Removing the terrorist threats to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station exposed by the Black Swan SONGS series can specifically strengthen this vulnerable nuclear installation.
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This is a way of saying that these recommendations are detailed even though we are not naïve enough to believe that they will be acted upon with reason and resolve. We are under no illusion that any of the entities that could enact our suggestions will do so. We offer them nevertheless because of the obvious: they should be followed.
There are short-term fixes that would yield immediate and lasting results at San Onofre. Long-term fixes, which should take no more than five years to accomplish, would secure SONGS for a long time.
The easily-built fence screen along the San Diego Freeway that EnviroReporter.com has already suggested to thwart a rocket attack on the spent fuel pools (SFPs) buildings is easy to complete with Caltrans. The heightened perimeter wall along Old Highway 101 is also a cinch but SCE would have to build it.
Call in the Marines
The Marine Corps Camp Pendleton commander could take decisive action after verifying with his own eyes the findings of this series. The general is responsible for the safety of everything in the base perimeter and that presumably includes SONGS. Protecting San Onofre protects the Marines and their base which should be all the justification needed for the brigadier general to act.
There are a number of vehicular options that would satisfy the instant suppression of the clear and present danger of the exposed SFPs building. These measures would also protect the spent nuclear fuel in dry casks.
To eliminate the threat of rocket attack entirely in the short term, three relatively-light Marine vehicles could be positioned outside of SONGS. Considering Camp Pendleton’s size and importance, it is likely the base would have the Helo Transportable Tactical Vehicle (HTTV) and the M1043A2 HMMWV Humvee light multirole tactical vehicle to fulfill this mission.
One Marine unit in an HTTV or Humvee could be positioned adjacent the northeastern corner of SONGS on the shoulder of Old Highway 101 facing south. This would mitigate the rocket attack threat from one angle as well as cover the parking lot terrorists would have to run through to get through to the dry casks area.
Cutting off that entry way by essentially guarding the length of it would go most of the way to protecting the dry casks in the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI).
A second Marine squad facing north could situate itself on the wide easement between the train tracks and Old Highway 101. These two units would have the whole perimeter covered but not in depth. That would have to happen across the San Diego Freeway.
The previously proposed Caltrans fence would interfere with these squads view of the southbound shoulder of the freeway, from where an attack could be quickly launched with an immediate getaway.
A third Marine vehicular unit would solve this problem by being stationed across the freeway to the east along El Camino Real where it would enlarge the security zone to include the civilian-accessible high ground. These three units would always remain in visual and radio contact with each other.
A fourth optional unit could complete the deployment being stationed on the beach and bluffs to keep a vigilant eye on the ocean. New restrictions establishing a boat ‘no-go’ zone could be implemented for the length of the secured part of SONGS along its flood wall out half a mile from the shoreline.
The 24-7 nature of this kind of protection would mean site-specific training, night vision equipment and appropriate procedures. This knowledge and equipment are already on Camp Pendleton property and so should mean no additional cost to the American taxpayer. What would be gained is regional relief that a SONGS black swan would never take off.
Additional security within San Onofre’s perimeter is achievable only if Southern California Edison is a willing participant. But such precautions cost money and SCE is already trying to charge its customers $2.6 billion to decommission the plant as it tries to protect its assets even with its multi-billion dollar debacle. This has resulted in a howl of protest by folks who are more energized than ever to take on SCE over San Onofre.
Despite this, EnviroReporter.com strongly suggests that there are protective short-term solutions and literally concrete long-term fixes that would make the ISFI invulnerable to terrorist attack and much more secure against any kind of tsunami or flooding on the west side of the site. It bears noting again that it is good news that the earthquake faults closest to SONGS are slip-strike faults, which do not displace water and cause of tsunamis.
SCE could immediately erect a formidable security fence along the stretch of perimeter from the parking lot entrance on Old Highway 101 northwards to Beach Club Road where it could turn westward to terminate by the guard kiosk. This fence could have security cameras that have feeds in the SONGS security post and the Marine vehicles outside. The current outer fence backset from the street and bordering the parking lot should be looped with razor wire at a minimum.
