Sierra Club seeks a 'better outcome' for closed San Onofre nuclear power plant
Environmental activists on had only a short time to celebrate the June 7 closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant before realizing the huge challenge posed by radioactive waste at the site. Gene Stone, a leader of the coalition to close the plant, has said, “We are safer now that San Onofre is shut – but we are not safe. “
|Nuclear waste experts speaking at the Community Symposium on Decommissioning San Onofre included (left to right) Dr. Arjun Makhijani, Donald Mosier, and Dr. Marvin Resnikoff.|
During the hard-fought shutdown debate, the Sierra Club and other groups pointed to defective technology and urged the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission not to grant a fast-track restart sought by Southern California Edison, the plant operator. Parts of the plant were shut in January 2012 after pipes in its steam generator were found to be leaking small amounts of radioactive water. An investigation revealed widespread premature and unexpected wear throughout the piping system.
The Club'sposition was vindicated immediately after shutdown when power company Edison sued Mitsubishi, the equipment-maker, calling its product a “lemon” with chronic and irreparable defects. We couldn’t have said it better – but we wondered why Edison tried so hard to restart San Onofre given the problem.
We’re on the same page with Edison on one big issue: We hope they win their suit and collect the full $775 million wasted on the flawed system. Every dollar Mitsubishi pays is a dollar off the table as the California Public Utilities Commission allocates cost shares between Edison and ratepayers for the San Onofre debacle.
On October 19, the Sierra Club joined other groups in sponsoring a Community Symposium on Decommissioning San Onofre. Three nationally regarded experts addressed the challenges and concerns. Highlights from their presentations:
Donald Mosier, Professor of Immunology & Microbial Science at the Scripps Research Institute, asked if any dose of radiation is safe and answered, “No - Any level can be dangerous. We now know why very low doses can cause cancer. Many sites in the body are hypersensitive DNA regions highly vulnerable to cancer factors. These are areas of rapid change, which provide openings for cancerous mutation.”
Mosier noted that “exposure to 10,000 milli-sieverts is deadly. 1,000 brings sickness and is cancerous. The rate during the Fukashima crisis was 400 per hour. A CAT scan is 20 to 60. A mammogram is .4. A dental x-ray is .005 – and requires you to wear a lead apron. “
He cited a 15-country study that found the risk was double the norm for nuclear industry workers, and added, “There is no reliable survey data on the health of San Onofre workers because the amount of radiation releases is not monitored at any point near the site.”
Mosier concluded, “The effects of exposure to cancer factors are cumulative. This is why repeated exposure matters. Why add one more insult to the mix?”
Marvin Resnikoff, Senior Associate at Radioactive Waste Management Associates, told the Symposium that at San Onofre spent fuel will need 15 to 20 years to cool in pools before it can be put in dry casks. Edison has said spent fuel will be removed from the pool by 2034.
After that, Resnikoff said, “San Onofre will consist entirely of fuel casks or silos in a Stonehenge configuration. What remains? A fuel mausoleum and the conversion of a valuable site into a wasteland.”
An urgent issue is the use of high burn fuel, brought to the fore by the diligent research of San Clemente activist Donna Gilmore. This fuel permits longer continuous operation before refueling but is twice as radioactive and twice as hot after use.
“We should be very concerned about the challenge of storing high burn fuel,” Resnikoff said. “There is a long cool-down period for fuel used at 67 megawatt-days per metric ton. How did San Onofre get permission to operate at this level? The question has not been analyzed and San Onofre has put little or no high burn fuel in storage. Indeed, no form of storage has yet been approved for fuel this hot.”
Resnikoff concluded with a charge to Symposium attendees: “The NRC doesn’t have all the answers. Sometimes citizens have to force the issue by getting involved in the proceedings of regulatory agencies. Educate yourselves on the minutiae of safety. Continue to question authority. Work to empower independent voices that have demonstrable expertise. Challenge the NRC and Edison to be sure they are employing the best possible technology in every regard.”
Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, noted ironically that “the domes are the most visible part of a nuclear plant. They exist to protect against meltdown of the reactor core. Once the reactor is shut, the domes are just decoration.”
Makhijani said San Onofre has 3,200 to 3,400 spent fuel assemblies containing 120 million curies of radioactive waste. “A curie is a lot of radioactivity. Each curie represents 37 billion radioactive disintegrations per second.” Makhijani warned, “After a nuclear plant ceases operation a large part of the risk remains, especially the spent fuel pools. A fuel pool fire would create almost 100 times as much radiation as a dry cask fire.”
Like Resnikoff, Makhijani addressed the high burn fuel issue. “San Onofre has been authorized to use fuel rods that run hotter and contain more radiation but they seem to have exceeded to NRC high burn limit of 62.5 gigawatts. What we know about spent fuel in dry storage is based entirely on experience with low-burn fuel. Why high-burn was authorized at San Onofre without knowing how it might affect storage is a huge concern.”
The greatest risk during decommissioning, Makhijani said, is in maintaining pool storage and in dealing with dry casks that are certified only for 20 years. “We don’t want to be transferring spent fuel from one cask to another if an assembly has been damaged. And in actual experience, there has never been a transfer from one dry cask to another under any circumstance.”
The endgame in Makhijani’s view: “We need to work on a repository. All other solutions are much less adequate. A worst-case event on the surface, especially in a sensitive area like San Onofre, is an order of magnitude more severe than worst-case in deep geologic storage. Our goal should be to store waste in a way where the worst-case is not catastrophic. “
Makhijani asked why the U.S. government and international agencies aren’t thinking more about precluding unacceptable consequences. One reason he cited is a kind of “risk analysis” that cancels out the seriousness of outcomes by rating the worst cases as extremely improbable. “Yet at Chernobyl and Fukashima they have happened,” he concluded.
Bottom line for the Sierra Club: In the shutdown phase, the minimal response - fast track restart - was not adequate and did not prevail. In the decommissioning phase, the minimal response - San Onofre as a long-term mausoleum for nuclear fuel waste - is not adequate and should not prevail.
Our goal is a “better outcome” that creates a new national standard.
Glenn Pascall is chair of the Sierra Club's San Onofre Task Force.