawsuit brought on by Beyond Nuclear and the Natural Resources Defense Council, vacated the NRC’s ‘Waste Confidence Rule,’ found that the NRC had not provided adequate assurance regarding the safety of high‐density spent fuel pools.”

The NRC is playing a nuclear game of ‘chicken’ when it comes to spent fuel pools and it temporarily lost one round June 8. Until the commission produces remedies that will satisfy the court, it can’t license new reactors. Even with that obstacle, where a permanent U.S. repository for the radiating rods and other nuclear detritus can’t be agreed upon, the NRC is still on the hunt to build more nuclear reactors.

NGNP_Display_02“The NRC is participating in pre-application reviews of the DOE’s Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP),” said the NRC in a June 24 report obtained by EnviroReporter.com. “The NGNP would use nuclear fuel comprised of Tristructural-Isotopiccoated fuel particles contained in either fuel pebbles or prismatic fuel assemblies.”

The maximum storage capacity in all operating U.S. reactors will be exhausted by 2015. Yet in response to the historic Court of Appeals Ruling, the NRC took a chapter out of the Environmental Protection Agency’s playbook, as EnviroReporter.com exposed in EPA Nukes Radiation Rules, and simply moved the goalposts and changed the rules.

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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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