San Onofre’s ISFSI sits outside of the reactor and SFP’s security perimeter. Should a terrorist squad elude any Marines on Old Highway 101 and then breach the new suggested property line fence topped with razor wire and make down to the dry casks, only armed guards right on the spot will be able to stop them from exploding any C-4 backpack bomb. EnviroReporter.com recommends tripling the amount of barbed wire atop the ISFSI fence and building a permanently staffed armed security guard post.
The permanent solution to both security threats exposed by EnviroReporter.com is expediting the dry casking of the cooled-off spent fuel rods still in the two vulnerable spent fuel pools buildings using the dry cask fabricator already on site at the 130 acre Mesa Complex east of the San Diego Freeway. There the dry casks could then be transported the relatively short distance to a more secure new ISFSI at the Mesa Complex which would be much farther from any potential access point that could be exploited by a terrorist on foot or vehicle. With no dry casks left at the current ISFSI and, in five years, two empty SFPs, the terrorist threat nearly evaporates.
This could also obviate the need to send these highly radioactive rods to interim storage sites somewhere else when there is still no permanent repository for America’s huge amount of nuclear waste. Such is the high level nuclear waste temporary storage plan of four Senators including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, (D-OR), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Lamar Alexandar (R-TN) and Lisa Murkoswki (R-AK).
Nuclear activists call the plan Mobil Chernobyls in response. One hundred environmental and clean energy groups submitted comments May 24 in opposition to the plan which is still in the “discussion draft” phase.
“This draft legislation is extremely disappointing,” said Michael Mariotte, executive director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, which coordinated the comments in a press release. “It simply attempts to revive rejected policies of the past while moving our nation no closer to a permanent solution for radioactive waste disposal than we are today. In particular, its misguided emphasis on ‘consolidated interim storage’ would result in the mass transportation of lethal nuclear waste over our roads, rails and seaways while not reducing the number of existing waste storage sites—which is every nuclear reactor site. Moreover, unlike previous Senate proposals, this one would effectively break the linkage between an ‘interim’ site and progress on a permanent solution and thus place any kind of permanent repository even further into the future than it is now.”
The future is now with the threats exposed in the Black Swan SONGS series. The fastest way to get the job done is to first secure the perimeter against tempting terrorist targets and truck the ISFSI’s dry casks over to the Mesa Complex. This would expedite dry casking of the long-ready spent nuclear fuel rods stuffed into San Onofre’s two SFPs and their transfer to the ISFI which is a negligible distance over the San Diego Freeway to the closest thing to permanent storage on site: a new Hardened On-Site Storage, or HOSS.
“Irradiated fuel must be stored as safely as possible as close to the site of generation as possible,” said the March 2010 Institute for Energy and Environmental Research paper. The so-called HOSS Principles were signed by dozens of nuclear watchdog and environmental groups. “Waste moved from fuel pools must be safeguarded in hardened, on-site storage (HOSS) facilities. Transporting waste to interim away-from-reactor storage should not be done unless the reactor site is unsuitable for a HOSS facility and the move increases the safety and security of the waste.”
A robust siting of the dry casks in a large area still on Camp Pendleton land would remove the dangers of having to move so many incredibly heavy and radioactively hot rod assemblies on the roads and rails of the aged American infrastructure. This work could begin immediately if it weren’t for one big catch. More money can be made using the Marine Corps, i.e. taxpayer, property building a new power plant rather than safely storing the toxic fuel SCE generated over decades which needs to be maintained and controlled for thousands of years.
San Diego Gas & Electric, which owns a one-fifth stake in San Onofre, wants to build a new 1,000 megawatts plant on the Mesa Complex property. Preliminary talks with the U.S. Navy at Camp Pendleton were revealed in July. This move would also provide SCE with another excuse to do nothing and let thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods sit in pools not designed to hold them for decades, pools EnviroReporter.com has exposed as being vulnerable to a devastating terror attack.
