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Roger Johnson, San Clemente
- Q: What city has more stranded nuclear waste than any other in the country? A: San Clemente has by far the most of any city in the country. With 1,773 tons of high-level uranium and plutonium in our backyard, we have 26% of the nation’s total.
- Q: Why is it considered to be in San Clemente and isn’t this a major threat to all cities for miles around? A: San Clemente is only 1.6 miles from SONGS and shares the same zip code. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission officially lists San Clemente as the location of San Onofre: https://courtney.house.gov/sites/courtney.house.gov/files/Nuclear%20Bill%20Chart.pdf Other cities are in the same predicament which is why there is now a bill in Congress to offer compensation. If passed, HR 3929 would award $24.1 million to San Clemente. Congressman Issa was asked to cosponsor this bill but he declined.
- Q: If it is called “spent” and “waste,” how can it be dangerous? A: The term “spent” fuel means only that its profitability is spent. It is still highly radioactive and extremely dangerous.
- Q. How do we put this amount of nuclear waste in perspective? A. Consider how much controversy there is over the 7 tons of spent nuclear fuel in Iran. San Clemente has 250 times more than Iran. Consider the almost 2,000 tons that we have and compare it to the grapefruit-size piece of uranium in the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. True, our uranium is not highly enriched but if enriched to weapons-grade fissile material it would be the equivalent of maybe 20,000 atomic bombs.
- Q. When will our uranium and plutonium decay to safe levels? A. The half-life of P 239 is 24,100 years. It will be somewhat safe in 10 half-lives (241, 000 years) and completely safe in 2,410,000 years. U-235 has a half-life of 700 million years. You do the math.
- Q. How will our waste be stored? A. Edison has just started moving uranium and plutonium from the cooling pools into thin stainless steel canisters. There will be 123 canisters placed at the surface level a few hundred feet from the beach on one side and I-5 on the other. The internal temperature will be about 500 degrees F.
- Q. Are the canisters safe and how long will they last? A. The current “plan” is to leave them here indefinitely. But don’t worry, the manufacturer (Holtec International) warrantees them for 25 years (https://sanonofresafety.org/holtec-hi-storm-umax-nuclear-waste-dry-storage-system/). In order to save money, Edison selected the cheaper thin canisters rather than the thicker ones they use in Europe. Each canister has the potential to release more radiation than the Chernobyl catastrophe which sent plumes of radiation over northern Europe in 1986. The technology is experimental and no one knows when the first canister will fail. In a decade or two, the canisters might be deemed too fragile to move anywhere.
- Q. Is there any progress in finding a permanent or even temporary storage site? A. No. The Republicans want to pass “screw Nevada” legislation as payback against Harry Reid even though Nevada produces no nuclear waste and has already suffered heavily from the 928 nuclear tests there. Yucca Mountain is not large enough to hold the nation’s nuclear waste. It is also very close to Las Vegas and scientists have concluded it would contaminate underground water supplies.
- Q. Could there be a nuclear explosion? A. No. There could be massive thermal explosions or criticality events but a nuclear explosion is unlikely. The real danger is radiation. An event at SONGS could release into the prevailing winds radionuclides which emit deadly alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. Gamma can penetrate anything including lead, steel, reinforced concrete, and that includes the roof of your house and the roof of your car. Although alpha radiation will not penetrate your skin, it becomes a deadly internal emitter if inhaled or swallowed. Gamma goes right through your body and rearranges cell DNA leading to cancer.
- Q. Is the demo work going to be safe? A. Demolition has begun and will continue for a decade. Radioactive monitoring outside the plant will be discontinued so the public will have no direct access to radiation levels. At Hanford, it was recently revealed that demo work had to be halted because 42 workers were diagnosed with plutonium poisoning. Plutonium dust also blew outside the plant and contaminated homes and cars.
- Q. What could happen if there is radioactive fallout? A. No one would go anywhere. Mass evacuation would not work and would expose people to more radiation. Anyone exposed has to discard all clothes and be hosed off before entering a home or building. No one in cars or homes can turn on heat or AC regardless of temperature or open any windows. Entering a car with contamination on your clothing would render the inside unsafe ever to enter again. Police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks would be quickly contaminated. Radiation release could go on for weeks, months, or years. No insurance covers radioactive contamination, and entire communities might become ghost towns which is what happened at Fukushima and Chernobyl.
- Q. Can such radiation cause cancer? A. Of course. How long would you want to stand in front of an Xray machine? Remember that dose limits used by the nuclear industry are based on adult males. Women and children are far more vulnerable. The human fetus is about 50 times more vulnerable. Cancer often starts developing in about 5 years but it can take much longer. Several thousand Japanese continue to die every year, not from old age but from medical issues caused by the radiation they received as children living outside Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
- Q. Is it unhealthy to live near a nuclear power plant even if there is no accident? A. San Onofre has been releasing low-level radiation into the atmosphere and ocean since 1968. No one knows for sure if such releases cause cancer but studies in Europe report that they can, especially in children. The National Academy of Sciences proposed a cancer streak study in the 31-mile radius around San Onofre but the NRC vetoed the research. Congressman Issa was asked to help get the relatively small amount of funding from Congress but he refused.
- Q. Are most people up in arms over all of this? A. No. A few activists are trying to change minds but most people seem complaisant or uninformed. A recent petition by 170 residents asked Edison to hold a Community Engagement Panel meeting in San Clemente to learn more about major external threats to SONGS such as missile attacks (from cargo ships or ICBMs), truck bombs, drones, airplane crashes, or large earthquakes. Petitioners also want medical experts to speak about what would happen if we were engulfed with plumes of radiation. Edison officials do not want people talking about these issues. Although their stated mission is to “engage” the “community,” they have ignored the petition and refused to discuss these issues which are embarrassing to Edison but of great concern to the public.
Editor’s note: Article has been changed to reflect the correct percentage of spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.