John Dobken, Media Relations Manager, Southern California Edison

At a coffee klatch in San Clemente, the first question I got was a bit surprising. “Is it really Chernobyl in a Can?” The person was asking about the spent nuclear fuel canisters located at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Actually, the canisters couldn’t be any more different than Chernobyl.

The Chernobyl reactors are Soviet RBMKs, modeled on military weapons reactors, which were designed to make a lot of plutonium. Operators were using the Chernobyl Unit 4 reactor for a test and placed it in a configuration it shouldn’t have been, and things went very wrong. The reactor, with no containment structure, saw a power spike, steam explosion, melted down and spewed radioactive contamination across the land.

Because the Soviet government didn’t immediately tell anyone about the disaster or take protective measures, some people ingested radioactive material, such as iodine-131 (I-131), and did real damage to their health. But the source of that contamination was hot fuel from a working reactor, not spent fuel seven-plus years removed from the reactor core.

The spent fuel at SONGS no longer even contains I-131. With a half-life of eight days, all the I-131 disappeared approximately two months after the spent fuel was removed from the reactor. And unlike an operating reactor, a spent fuel canister (by design) has no way of sustaining the criticality needed to generate enough heat to recreate a Chernobyl or Fukushima-like event.

Some isotopes in spent fuel take longer to decay, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. But there isn’t much of them in used nuclear fuel. The shielding of the dry cask system (5/8-inch stainless steel and reinforced concrete) protects us from gamma radiation. Ingesting any of the fission-product isotopes is out of the question: they are locked into a solid fuel pellet, inside a sealed zirconium steel tube, inside a stainless steel canister that is welded shut.

Now, there may be the same amount of radioactivity in a dry cask as was released at Chernobyl. But with no motive force (energy) to drive radioactive contamination into the environment, it’s not really relevant. Unless you simply want to scare people.

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comments (8)

  • This letter defending the beachfront nuclear waste dump at San Onofre State Beach Park is specious. There is a reason these fragile canisters are called “Mobile Chernobyls.”

    The author of this article has selected a few radionuclides with short half lives ( a half live is the amount of time it takes a radioactive substance to be “half” as radioactive). Plutonium has a minimum half life of 24,000 years, but the successive half lives required before it stops emitting deadly radiation is 250,000 years (source: ). The facts are that although there are “small” amounts of plutonium at San Onofre, a small amount is all you need; just 500 grams (about 18 ounces) is enough to kill 2 million people (Source:

    More troubling, legal documents secured by show that the 5/8″ thin nuclear garbage cans at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) will never last 250,000 years. The SONGS nuclear trash cans only have a 60-year “design life” and are warranted by the manufacturer for fewer than 25 years (Get the warranty here: ).

    The real questions should be: “Is it responsible and even legal to store nuclear waste that is eternally deadly in cans that are only guaranteed to last 25 years? Is it wise to store this waste in a tsunami zone? Is is smart to store it a few feet above the water table?”

    And finally, “Do I trust Southern California Edison to do what’s best for me and my children?”

    • The canister-based system used at SONGS is state of the art, the only type used in the USA and are used in a number of other countries as well.

      “There is a reason these fragile canisters are called “Mobile Chernobyls.”

      Yes and that reason is that the people making such claims are uninformed crack-pots whose opinions are unworthy of consideration. Charles Langley, it is your claims that are specious; the storage of used nuclear fuel at San Onofre cannot be accurately described as a “nuclear waste dump”; is your cupboard a dish dump? If you wish others to take your comments seriously you need to be accurate in your descriptions. John Dobken’s article is accurate, yours is hysteria.

      “…cans at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) will never last 250,000 years.”

      Is that supposed to be a serious comment? You actually believe a canister or cask, or containment device needs to last the length of time a nuclide stored within remains radioactive? This is why the public should never listen to people like you because it never seems to occur to you that these storage vessels can be placed in other vessels or the contents removed and placed in new containers. Did you foolishly think that the thick casks you and your pals desire, the ones the NRC rejected and refused to license for transport would last a quarter of a million years?