Some of the recommendations for SONGS could be applicable to other nuclear reactors and spent nuclear fuel rods pools installations in the U.S. But, the NRC’s long record of favoring nuclear industry profits over policies that would better protect the public make it highly unlikely that it would force Southern California Edison to toughen up its defenses let alone any other at-risk nuclear facility in the nation with spent fuel.
A sober look at the Pennsylvania Peach Bottom Power Plant reveals the fact that the reactors were built in 1958 of the same boiling water reactor MKI design as Fukushima Dai-ichi’s doomed reactors. With “a weak outer containment,” as accurately characterized by the New York Times, the MKI features its spent fuel pool suspended about four stories off the ground in the same building as the reactor.
This double jeopardy design is such that even though Fukushima Unit 4 didn’t have a meltdown because the reactor wasn’t fueled, its damaged SFP high in the air is at imminent risk of collapse. Additionally, its degrading metal structure sits on sandy soil just four inches above the highly radioactive groundwater swamping the site.
Coming attempts to conjure broken spent fuel rods out of the warped and damaged SFP rack will be one of the most dangerous and technically daunting disaster operations ever attempted anywhere. Should Unit 4’s SFP collapse and fall to the ground, the broken rods will be exposed to the air and each other in the rubble. An unforgettable fire will erupt and the site would have to be abandoned because the radiation would be too intense to get anywhere near it. Tokyo would be lost as well as the top third of Japan.
Peach Bottom has the same design that includes a crane on rails above the SFP. Above that is a roof which is not covered in thick concrete as a cutaway diagram of the MKI shows. Damage or destruction of this area would result in severe consequences. An explosion might destroy the SFP through outright blast or the crane could collapse into the pool possibly rupturing it.
An EnviroReporter.com analysis of the MKI design concludes that the building housing the reactor and its SFP are at huge risk of a devastating AT-4 rocket launcher armed with an Anti-Structure Tandem (AST) warhead. Peach Bottom’s two MKI reactors, with their spent fuel pools high in the buildings, sit along the Susquehanna River which has no boating restrictions. A boat can float to within 300 yards of Peach Bottom’s two SFPs.
An earthquake and tsunami won’t take out Peach Bottom. Using the same resources except a site inspection, EnviroReporter.com has determined that it appears strongly that Peach Bottom would be vulnerable to AT-4 an attack. If successful, it would bring catastrophe to millions downstream that rely on the river for drinking water and irrigation of crops and animals.
A terrorist squad with AT-4s could easily boat right up to Peach Bottom on the river and take out the SFPs judging from the distance, strength of reactor buildings and ease of incursion and excursion. The other side of the river is close enough that it would take only minutes to escape to the landing at Peter’s Creek opposite the plant. There are also very few people in the area. Indeed, terrorists could attack Peach Bottom from the densely wooded area across from the reactors and simply stroll back to their unseen getaway cars.
The way to lessen the threat would be to have a force on force deterrent that begins with marksmen on the reactor rooftops 24-7, river restrictions that would keep boaters from venturing too close or staying too long in the reactors’ stretch of the river, and keeping a wary eye on the woods across the river.
Another way to significantly prevent would-be terrorists from planning attacks on nuclear reactor plants and independent spent fuel facilities is to blur their images out on such Internet programs as Google Maps and Google Earth. If people’s faces and car license plates are easy to automatically blur, it should be simple to remove imagery of these sensitive installations.
This is not a new idea. Nuclear watchdog Scott Portzline has long advocated restricting Internet photographic imagery like this. Portzline’s June 5, 2009 CNN interview makes the point quite handily even if the network actually used sensitive imagery of nuclear sites in the report.
Government flubs spent fuel threat
“But when it’s necessary, [we will] defend the United States against terrorist attack,” President Obama said during his United Nations speech September 24. “We will take direct action.”
It’s not going to be easy preventing terrorist attacks on America’s most vulnerable nuclear spent fuel pools targets. Taken on a case by case basis, using the same reverse engineering of a terrorist attack employed by EnviroReporter.com during this investigation, it is certainly possible. All it takes is willpower.
