Local activists documenting what they say is a lack of security at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station will present their findings this month to FBI officials who investigate domestic terrorism threats, according to a county official.
Laguna Beach resident and activist Rita Conn, chair of the civic organization Let Laguna Vote, said she took photographs in January and February this year showing unsecured entry to the nuclear power plant, which was forced to stop operating in 2012. The photos show empty guard stations and open entrance gates to the plant, where buildings hold 1,600 metric tons of highly volatile stored nuclear waste.
“I could have gone right in but I didn’t want to risk being at the end of a machine gun, just in case,” she said.
Conn and a committee of local leaders and activists started up the chain of command by taking the photographs and other documents to Orange County’s Fifth District Supervisor Lisa Bartlett and Bartlett’s chief of staff Paul Walters last month. “She was astounded,” said Conn.
At the meeting, however, Conn found there was more work to do. “It was apparent that they were on Edison’s page. I knew we had to turn it around,” she said. Southern California Edison is the utility company that owns the San Onofre power plant.
At the end of the meeting, Walters, a former Santa Ana police chief for 23 years and past member of the FBI’s National Advisory Policy Committee for Los Angeles and Orange counties, arranged another meeting later this month with special agent David Thorp from the FBI’s Orange County office. Thorpe investigates domestic terror threats in Orange County and is on vacation until Aug. 17, Walters said.
“The fact that the FBI is on top of this is as high as we can go with security issues,” Conn said.
“The FBI has to figure out what they can say publicly about what they’re doing to monitor, prevent, apprehend, anything that has to do with terrorism acts,” said Walters, who was also a member of the Orange County Terrorism Task Force. The FBI is determining what information can be publicly released “and not give away any secrets” about how the facility is protected, said Walters, adding that the outcome of the meeting will determine whether a preliminary investigation is warranted.
Accusations pointing to lack of security at the plant “have been completely discredited,” according to SCE media spokesperson Maureen Brown. “We are in 100 percent compliance with all Nuclear Regulatory Commission security regulations,” she said. “Citizen groups, while earnest, sometimes have inaccurate information,” she said. SCE provides electricity to more than 14 million people in a 50,000 square-mile area of central, coastal and Southern California.
Questions about security issues were addressed and resolved during SCE’s San Onofre Community Engagement Panel’s public meetings, held since the plant was closed, Brown said.
The open spent fuel pools, Brown said, are located in monolithic concrete buildings “like containment, and are designed to withstand external events like quakes, tornadoes, etc.” There are 375 employees still at the plant, she said.
The Let Laguna Vote committee organized by Conn includes Gary Headrick, whose San Clemente Green grassroots group initiated the successful push to close the power plant. Other members opposing the storage of nuclear waste at the plant are Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen, activist Audrey Prosser and former city council member Verna Rollinger, Conn said.
The 40-year-old nuclear power plant was permanently shut down two years ago, leaving nuclear waste stockpiled there. Conn’s group is pushing to move the stored waste to a more remote location to decrease the site’s vulnerability as a potential terrorist target and ensure greater safety for surrounding residents and their property, she said.
The used fuel is considered more toxic by activists than the nuclear fuel once generated there due to its concentration of plutonium. The radioactive isotope carries serious health risks and is more dangerous when inhaled than ingested, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Two nuclear steam generators at San Onofre were temporarily shut down in January 2012 after radioactive steam leaked from worn water-transporting tubes inside one of the generators.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks 14 years ago, the national strategy is to develop prevention, evacuation and response plans for potential terrorist targets, said Walters.
Conn remains critical of SCE’s intended use of an underground storage system for spent fuel that lacks a long-term track record and cannot be moved once in place.
In an April letter to Conn, the Department of Energy stated it is looking at potential storage sites for radioactive fuel waste from decommissioned power plants, according to Peter Lyons, the DOE’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy. “DOE believes that we must solve the issue of nuclear waste disposal, and we must do it in a way that will ensure public trust and confidence in decision-making throughout the process,” wrote Lyons.
“Our concern is to get the stored nuclear energy waste away from a highly populated area,” Conn said. “Until that’s done, we need to make sure the area is as safe as possible. I’m glad they’re in the direction of moving the stuff.”
Southern California Edison’s decommissioning plans call for moving two-thirds of the spent fuel rods currently in “wet” storage to concrete-encased, sealed steel canisters, known as dry-cask storage, said Brown. The rods are now kept in 40-feet of water in steel-lined concrete pools in a monolithic concrete building at San Onofre. There are between 2,600 and 2,700 spent fuel rods that need to be moved, she said.
SEC is looking at “interim” sites to move the fuel, said Brown, either in New Mexico or Texas. “In this regard, we are aligned with both our supporters and our critics,” she said. SCE is not holding much hope for the DOE’s licensing of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a storage site to come through quickly enough.