      News flash for you Langley, it is legal to store the fuel on site but if you wish to move it elsewhere, you should direct your efforts to this instead of making up a bunch of harum-scarum in an attempt to hoodwink the public. In addition, Dr. Neal Driscoll of the University of CA at San Diego detailed for the public the fact that ocean floor off the coast of San Onofre, does not lend itself to tsunamis. The fact that you apparently ignore the experts in this regard is again, illustrative of why YOU shouldn’t be listened to.

      Finally, if you truly are worried, do yourself and the local citizens a favor, move elsewhere and stop masquerading as a “public watchdog”.

  • Edison admits in this letter “there may be the same amount of radioactivity in a dry cask as was released at Chernobyl” — the 1986 nuclear disaster. It is likely even more, now that they are loading 37 fuel assemblies in each canister instead of 24 fuel assemblies.

    The U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) recommends all nuclear waste and it’s containment must be inspected, maintained and monitored in a manner to prevent hydrogen gas explosions. Edison is doing the opposite. Each of the thin-wall “Chernobyl disaster cans” is welded shut with no ability to inspect, repair, maintain or monitor inside or out to prevent major radioactive releases or hydrogen gas explosions.

    These are pressure vessels, yet they have no pressure monitoring or pressure relieve valve to prevent hydrogen gas buildup or explosions. The NRC gives exemptions to this and other minimum ASME requirements. If the NRC required ASME N3 certification on nuclear waste containers, only thick-wall casks could meet those requirements. We must demand this.

    Hydrogen explosions in these Chernobyl disaster canisters will disburse the fine radioactive particles and other radionuclides,wherever the wind blows. Cesium-137 and strontium are lethal for roughly 300 years), Even small amounts of plutonium are lethal for 250,000 years. Uranium-235’s half-life is 703.8 million years. Uranium-238 half-life is 4.5 billion years (yes billions). See health risks at

    Canisters are filled with helium to prevent explosions and other fuel damage. Once air enters these canisters, we are at risk for explosions. The canisters with Zirconium fuel rods and the uranium fuel pellets are explosive. The higher burnup fuels used by Edison damage the fuel rods (cladding) and uranium pellets. They create metal hydrides, which are explosive at lower temperatures.. Zirconium hydride gas and particles explode at 270 degrees Celsius.

    The NRC, Edison, Holtec and others are ignoring the operating data from over 4400 commercial rods showing the increased hydrides from moderate and high burnup fuel. Edison’s MPR Associates San Onofre Dry Storage report claimed no explosion risks by ignoring the hydride issue and ignoring high burnup fuel. High burnup fuel is Uranium-238 enriched with up to 5% Uranium-235 and burned longer in the reactor. It made Edison more money, but makes the fuel unstable in storage and transport. High burnup fuel rods become brittle and can shatter like glass in an accident. The fuel will continue to heat up, triggering more explosions.

    The NRC, Edison and Holtec admit these canisters are vulnerable to cracking. The NRC states once a crack starts it can grow through the wall in 16 years.

    Edison has accelerated this timeline by using a new Holtec system that gouges or otherwise damages the walls of all the canisters downloaded into the storage holes. The NRC and Holtec are ignoring this problem. The NRC has not even written this up as a problem that needs to be address before Edison loads and damages more canisters.

    This Holtec system is a lemon and must be recalled. and replaced with a thick-wall metal transportable storage cask system that meets NWTRB safety requirements. That is Step One. Then the thick-casks must be moved to higher ground and stored in a building for additional environmental and security protection.

    The older 51 Areva NUHOMS thin-wall canisters are up to 15 years old. The NRC and Edison refuse to provide radiation measurements from the outlet air vents of the concrete overpacks where the canisters are stored and where levels will be highest from radioactive leaks. Instead, Edison wants to quit measuring radiation levels at the outlet air vents of these Areva Chernobyl cans. The NRC approved this for the Calvert Cliffs Areva NUHOMS system in Maryland, so they likely will approve this request for San Onofre. What are they hiding?

    These systems need to be replace with thick-wall casks before we face major permanent evacuations in Southern California. Go to for details and how you can help.

