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San Onofre as Sitting Duck

Tsunamis and Nuclear Power Plants


More than 80,000 people are dead. Bodies wash ashore in a dozen countries. A train, loaded with a thousand passengers and their luggage, is swept away, engine, tracks, and all. Cars, trucks, buses, and boats are pushed more than a mile inland by the rushing water. Some of the waves were reported to be 40 feet high.

The ocean in San Diego, 1/2 a world away, rose 10 inches. It IS a small world, after all.

The "sea wall" at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station ("SONGS") in Southern California is 35 feet tall, and about 35 years old. It could not have withstood Sunday’s worst.

San Onofre’s twin reactors were theoretically designed to withstand an earthquake up to 7.0, which is 100 times smaller than a 9.0 earthquake. Although a 9.0 earthquake is considered "unlikely" near San Onofre, it is hardly impossible. In addition, the size of the earthquake doesn’t necessarily relate to the size of the ensuing tsunami. Landslides triggered by earthquakes, asteroid impacts, and volcanic eruptions can generate waves hundreds of feet tall.

Why did we build nuclear power plants near the ocean, anyway, where they are susceptible to underwater and surface attacks by terrorists and other belligerents? Because nuclear power plants need enormous quantities of water for their cooling systems, and water — especially in the western United States — is usually difficult to find except along the shoreline. The outflow from a nuclear power plant is always slightly contaminated with radioactive particles, and sometimes severely so; people don’t want to drink that. So they put the plants near the oceans whenever possible.

Don’t worry about tsunamis, they said — we’ve built you this puny little wall. Don’t worry about asteroid impacts — they hardly ever happen. Don’t worry about tornados or hurricanes. Don’t worry about human error. So, society agreed to these poisonous cauldrons of bubbling radioactivity — these behemoths of death-rays ready to burst — these sitting ducks on our shorelines.

Don’t worry, we were told, because the chances are very low. It’s always about "chance" to the nuclear promoters, and never about "worst case scenarios." We’re all playing the odds. Why? Clean energy, which has zero catastrophic risk, abounds — we just need to harness it.

These tsunami waves would have had little or no effect on floating off-shore ocean wind energy farms (unless they were particularly close to shore), nor would they effect OTEC (Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion) power plants, or any other deep-sea energy solutions, because the tsunami waves are harmless in deep water.

Even a 7.2 or a 7.3 earthquake — perfectly reasonable to expect in the area around San Onofre, and possible anywhere — would be more powerful than San Onofre is officially designed to withstand. Experience from the Northridge quake (17 January 1994) and others shows that structures sometimes fail to withstand earthquakes of magnitudes far less than their designed tolerances. The domes at San Onofre might not be able to withstand an earthquake or tsunami (or even a large jet crashing into them). The spent fuel pools, control room, emergency diesel generators, and dry storage casks are all outside the domes.

Sitting ducks indeed.

Maybe "unlikely" is good enough for some locations, who will bury their thousands of dead and rebuild after a natural disaster, but where nukes are located, "unlikely" is not good enough. Whatever damage a tsunami might cause to renewable energy systems would be minor — even if it wiped them out and they had to be rebuilt completely — compared to the devastation that would result from breaching the reactor vessel, emptying the spent fuel pool (or throwing heavy debris into it), or crushing the dry casks.

Why are we risking such deadly disasters, when renewable energy is available for the taking?

It’s time to make the switch to renewable energy solutions. It’s time to close San Onofre Nuclear WASTE Generating Station, Diablo Canyon, and all the other nuclear power plants.

Ronald D. Hoffman, a computer programmer in Carlsbad, California, has written extensively about nuclear power. His essays have been translated into several different languages and published in more than a dozen countries. He can be reached at: rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com