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Watching San Onofre


Last updated 2/21/2019 at 3:48pm

FALLBROOK – The non-partisan group Public Watchdogs spoke at the Hilltop Center about the status of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, Feb. 7. The station started generating power in 1968 and is approximately 20 miles as the crow flies from Fallbrook. The station was closed in January 2012 after an unrepairable equipment failure resulted in a release of radioactive steam into the environment.

Charles Langley, executive director at Public Watchdogs, described the ongoing nuclear waste storage project including the problems surrounding the procedures, near misses and the secrecy from the public. The nuclear waste storage canisters at San Onofre weigh nearly 100,000 pounds. Each can contains more Cesium 137 than was released during the entire Chernobyl disaster.

A whistleblower stepped forward, Aug. 9, at a public meeting and reported that six days earlier one of the canisters nearly fell 18 feet. According to Langley, federal law CRF 72.75 required that Southern California Edison, the owners of the nuclear waste, report safety incidents known as “near hits” or “near-misses” to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission within hours at the NRC’s Event Notification Report page.

“They intentionally violated federal law by keeping this information a secret from the public for 45 days,” Langley said. “What’s more, Public Watchdogs’ investigators have documented another near-miss event that occurred July 22, 2018, that was never reported.”

The hot radioactive waste is currently being stored in a costly 65-foot-deep refrigerated spent fuel pool. As a part of the permanent decommissioning of the station, the radioactive spent fuel assemblies are being transferred into hermetically sealed stainless steel canisters, where they are lowered into steel-lined concrete silos, known as Canister Enclosure Cavities.

The newly constructed beachfront nuclear waste dump is located 108 feet from the ocean and 3 feet above the salt water table. There will be 73 canisters of waste total, and there are currently 29 already in place on the beach.

What’s the big deal with nuclear waste.

• The high level nuclear waste at the station contains plutonium, which is lethal to humans for at least 250,000 years.

• The waste is extremely heavy making it difficult to move safely.

• The waste is being stored in canisters that are only warranted for 25 years.

• The containers are made of 5/8-inch thick stainless steel.

• The canisters are subject to through-wall leaks caused by stress corrosion cracking.

• The facility is located in a tsunami inundation zone.

• An earthquake fault as deep as the San Andreas is located fewer than 2 miles out to sea.

The risk of stress corrosion cracking in stainless steel is increased in salt water environments. Airborne salt and fog from the corrosive air at San Onofre can weaken the metal canisters where the waste is stored, causing a release of deadly radiation.

Everyone suffers the health problems of the release of this radioactive waste into the environment – air, water and food. The health problems vary with the type of exposure. Langley said if someone stands near this high level waste for a few minutes, they would die within hours. Spread through the air, water and into the food chain, cancers would start to appear in the population at higher rates than before exposure.

What can be done about it?

The permitting process of the station should be studied, because an honest and transparent process needs to ensured going forward before creating health risks to the public. In the San Onofre’s case, there was no meaningful financial or health analysis in decommissioning the plant; however, now the focus is finding a safe solution to the storage problem at the station. Geologist Bob Pope, a board member of Public Watchdogs, talked about what can be done.

Four solutions were talked about at the meeting.

Glass vitrification is when the waste is mixed with chemicals that form glass in a furnace that solidifies and immobilizes the waste. France uses this method for dealing with high-level waste.

Move the waste to a deep geological repository that would house the waste away from earthquake faults and saltwater.

Dilute the waste in mineral form, taking it back to the original form.

Move the waste inland from where it is, further away from salt spray and tidewater.

Citizens can make a difference by asking elected officials to address the problem. They can contact their congressional representative.

Visit for more information, and to view live Geiger counter readings stationed 1 mile from the station.

Submitted by Fallbrook Democratic Club.


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