    If Edison has evidence to dispute any of this, they should share that data. So far, they have not. Instead, their MPR Associates report is so bad, it recommended transporting leaking canisters to the large Test Area North “hot cell” in Idaho. That hot cell was destroyed in 2007! Edison has no approved system in place to prevent or stop leaks and explosions. They refuse to consider building a hot cell (a large dry fuel handling facility, where fuel is handled robotically and the room is filled with an inert gas so nothing explodes.

    The only other option to replace canisters is a pool. However, they are loading the new fuel so hot, Edison admits they cannot return it back to the pools, even though this is a requirement of their current NRC license (Condition 8). At least they are now admitting there is at least one Chernobyl disaster in each can. Now they need to face the reality this system must be replaced before it is too late. Instead they want to load 43 more thin-wall canisters, knowing they will all be damaged as they are lowered into each hole.

    • The canisters SCE is using are used by the entire US nuclear industry and are used throughout the world. Brazil, Slovenia, the UK, Mexico, Ukraine, Taiwan, Spain, Armenia, and South Africa (who initially used the Castor Casks Donna prefers but has switched to the canister based system SCE will use) all employ the canister based system Donna attempts to frighten the public away from. Korea and Japan are very interested in this system as well. I have repeatedly asked Donna to list all the new orders for the Castor Casks she likes, particularly for countries that do NOT reprocess fuel, her only response has been crickets. In fact, she doesn’t even attempt to defend her many and repeated bogus claims and lies.

      The website she manages is nothing but alarmist BS and no matter how deep you dig, you only come up with manure. She had the refueling pool mislabeled as the spent fuel pool, had grossly exaggerated figures for fuel burn up (at SONGS), featured a video of anti-nukes lying about SONGS’ emergency batteries claiming they were disconnected for four years, referred to Helen Caldicott, an anti-nuke crack-pot with no training what so ever in the fields relevant to nuclear power, an “independent expert”, quoted individuals who claimed PWRs had no reactor vessel level indication (they do and I provided Donna with printouts of this indication), had a video of an individual making science fiction-like claims for animals born with horrific deformities after TMI, and continues, despite her boast that she fixes her many errors, to promote the Koeberg South Africa example which she knows was fully debunked some two years ago. She continues to peddle this lie because to acknowledge the truth would be to completely undermine her whole attack on SCE’s use of canisters at SONGS.

      When Donna claims canisters cannot be inspected, she is lying. She was at the CEP meeting when the inspection methodology was demonstrated including pictures of actual inspections that have already taken place. Again, to acknowledge the truth would mean her whole house of phony cards would collapse.

      No commercial spent fuel canister has ever developed a through-wall leak and they have been storing spent fuel in this manner for over 30 years. Indeed, no canister that has been inspected has had any indications of even the beginning of a crack (though not many have been inspected). Donna attempts to frighten the public with the specter of a canister crack and she exaggerates the likelihood of its occurrence using debunked examples (like Koeberg and Diablo Canyon) and she exaggerates the consequences of a through-wall leak were it to occur. What is worse, however, is her habitual practice of misrepresenting what others have said or what studies state or reveal. When she claims Kris Singh of Holtec “admits” canisters cannot be repaired, she is lying, he never said or suggested any such thing. Similarly, she misquoted Entergy officials (Vermont Yankee nuclear plant) creating the impression that they view SCE’s choice of canisters as “unproven and too complicated and too expensive” statements they never made nor suggested. Again, her comments on the Mark Lombard video clip completely mischaracterized the message he was communicating. Indeed, if Donna’s lips are moving in regard to statements made by others or conclusions drawn in engineering studies, you can be certain she is lying. On the issue of nuclear power, SONGS, and canister technology, she is a congenital liar.

      Donna keeps repeating her claim that “The NRC states once a crack starts it can grow through the wall in 16 years.”

      Independent investigator and chairman of the CEP, David Victor, after reviewing all the literature on canister cracking, had this to say:

      “Based on an extensive review and re-review of all the evidence I don’t see any support for these rapid corrosion, cracking and through wall penetration scenarios. Moreover, I note that EPRI has recently released a report that examines exactly this scenario. That report looks at the scenario that would unfold after conditions for cracking had been established and after a crack had initiated. How long would it take for a crack, then, to travel through the walls if the crack were not detected and stopped? EPRI’s answer is about 80 years.”