Nuclear threats, meanwhile, go on. This has been known for years in the time since 9/11.
“[S]uccessful terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools, though difficult, are possible,” said Dr. Kevin Crowley of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board June 7, 2005. Crowley was speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations First Roundtable on Nuclear Security Issues. “If an attack leads to a propagating zirconium cladding fire, it could result in the release of large amounts of radioactive material.”
Crowley’s SFP study was supported by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the direction of Congress. “The National Academies appointed a committee of experts to serve as the responsible study body,” Crowley said. “The committee has expertise in structural mechanics, fuel behavior, metal combustion, security, health physics, and human factors.”
While the committee identified several scenarios of a terrorist attack on an SFP, those details were provided in a classified report. The public part of the study said that “the potential vulnerabilities of spent fuel pools to terrorist attacks are plant-design specific. That is, they depend on the location of the pool with respect to ground level, the location of walls and other structures that could protect the pool from line-of-sight attacks, and the nature of the surrounding terrain that might make certain types of attacks easier or more difficult to carry out.”
The committee recommended that the NRC undertake a study of just what a terrorist attack on a SFP would do. It didn’t, but a new Department of Defense-related study released August 15 attempts to addresses the issue and demonstrates how woefully underprepared the government is for such a black swan peril.
As part of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, supported with funds from the Office of the Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the University of Texas at Austin released Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current “Design Basis Threat” Approach. The study by a research assistant at the University of Texas indicates the level of priority the issue has with DOD. Not much.
“[T]he report’s main recommendation is for the DBT [Design Basis Threat] to be made uniform for all nuclear facilities posing risks of catastrophic nuclear terrorism – which includes nuclear power reactors and facilities containing nuclear weapons or significant quantities of fissile material – aiming to reduce the risk of successful terrorist attack on such facilities as close to zero as possible in light of available resources,” the “working paper” reads.
Before going on to argue the point, the two authors, Lara Kirkham and Alan J. Kuperman, Ph.D., make this assertion: “A terrorist with enough technical knowledge and means could drain a spent fuel pool, triggering a cladding fire that could result in the release of large amounts of radioactive material. This is similar to what occurred in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, when an earthquake’s effects drained the spent fuel pools.”
What that statement suggests simply isn’t true. Anyone with even cursory knowledge of the ongoing Fukushima triple meltdowns knows that the SPFs didn’t drain and catch fire. Yet.
The fear has been that Fukushima Unit 4’s SPF could collapse, which it may do presently because of the worsening conditions of the groundwater-soaked soil beneath it. The perils of such a situation were addressed in EnviroReporter.com‘s June 2012 article, The Unforgettable Fire.
If, as the DOD report suggests, the Fukushima SFPs had drained and caught fire, it would have taken out Tokyo and much of the main Japanese island of Honshū. That clearly didn’t happen. Yet.
How an error of this magnitude could make it into a report paid for by the head of our armed forces was not a question Kuperman, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at U of T, and Kirkham’s supervisor, answered first admonishing this reporter to “[P]lease make sure you read the report.”
Of course the report was read or EnviroReporter.com wouldn’t have been able to catch the mistakes. This document was, of course, paid for the taxpayer but just how much is a mystery since Kuperman said he didn’t know. “I’m not trying to be evasive,” Kuperman wrote in an email. “But I honestly don’t have an exact figure because the funding did not come through me.”
Kuperman remained adamant that everything in the study was correct. “As for fact-checking, the report was subject to internal and external peer review,” Kuperman told EnviroReporter.com August 19. “I have not seen any documented claim that anything in the report is incorrect. Indeed, the report has 136 footnotes, which fully document all of its claims.”
Actually, the statement in question didn’t have a footnote. The error betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Then the Department of Defense made a concerted effort to publicize the research assistant’s working paper hence why its accuracy is crucial if its conclusions are to be taken seriously.
But it does prove a point: DOD paid for this work which boldly states all nuclear facilities, including reactors and spent fuel pools, ought to be thought of as the same.
