A defunct nuclear power plant in San Clemente, CA, only feet from the Pacific Ocean is being set up for leakage and potential explosion, if you believe on-site professionals with grave concerns. Between undertrained staff and an underground waste storage method that seems almost inevitably bound for disaster, one government official has referred to the San Onofre nuclear site as a “Fukushima waiting to happen”.
For those not familiar, Fukushima refers to a catastrophic meltdown of a Japanese nuclear reactor in March 2011. In the wake of an earthquake followed by a tsunami, the reactor’s emergency controls were disabled, disabling the reactors’ cooling mechanism. It was the most significant nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986, and the health effects still aren’t completely known due to extreme secrecy surrounding the incident by the Japanese government.
The aspect of Fukushima that most are connecting to California’s San Onofre plant is that investigators concluded that the Fukushima plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), had failed to meet basic safety needs, and that the damage sustained by the Fukushima disaster was foreseeable. If there is ultimately any sort of accident resulting from the San Onofre nuclear site, it will be nearly impossible to argue against the perception that it, like Fukushima, will have been completely foreseeable, and the plant operator will be mostly at fault.
The San Onofre site was shut down in 2012, but it reportedly continues to leak radioactive material, and on-site overseers have reported extremely troubling accounts of reckless handling of the waste as it is moved in the process of burying it underground – which is another issue itself. It is telling that the original reason the site was shutdown is the persistence of a leak that occurred due to malpractice. More recent accounts of goings-on at the San Onofre site suggest little has changed in terms of operational integrity.
A report released in 2016 describes the conditions which led to the shutdown. It is Edison, the company which operated the plant at the time of the leak and continues to oversee operations today, that took the direct brunt of the report’s blame.
‘Owners of the failed San Onofre nuclear power plant operated the reactor outside the allowable limits for pressure and temperature, causing the radiation leak that shut down the facility for good in 2012, a new report has found.
For more than a year, [Southern California Edison engineer and report author Vinod Arora] has sought daily control-room operations logs but Edison has declined to provide the records.
"If those logs have not been destroyed, they will show immediately whether or not Edison risked the lives of 8.5 million Southern Californians by redlining the Unit 3 generators," he said. (San Diego Union-Tribune)
The shuttering of operations is far from an indicator that those in proximity to the San Onofre nuclear site are in the clear – the waste still must be disposed of, safely. But, the plan for “disposing” of that spent nuclear fuel raises serious concerns.
‘The idea is to bury the spent fuel on site, about 100 feet from the ocean and just a few feet above the water table. Edison has already begun transferring the waste from cooling pools into specially designed steel canisters. The containers are prone to corrosion and cracking, and cannot be monitored or repaired. Work crews even discovered a loose bolt inside one of the canisters earlier this year.’ (LA Times)
Add to these dicey containers the reality that, as environmentalists love to remind us, sea levels are rising. This makes the decision to bury containers, which could explode if even a small amount of air seeps into them, just above the salt-water table perplexing.
Add to this frightening combination that San Onofre is on an active earthquake fault in an area where tsunamis have occurred in the past, and it’s clear why San Juan Capistrano Councilwoman Pam Patterson warned the president of these massive risks during the California Sanctuary State Roundtable meeting in May. Patterson brought up yet another concerning point: the idea that San Onofre presents an easy target for would-be terrorists.
‘She reminded him that, in 2001, terrorists were targeting nuclear power plants in addition to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Patterson also pointed out that some of the 9/11 terrorists received their flight training at San Diego’s Montgomery Field, only 50 miles from San Onofre, which is itself only 62 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The power plant, she told Trump, is a “Fukushima waiting to happen.”’ (LA Times)
Even with all of these concerns, the account of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) worker who has been on-site to monitor operations at the San Onofre site added yet another level of alarm to the fray. David Fritch describes how he witnessed undertrained workers, who had apparently not been versed on the basics of nuclear workplace safety practices, nearly drop one of the steel canisters storing nuclear waste nearly eighteen feet.
“On 3 August 2018, a 100-ton canister filled with highly radioactive nuclear waste was being ‘downloaded’ into a temporary transport carrier to be moved a few hundred yards from inside the plant to a storage silo buried near the world-famous San Onofre beach. As the thin-walled canister was being lowered into the transport cask, it snagged on a guide ledge four feet from the top. Crane operators were unaware that the canister had stopped descending and the rigging went completely slack, leaving the full weight of the heavy canister perched on that ledge by about a quarter-inch,” Fritch told officials at a public meeting.
As you can see, Fritch is extremely shaken by what he witnessed, as he’s certain that what he saw was a barely-averted nuclear crisis.
According to reports, each Holtec container contains 50,000 pounds of nuclear waste, equal to the amount of radiation released during the Chernobyl disaster. Yet, these canisters have undergone no seismic safety tests, and can’t even be inspected safely once they are buried.
‘Holtec canisters have no seismic rating, are not proven safe for transport, and there is no means to even inspect them for cracks or for existing cracks to be repaired in a safe manner. A crack can’t even be detected until after a radiation leak has occurred.’ (Times of San Diego)
With all of the political infighting the nation continues to undergo, it would be wise to put those issues aside for a minute to pay attention to the potential catastrophe that lies hundreds of feet from the Pacific Ocean in San Clemente. Soon, it will be too late, and any unfortunate disaster will have been preventable, if only the appropriate authorities – including the President – gave the issue the attention and action it warrants. Hopefully, attention is given before time runs out.