      This is in agreement with a clip Donna posted elsewhere where in answer to her question, the NRC representative stated that AFTER the initiation of a crack (it takes years for crack initiation), it would take 86 years as a “most conservative” estimate to go through wall. Begin at 29:15 for the relevant portion of this discussion.

      So, continuing to make the claim that the NRC believes a crack can go through-wall in 16 years is just another Gilmore lie.

      When she claims the Holtec canisters loaded thus far are damaged and that the incidental contact made during loading is being ignored by the NRC and SONGS, she is again, lying. I’ve asked her to justify her claims to this effect but she is more about making false claims than attempting to defend them.

      Donna continues to mischaracterize the MPR & Associates report. The whole point MPR is making in the section she deliberately mischaracterizes is that BECAUSE Test Area North has been destroyed, other options need to be explored and they list some. That is the subject matter of the report MPR refers to. This is just another example of Gilmore dishonesty.

      However, it is not just her unfamiliarity with the truth that is harmful, it is also her foolish and uninformed statements on engineering design. Take for example her statement regarding her belief that a canister needs a relief valve. First, the vessel is not pressurized beyond a minimum (slight positive Helium pressurization which is desired) so there is no pressure to relieve. Second, there is no source of pressurization within the canister…it is in an inert atmosphere. Third, installing a relief valve involves penetrating the vessel which then induces a risk of leaking past the relief valve or around it. Lastly, in her fantasy scenario where a canister develops a through-wall crack (none has ever occurred) and the Helium leaks out while the air leaks in (fancy that) and her proposed hydrogen buildup develops (another unlikely situation), the crack itself would relieve the pressure. Doctors often tell those without medical knowledge or a license to stop practicing medicine. Engineers would tell Donna to stop playing engineer, the public deserves better.

      In addition, Donna has attempted to fob off on an unsuspecting public a design weakness in the castor casks as if it were a benefit. The castor casks have a helium monitoring system precisely because they are not welded shut. They NEED and are required to have a monitoring system to monitor for leaks past their mechanical seals. The canister-based system the ENTIRE US nuclear fleet (as well as a number of plants outside the US) is using welds its vessels shut so they do not need nor are they required to have a Helium monitoring system. Ask any engineer which is better for the purpose of sealing a vessel, a weld or a mechanical seal; 10 out of 10 choosy engineers choose a weld.
      Furthermore, Donna dishonestly suggests this monitoring system monitors the contents of the cask, it does not. It only monitors the area between the mechanical seals. Neither the stainless steel canister-based system nor the cast-iron Castor casks monitor the contents of their respective vessel.

      Canisters are filled with Helium to provide cooling, not prevent explosions. No plant installs radiation monitors on the exit vents, they are not needed.

      As long as Donna continues to mischaracterize statements made by others including engineering analysis, engage in alarmism, make false statements, and promote bogus studies, I am going to call her out on her lack of integrity.

  • I’m sorry to disappoint you David Davison, but “dump” is the correct word in this context for nuclear waste because it is a site for depositing nuclear garbage. What’s more it is a dump that is using nuclear garbage cans that are only warranted for 25 years. Do you honestly think a 25-year warranty on garbage that’s deadly for hundreds of thousands of years is good enough?

    DUMP , noun
    a site for depositing garbage.
    synonyms: rubbish tip, rubbish dump, refuse dump, rubbish heap, refuse heap, tip, dumping ground, dustheap, slag heap, midden, dunghill, dung heap; More

  • Spent Nuclear fuel canisters at SONGS are state of the art and according to the professionals who have analyzed them, will, under the worst conditions, last 60 years and most likely over 100.

