By Greg Becker, mechanical engineer and former senior reactor operator at SONGS
I moved to this community because I love surfing. I took a job at the San Onofre nuclear plant in the 1980s, because I love surfing. I still surf several times a week at San Onofre and elsewhere.
The Pacific Ocean is a wonderful resource that deserves our protection, and we all should do our part to keep the water safe and clean. Many local environmental groups, such as Heal the Bay and Coastkeeper, do a great job in raising awareness about potential adverse impacts.
But recently, some local environmental “activist” groups seem to have abandoned science, and in doing so, they are simply creating doubt and fear for the beachgoing public.
I’m talking specifically about their responses to the wastewater batch releases that the San Onofre plant is performing. These are fully permitted and tested wastewater releases that contain a trace of radioactivity. When I say a trace, I mean it.
The last release comprised about 18,900 gallons of water. The total dose was 0.000722 millirem. How small is that? You’d receive 25 times more radiation dose by sitting on the beach for an hour from the natural background radiation than if you were exposed to every particle in that release.
If you drank all 19,000 gallons, your dose would be 4,000 times below the annual Environmental Protection Agency dose for drinking water. So, is it safe? Yes, it is.
Some local groups have responded by issuing warnings that don’t have a basis in fact. San Clemente Green publishes warnings and links the releases (implausibly, for no evidence is provided) to mass cancers, because we all know someone who has cancer, so, you know, wink, wink.
We shouldn’t tolerate this. Other groups such as the Samuel Lawrence Foundation and “SaveSanO” actually tell people not to go in the water, which is simply unsupported by the science. Another group is illegally posting signs warning people to swim or surf at their own risk because of the releases.
I see signs on the beaches often, warning me of sharks or elevated levels of bacteria in the water, things that can have a real and immediate impact to my health and safety. I have personally spent many days sick in bed agonizing from ear infections due to polluted runoff over the years. But I would never in a thousand lifetimes suffer any ill effects from the almost imperceptible levels of radiation being released from the plant.
Recently, I saw that the Surfrider Foundation, which is based in San Clemente, decided to see for themselves how safe these batch releases are. Surfrider was a strong proponent of Southern California Edison making the 48-hour public notifications for batch releases, something not required during the previous 50 years the releases had occurred, and maybe something no other plant in America does.
On its blog, Surfrider posted a story with information from Dr. Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. His conclusion: the level of radiation from batch releases is 20 times lower than the radiation level that already exists in the ocean. Another key point: if you surfed San Onofre every day for 100 years, your additional dose would be 10 times less than a single dental X-ray.
Does anybody listen to the fearmongers? Hard to say. I won’t complain about an uncrowded line-up, but it shouldn’t be because people have been fooled into believing something that just ain’t true.
If you want to advocate for the surf community, give us the facts and the science, as Surfrider did. We can handle it.
Greg Becker is a mechanical engineer with a Professional Engineer’s License from the state of California. He spent 13 years as a senior reactor operator and shift technical advisor in the Control Room of San Onofre. Currently, he is a registered Project Management Professional (PMP) working as the project manager in charge of lease termination and Mesa land return to the Department of the Navy. He spent two years as the captain of a 97-foot yacht sailing around the world and is the author of two books and four magazine article,s including a feature article for Surfer Magazine related to sailing, surfing and travel.