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Weighing the Risk and Cost of Plugging In


By Mindaugas E. Gedgaudas

The article “Lining Up Against Nuclear Power” in the Feb. 10 issue of the Laguna Beach Independent exemplifies freedoms that we enjoy in the USA:  the freedom of speech and, therefore, the freedom to say whatever is on your mind, even if it is purely an opinion, is uninformed scare-mongering, is not supportable by facts, and is hysterical in content.


The hullaballoo raised by people who have no qualifications to make decisions about the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) is unwarranted and misleading.


Let me put forth a few bits of information about generating electricity:


In the U.S., about 50 percent of electric power is generated by burning coal. A typical large coal-fired power plant generates more-or-less 1000 megawatts of electric power. SONGS generates about twice as much.

One coal-fired plant burns about 4,000,000 tons of coal every year.

Each plant will need a coal train of more than 100 hopper cars with four to six locomotives towing them and spewing diesel exhaust every day.

One coal-fired plant produces about 300,000 to 500,000 tons of coal ash every year. That’s a pile of toxic contaminating residue that would fill a container the size of a football field to a height of about 200 feet every year.

That one coal-fired plant each year emits around 2 to 5 tons of uranium, 5 to 12 tons of thorium and 14 million tons of carbon dioxide into the environment and atmosphere.

That coal-fired plant also emits mercury, radioactive potassium-40, radon, lead, and other toxins in very significant quantities, continually.

The radiation released into the environment by a coal-fired plant is about 100 times greater than what’s released by a nuclear plant.

In the U.S. alone, it is acknowledged that 10,000 to 30,000 (depending on whose statistics you believe) untimely deaths are caused every year as a result of pollution caused by coal-fired plants.

And, of course, coal, as is oil and natural gas, is an exhaustible resource, and we will eventually use it up.

Now, let’s see what the operation of a nuclear power plant needs, does or causes:

It burns no fossil or other organic fuels.

It emits no uranium, thorium, mercury, radon, potassium, lead or other toxins.

It emits no carbon dioxide.

In the U.S., there were no deaths or debilitating illnesses, ever, attributable to radiation at nuclear power plants.

The used nuclear fuel, high-level waste, produced by all the nuclear power plants in the U.S. in the past 40 years of operation would fill a football field to a height of merely 30 feet.

The fuel, the elements needed to create and maintain a controlled nuclear fission process for purposes of heat generation, is essentially unlimited, inexhaustible.  In fact, so-called “breeder” reactors can actually make more fuel than they consume.

As to the amount of nuclear waste stored at SONGS: the exact amount is classified information, but using known factors, I calculate that there’s about 2050 tons stored there, from all reactors, including from the dismantled reactor #1, not the 4,000 tons claimed by The Indy. Consider this: if all the electricity you used in your entire lifetime came from nuclear generating stations, the nuclear waste due to your usage would fit into a beer can.

Those who suggest that we ought to swap the SONGS power plant for a “wind farm” should understand that this would need about 200 square miles of terrain (about the size of the Pendleton base) and also accept that there will be no electricity when the wind stops blowing. Solar power has a similar problem: no sun, no power. Currently, and for a long time to come, we have no viable way to store excess energy to tide us over when the primary generators are idle.

As to the safety of SONGS: that facility may have had more than its fair share of mishaps, but in nearly 30 years of operation no mishap caused any harm to anyone, all events were contained and corrected. How much “safer” can things be? Is there a risk in operating the SONGS power station? Of course. That risk, however, is far outweighed by the benefits of getting reliable electric power, no contamination of the surroundings and no destruction of the environment. Should we forgo the use of prescription drugs? The use of those causes about 35,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.

The bugaboo of radiation is an eidolon from people who are themselves often clueless about the facts: for example, the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster was anything but that. It was a costly screw-up that destroyed some $5 billion worth of machinery, but the radiation released exposed the personnel at the site only to some 100 millirem of radiation, less than they get from natural radiation in a year and a quarter of the radiation of a barium enema.

The incident at Chernobyl was a bad accident, but the deaths and debilitating ailments caused there were less in number than what is caused, like clock-work, by coal-fired plants here every year. The recent natural disaster in Japan, at Fukushima, is undeniably a huge calamity in terms of loss of life and of economic costs, but it is a non-event as far as radiation-related harm is concerned. Steps were taken to protect the population that survived the earthquake and the tsunami, remedial procedures were instituted, and no deaths or illnesses were attributable – nor are foreseeable – to exposure to nuclear radiation.

Is nuclear radiation, ionizing radiation, harmful? In certain doses, yes. Do we know what are the limits of what’s harmful and what’s not? Not precisely. Do we live all our lives continually being irradiated? Yes. Do we accept certain risks, consciously or unwittingly, in order to gain some advantages all the time? Of course.

Because we cannot forgo use of electricity, shutting down a local source, SONGS, will not alleviate fears. The risks, real or imagined, will simply transfer to other places, for others to fret about and to make informed or, more than likely, opinionated demands of NIMBY.


Physicist Mindaugas E. Gedgaudas is the founder and former owner of Pacoima’s Arc Machines Inc., which specializes in welding equipment used in nuclear power plants. He divides his time between Laguna Beach and Newhall.

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