    “I’m sorry to disappoint you David Davison…”

    Far from disappointed, your disingenuous response is just what I’ve come to expect from the anti-nuclear zealots who have continually sacrificed their integrity on the altar of anti-nuclear expediency. And thanks for verifying you are wrong in your usage of the deliberate pejorative, “nuclear waste dump” for as you have pointed out, a dump is for rubbish, garbage…a dumping ground and the storage of spent nuclear fuel doesn’t fit the definition YOU chose. Spent nuclear fuel used to be reprocessed in this country to produce more fuel to produce more GHG-free electricity. Per MWHr of electricity produced, nuclear power is the cleanest energy source we’ve designed thus far. This reprocessing still continues in other countries and that which is not reused but stored undergoes further study in an attempt to come up with future uses.

    Your foolish question,

    “Do you honestly think a 25-year warranty on garbage that’s deadly for hundreds of thousands of years is good enough?”

    Feel free to point out, post, or otherwise describe the containment vessel that will last hundreds of thousands of years. Did you naively think that the Castor casks Donna prefers but the NRC has rejected (for transport) would last hundreds of thousands of years? If not, what is your point beyond attempting to alarm the public? While we’re on the topic of containment type longevity, here is a quote from the website of those who make these casks the NRC rejected:

    “In Germany alone, more than 1,000 CASTOR® casks are stored with individual storage periods of up to 30 years.”

    Only up to 30 years? Perhaps all they mean is that they have only been stored for up to 30 years but in my brief perusal of a number of sites, I haven’t found any willing to divulge their “warranty” period as if the warranty was the measure of what is important. You can do your own search if you’re confident you’ll find much longer warranties. Remember, ALL US nuclear plants and many outside the US use the canister based system and the one site that has a handful of the ductile casks never ordered anymore and can’t get those they do have off-site because they don’t have NRC approval for shipping. Do you want San Onofre to get stuck with these casks?

    Langley, do you wish to be part of the solution to the storage of spent nuclear fuel here at SONGS or do you wish to continue to be part of the problem?

  • it’s crazy that all of this nuke waste is dumped on the bluffs at Sano!!!! It’s nuts—– forgetting for a moment all of the technical pros and cons and just using common sense and the well regarded “precautionary Principle” —- putting poison on the eroding bluff, on a fault, and within feet of the surf is INSANE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Anyone not getting this is a fool—– with all that SONGS has leaked and discharged in the years I have lived here….I expect more of the same

  • Nuclear Power has, per MWHr of electricity produced, the least impact on our environment. It is clean and safe and doesn’t produce GHGs.
    @ Bud Furgeson
    Bud, used nuclear fuel is not just dumped on the bluffs at San Onofre.  Fuel assemblies are placed inside stainless steel canisters that are carefully stored within steel Cavity Enclosure Containers which are themselves surrounded by many layers of specialized concrete.  This storage method is robust enough to withstand an earthquake greater than any quake recorded thus far in history.
    If you don’t like it being stored here at San Onofre, petition your government to have it transferred out, this issue is completely in their hands.  Obama and Harry Reid, following a quid pro quo deal, defunded Yucca Mt., the designated storage site for used nuclear fuel.  They got sued, lost and now the project is on again though at a much-reduced pace.  Had they not canceled Yucca Mt., San Onofre might have already been transferring the fuel from here to there so you blame them and the anti-nukes on whose behalf they worked for this lack of progress.
    All discharges are in accordance with the law, are fully documented and can be viewed on the NRC website.  For example, on Charles Langley’s (Public Watchdog)  alarmist website, he gases on about San Onofre radioactive discharges citing figures for the year 2010 but he fails to provide the single most important figure…the total dose for the entire year for the most exposed member of the public from ALL sources at San Onofre.  That figure, which is less than 1 mrem for the year, can be found on page 46 of the report filed with the NRC which I include below.  To put “less than 1 mrem” into perspective, each individual will receive about 40 mrem per year just from the food they eat.  Thus, the NP exposes the public to 40 times less radiation than that received from their food. See the other NRC link I provided on this.
    Compare that to the pollution spewed into the environment from the tens of millions of automobiles driven each year or the enormous amount of radioactive elements and other pollutants discharged into the atmosphere from coal plants not to mention a host of other types of factories and manufacturing plants including those that produce batteries and solar panels (a very nasty toxic process).
    Perspective is needed, Furgeson, not just mindlessly repeating the harum-scarum nonsense of attention starved anti-nukes.   


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