Is Nuclear Safety an Oxymoron?
I was pleased by last week’s 4-1 City Council vote supporting San Clemente’s plea to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require that the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) remove spent fuel from its site in order to be relicensed. It brought before our community a critical issue that I suspect few of us spend much time thinking about—the risks of having a nuclear power plant close by.
Kudos to Mayor Pro Tem Verna Rollinger who, according to a council colleague, led the effort resulting in the vote. In fairness to the lone dissenter, Elizabeth Pearson, she did not indicate that she was against supporting our neighboring city on this controversial public safety issue; instead, Pearson said that more information was needed before making a decision.
Dubbed “Dolly Parsons” for reasons requiring little imagination, San Onofre has compiled a disappointing, even alarming safety record. For example, in 2008 the facility received multiple citations for failed emergency generators, falsified fire safety data, and other operational lapses. A March 2, 2010, letter to Southern California Edison’s chief nuclear officer stated: “The NRC has received a significant increase of allegations [meaning complaints from workers and contractors] from onsite sources at SONGS to nearly 10 times the industry median in 2009.” Let’s fast forward. On Tuesday, Jan. 31, a leak from a tube at one unit released a purportedly small amount of radiation and the unit was shut down. On Thursday, Feb. 2, nuclear regulators found significant wear on tubes carrying radioactive water in a steam generator and the unit was shut down. On Friday, Feb. 3, a local newspaper reported that a SONGS worker, trying to retrieve a flashlight, fell into a reactor pool. He apparently did not suffer significant radiation exposure
Three incidents in four days hardly inspire public confidence in Edison’s management of the San Onofre plant.
Fifteen citizens spoke to Laguna’s City Council last week armed with these and more facts and revelations about SONGS. Marion Pack asked why private insurance companies refuse to write policies adequately covering nuclear power plants. If these plants are safe, then why must the federal government cover much of the liability? Jinger Wallace read a letter from Village Laguna President Ginger Osborne calling for “permanent, safe storage sites for spent fuel.” In the wake of last year’s Fukushima disaster in Japan, Jim Rue and several others expressed concern about the impact of a combined earthquake-tsunami on the none-to-safe San Onofre plant. Would the existing 30-foot seawall (only about half that height at high tide according to several speakers) fend off a large tidal wave? Because we have not had a large tsunami recorded in southern California, does that mean it cannot occur here? The 195-foot tsunami that hit northern California in 1913 above Humboldt Bay was unusually high even for that area, but it happened. A wave of that magnitude is unlikely to hit the southern California coast. With an earthquake fault lying five miles offshore, is Edison providing enough protection against tsunamis, especially accompanied by earthquakes? Chris Abel, an Edison spokesman, who also testified at the council meeting, addressed none of these concerns. He did maintain that most of southern California received 19 percent of its energy from nuclear power, a claim disputed by many in the chambers.
Given SONGS questionable safety record and the lack of an evacuation plan for Lagunans (technically not required of the utility by regulators) in the event of a disaster, the council’s decision to support our neighboring city in requesting that Edison store its radioactive waste offsite in order to renew its license seems eminently reasonable. The recent radioactive leak may have been small but it underscores why we should focus on solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources that are safer, more insurable, and do not leave Lagunans vulnerable to the mishaps for which San Onofre has become a poster boy.
Tom Osborne, author of two books, is a retired Santa Ana College history professor, a former Environmental Committee member, and a recent recipient of the city’s Environmental Award.