Dr. Roger Johnson, Ph.D, is a concerned citizen and Southern California Resident. At his request we have published this Q & A about nuclear waste at the San Onofre Nuclear Generatings Station (SONGS).
16 Q & A about Living Near a Nuclear Waste Dump
- Q: What city has the most stranded nuclear waste in the entire country?
- A: San Clemente has by far the most. With 1,773 tons of high-level uranium and plutonium, San Clemente has 26% of the nation’s total.
- Q: Why San Clemente?
- A: San Clemente is the official location of San Onofre because San Clemente is only 2 miles from SONGS and shares the same zip code. But it is not just San Clemente (radiation ignores county boundaries). Over 20 million people from Los Angeles to San Diego are also in danger. At Fukushima, the U.S. government recommended evacuation for people within 50 miles.
- Q: Isn’t San Onofre now closed? And if fuel it is called “spent” and “waste,” how can it be dangerous?”
- A: San Onofre is “closed” only in the sense that it no longer produces electricity. The term “spent” fuel means only that its profitability is spent. It is still highly radioactive and extremely dangerous.
- Q. Doesn’t uranium and plutonium decay to safe levels? How long before it is safe?
- A. The half-life of Plutonium 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. Yes, it will be safe in millions of years.
- Q. Is the San Onofre nuclear waste a lot?
- A. Consider that San Clemente has 250 times more than Iran. Consider that only 13 lbs of plutonium destroyed the city of Nagasaki and killed 80,000 people. If the 3.6 million pounds of nuclear waste at San Onofre were enriched to bomb grade, there would be enough to make over 17,000 atom bombs.
- Q. How will our waste be stored?
- A. Decades ago the government promised to cart it away but now they can’t figure out where to take it. The plan is to leave it here indefinitely stored in 123 thin canisters. No one else wants it so we are stuck with it. The nuclear industry is now experimenting with long-term “temporary” storage, something they never planned for. Edison now has about half of the waste in temporary canisters. When the rest of the fuel has “cooled” in pools to only 500 degrees it will then be transferred to temporary stainless-steel canisters.
- Q. Are the canisters safe and how long will they last?
- A. The manufacturer (Holtec International) warrantees them for 25 years. Unfortunately, Edison selected the cheaper thin (5/8 inch thick) 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. Our “plan” is totally irresponsible.
- Q. Is canister failure the only danger we face?
- A. No. The nuclear industry would like you to focus on tiny leaks and not think about large earthquakes or high explosives which could split canisters wide open. San Onofre is situated in an earthquake zone. We know that the 911 terrorists considered attacking a nuclear power plant before they settled on the World Trade Center. A Sandia National Lab study concluded that a medium-sized truck bomb exploding outside the perimeter of a plant could cause dangerous radioactive releases. There are no defenses against missiles launched from the sea or ICBMs from thousands of miles away (even with conventional warheads). The fuel pools and canisters likely would not survive an airplane, drone, or missile attack. Nuclear power plants were never designed to withstand high explosives. Uncontrolled plumes of radiation could be released into prevailing winds blowing over large population centers.
- Q. Where will the canisters be placed?
- A. Edison built a concrete pad about 100 feet from the San Onofre State Beach which can be seen on Google Earth. The bottom of the canisters will be about sea level at high tide. Edison says the canisters are safe from the ocean because they are 8 feet above sea level but only at low tide. The standard practice in the nuclear industry is to assume the best case scenario and ignore the worst case scenario.
- Q. Is there any progress in finding a permanent or even a safer temporary storage site?
- A. No. Republicans want to pass what some critics call “screw Nevada legislation” as payback against Harry Reid even though Nevada produces no nuclear waste and has already suffered heavily from 928 nuclear tests there. Yucca Mountain is not large enough to hold the nation’s nuclear waste. It is also close to Las Vegas and scientists have concluded it would contaminate underground water supplies. Possible sites in Texas and Arizona are fiercely resisted by the locals, and a presidential blue ribbon commission argued that the waste should not go anywhere if there is no local consent. There is no local consent here either but they ignore this, perhaps because we were foolish enough to allow the plant to be located here in the first place.
- 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 demolition 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. The Center for Disease Control recommends no one try to go anywhere since it would expose occupants to more radiation (gamma radiation easily penetrates the roof of a car). All roads would be gridlocked. 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 contaminated clothing would render the car unsafe ever to use again. Hazmat suits would be single use and unlikely to be made available. Parents would not be allowed to pick up their kids at school. The “plan” is to bus kids away if buses are available, but kids would likely be stuck on the bus without food, water, or bathrooms for lengthy periods. Emergency vehicles would be quickly contaminated if used. Radiation release could go on for weeks, months, or years (existing plans assume only 3 days). Although the NRC requires such “plans,” there is no requirement that the plans will actually work. No insurance covers radioactive contamination and all homes and buildings could be total losses. Entire communities might become ghost towns which is what happened at Fukushima and Chernobyl.
- Q. Can such radiation cause cancer?
- A. Of course. Radiation causes cell damage and rearranges DNA. That’s why technicians hide in a shielded room when you get an X-ray. A major danger is the fact that exposure is cumulative. Cancer is now the # 1 killer in California. It is unlikely to kill anyone immediately because it can take years for cancer to develop. 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?
- A. San Onofre has been regularly releasing low-level radiation into the atmosphere and ocean since 1968. No one knows for sure but scientific studies in Europe concluded that just living near a nuclear power plant increases the chance of cancer, especially in children. For example, It was found that cancer rates in children doubled if they lived near a nuclear power plant. Remember that the 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 because of rapid cell growth. 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 small amount of funding from Congress but he refused.
- Q. Are most people up in arms over all of this?
- A. No. The nuclear industry has an enormous public relations arm as well as powerful friends in Congress. Many people believe it when they are told that nothing will happen and that radiation levels will be safe. A few activists are trying to educate the public but most people seem complaisant, compliant, or uninformed. Many politicians ranging from city council members to Gov. Brown remain silent on what is probably the greatest threat to the future of Southern California.
2 thoughts on “Q & A about Living Near a Nuclear Waste Dump, by Dr. Roger Johnson”
Hello, I have all of these fears of course & am so glad that public watchdogs group has people willing to give their expertise and time to try to stop Edison’s irresponsible and wreckless approach to handling the situation!
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