Wavelengths by Jim Kempton
Wavelengths by Jim Kempton

By Jim Kempton

Out of an inescapable curiosity, I attended a forum about the current state of the waste storage for the radioactive fuel rods that have been untreated since the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) has been shut down. It was an illuminating experience, even if some of the speakers had conflicting positions on how great the danger is and what the best solution should be.

One of the most critical issues facing San Clemente and the entire Orange County area, this dilemma of how to deal with the spent fuel rods from our nuclear power plant is perhaps the most important decision the region will make for our children and all future history. These highly toxic, potentially lethal rods now lie in open pools of water in what most parties agree is a vulnerable and dangerous state.

The rods are currently planned to be buried on the bluff next to the retired plant, just a short distance from the edge and near the beach at San Onofre itself. Without defending or attacking the claims or validity, it should be noted that these are also near a vital military base on an earthquake fault line and on a dramatically eroding coastal ridgeline. Whether there is high likelihood or little, the fact is that if a catastrophic event was to occur it could render large potions of this region uninhabitable for the foreseeable future—as in millennia. One would think that this would be a point of concern for those of us living in this shadow.

And yet when I bring this subject up to surfers at San Onofre, citizens in San Clemente or political leaders in Orange County I get a shrug or a glazed look.

I am always amazed. We are able to bring thousands of determined citizens to protest the extension of a toll road though our towns. But burying thousands upon thousands of pounds of radioactive waste material 50 yards from the beach in canisters that only guarantee the lifetime of 30 years, which if exposed incorrectly could be catastrophic to the entire region, brings barely a yawn.

It is not that we might be in incalculable peril that worries me. It is that for the most part, the entire populace including most of the decision-makers seem only minimally informed.

I am not going to get into the heavy debate about how critical the various risks are. But we do know at least a few things:

Southern California Edison, the majority owner of SONGS, has not been forthcoming in its communication with the public about this issue—they have a long record of repeated dissembling of inaccurate and incomplete information about the risk, the responsibility and the reasoning behind the proposed plans. Neither, it seems, have any of the auxiliary entities involved. And experts disagree strongly.

I am not advocating any position on this issue. I am suggesting that educating oneself from a variety of sources should be a paramount priority for anyone who owns property here or is planning to live in the area for any length of time.

Jim Kempton is a writer and surfer who has learned the hard way that education has a price, but it is not nearly as costly as the consequences of ignorance.

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comments (4)

  • Thank you for your comments on what to do with the spent fuel rods at SONGS.

    I can understand the surfer’s shrug or glazed look. Most people have no idea how dangerous these spent fuel rods are.

    High-level wastes are hazardous because they produce fatal radiation doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, 10 years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour – far greater than the fatal whole-body dose for humans of about 500 rem received all at once. If isotopes from these high-level wastes get into groundwater or rivers, they may enter food chains. The dose produced through this indirect exposure would be much smaller than a direct-exposure dose, but a much larger population could be exposed.

    As Patrick Takahashi pointed out in “Why Worry About Fukushima When Hiroshima and Nagasaki Are Safe?”, a 1000 MW reactor uses 50,000 pounds of enriched Uranium/year and produces 54,000 pounds of waste, which keeps accumulating, so in a 20-year period, there should be more than a million pounds of radioactive material on site. Little Boy had only 141 pounds of U-235, while Fat Amat used 14 pounds of Pu-239.

    The two operational reactors produced about 2254 MW, so over a 20 period, we could expect SONGS to accumulate more than two million pounds of radio active waste.

  • @ Joanna Clark
    Anti-nuke hysteria does a disservice to the community.

    Your statement, “High-level wastes are hazardous because they produce fatal radiation doses during short periods of direct exposure.”

    So how is the community supposed to come into “direct exposure”?

    “If isotopes from these high-level wastes get into groundwater or rivers…”

    The fuel is a solid and it is contained in stainless steel canisters, inside metal cavity enclosure vessels, surrounded by many feet of concrete. How is it going to get into the groundwater, or is that important to this fictional horror story?

    “…to accumulate more than two million pounds of radioactive waste.”

    How many millions of pounds of Uranium do you think the hills and mountains of Utah, or any other local where Uranium is mined, contain? Another minor detail you left out regarding Takahashi, is that the nuclides from the ATOMIC BOMB blasts were spread over the entire cities they were dropped on, vice contained safely in stainless steel vessels.

    BTW, speaking of atomic bombs, were you aware that at one time 10% of the power for this entire country was supplied by nuclear power plants fueled by Uranium from former Soviet nuclear weapons? Was that a good thing?

  • If nuclear power is so great, why are the major users–France, Germany, etc. closing down their nuclear plants. France had the least nuclear waste, because they used breeder reactors, allowing them to recycle the waste. But the waste remaining after its last recycle was still radioactive and nobody wants nuclear waste stored in their backyard.

    Accidents do happen.

    In 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists, which tracks ongoing safety issues at operating nuclear plants, found that “leakage of radioactive materials is a pervasive problem at almost 90 percent of all reactors, as are issues that pose a risk of nuclear accidents.”

    What do you think would happen to the nuclear waste in the pools at SONG, if a 7.5 earthquake were to hit?

    • Anti nuke hyperbole and falsehoods misinform the public

      @ Joanna Clark

      Your statement, “What do you think would happen to the nuclear waste in the pools at SONG, if a 7.5 earthquake were to hit?”

      The surface of the water may ripple, workers will stop what they’re doing, and then go back to work. No problem, that is what the pools are specifically designed to protect against.

      We’ve already had a number of earthquakes greater than 7.0 here in southern California and none of them did so much as chip the paint at the plants. However, if this indeed is a concern of yours, then you should begin writing against the local anti-nuke zealots who are trying to prevent the fuel from being transferred out of these pools into dry cask storage; even David Lochbaum, director of nuclear safety for the UCS, wants the fuel moved into dry cask storage.

      Your statement, “France had the least nuclear waste, because they used breeder reactors…”

      No, here from wiki regarding French nuclear power plant designs: “All operating plants today are PWRs. The sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor technology development reactors, Phénix and Superphénix, have been shut down with work ongoing for a more advanced replacement in the form of the ASTRID (reactor).” BTW, PWR stands for pressurized water reactor and the particular design the French went with was a Westinghouse design.

      Your partial quote of a UCS source, “leakage of radioactive materials is a pervasive problem…”

      Radioactive materials in this case does not include fuel and hence does NOT fit the description you provided regarding dose response.

      BTW, France is building more nuclear power plants as is China, Finland, England, UAE, and Germany delayed shutting theirs down after realizing how foolish such an action is.

      Your statement, “…nobody wants nuclear waste stored in their backyard.”

      Nobody wants toxic waste from solar panel production polluting their river, including the Chinese who rioted over this very situation:

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