There are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States. This series has covered just two of them, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and Peach Bottom Nuclear Generating Station. While both engage in the same industry of generating electricity through nuclear fission, their situations and histories are as different as one would expect.
San Onofre had the worst safety record of any nuclear plant in the country when its reactors were actually running. According to several reports, the site suffered from workplace pressure and harassment of employee whistleblowers. That problem could worsen as 1,000 longtime employees are let go by the end of 2013. Were SCE more active emptying its spent fuel pools and dry casking the rods, there would be plenty of jobs for these well-trained nuclear engineers who know the plant best.
The black swan of an angry fired employee or unemployed San Onofre worker is a consideration that takes flight when considering the consequences of a successful breach or destruction of a SONGS spent fuel pool. An inside job would be very hard to defend against unless the targets were hardened as this series suggests. Such a person might know the plant’s weaknesses and know how to sabotage the plant without getting caught.
In fact, it has already happened. During November 2012, SONGs supervisors informed the NRC that someone had spiked with coolant the oil reserve of one of the reactor’s emergency backup generators. This could have caused the generator to seize up during an emergency which could have led to a meltdown had this grievous act had not gone detected. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in shortly after SCE reported the crime to the NRC. The FBI has not announced any arrests in the case.
The number of allegations of reactor problems at San Onofre substantiated by the NRC far exceeded any other reactor site in the nation. SONGS Units 2 and 3 garnered 16 such “reactor allegations” in 2009, 28 in 2010 and 15 in 2011 and 2012 combined. There have been no such allegations recorded in 2013 through June. The NRC responded to 15 of the 16 complaints in 2009, half of the 2010 total and two in 2011 and 2012.
“Each year, the NRC issues a report about its Allegations Program discussing issues like trends in allegation numbers nationwide and at selected nuclear plants,” wrote David Lochbaum June 11. Lochbaum is the director of the Nuclear Safety Project with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “When there’s a significant increase in the number of allegations received by the NRC concerning a specific plant, the NRC looks behind the numbers for any underlying reasons, such as safety culture problems. The NRC documents its conclusions from these probes in the annual reports. Recently, the NRC probed allegations received for the San Onofre, Susquehanna, Turkey Point, St. Lucie, and Indian Point plants.”
Taken all together, the shuttering of SONGS actually could bode well for SCE and many of the laid-off workers if recommendations in this series are taken. There is no better a workforce for the job of securing San Onofre more robustly than the men and women of SONGS because they know every nook and cranny. These talented and trained workers could be needed solving SONGS security issues as well and have already passed security clearances.
But it’s unlikely that SCE would take such measures. The company has consistently put profits first.
The Fight Goes On
Thankfully, some of the local heroes responsible for shutting down San Onofre are continuing their hard work to keep their communities, and Southern California, safe.
“San Onofre fuel pools and dry cask storage of high-level nuclear waste are of foremost concern, and potentially still a devastating disaster for our beloved Southern California community,” Gene Stone, head of Residents Organized for a Safe Environment, told EnviroReporter.com. “ROSE would like a seat at the table with the NRC & other federal and state regulators to figure out the best safest way to move forward with waste storage.”
This series has shown that the amazing victory that groups like ROSE won now has to be forged into the real fight: making SONGS and places like it including Peach Bottom, impervious to any terrorist attack.
The residents and their allies have shown the fortitude to shut down SONGS. This is an even higher mountain, one they may find the metal to climb. As long as SONGS’ SPF’s and dry casks are at risk, Southern California will remain hostage to them.
These champions of the anti-nuclear movement must step up where their corrupted and incompetent government won’t and seize the good future of Southern California before it’s lost to a black swan darkening the skies with it irradiated wings.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who introduced black swan theory, notes that a black swan surprise for a turkey is not a black swan surprise to its butcher. He suggests that we work to “avoid being the turkey” by identifying areas of vulnerability and fixing them.
That is the purpose of this series. With SONGS-specific vulnerabilities exposed, we can, and must, prevent black swan events at SONGS and other nuclear reactors and SFPs across the country.