It’s Time to Get Realistic About the Dangers of the San Onofre Nuclear Plant

by RUSSELL D. HOFFMAN

Both units of the San Onofre Nuclear Plant are currently shut down.  Let’s keep them that way, to prevent a Fukushima USA from happening here.  We love our community and don’t want to lose it.

While it may be comforting to some that Southern California Edison says they are unwilling to restart either reactor until THEY are satisfied that it is safe to do so, the history of San Onofre itself, and of the nuclear industry in general, strongly suggests THEY will consider the “million dollars a day” they are losing in revenue per reactor each day while the reactors are offline, more than they will consider the risks and problems that restarting these old jalopies might cause to the population at large.

The local community is unprepared for the sort of catastrophic event a nuclear reactor meltdown would be for Southern California.

We know this from seeing what happened — and is happening — in Fukushima, Japan, nearly one year ago.  We know this from seeing what happened — and is happening — in Chernobyl, Ukraine, 25 years ago.  We know this from the blackout last fall right here in Southern California, when both reactors went offline just when they were needed most, and were, as usual, the last things to come back online after the trouble was sorted out.

But the fact that they are never “there” when you need them is hardly their biggest problem.  We know what a meltdown will mean now, not only from Fukushima, and Chernobyl, but merely from observing rush hour here twice every day and on weekends too!  We know we can’t escape!  We know this from Northridge, and Loma Prieta, and a thousand other rattles.  No one that’s lived here long hasn’t felt a “shaker” and we know humans are truly powerless against such forces.  We know we’re powerless against tsunamis too, and that puny little sea wall at San Onofre is too small and would probably cave in anyway (especially when a massive boat is pushed through it)!  Some earthquake faults run right underneath, or very close to, San Onofre Nuclear Waste Generating Station (merely called SONGS because the waste it produces is ignored).

They can’t rebuild their houses after the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima because of the meltdowns.

They could not evacuate properly:  Instead, citizens were told to “shelter in place” and to wear masks, but such measures are of nearly trivial effectiveness.  Their citizens will be suffering the consequences — well known to science — for decades to come.

Here in Southern California we do not have enough hospital beds for an earthquake, let alone a meltdown.

Here in SoCal, we do not have enough exit routes away from the area around San Onofre.  Not enough for a ten mile evacuation, let alone, a more reasonable 50 mile or 100 mile evacuation.

We don’t even have enough duct tape, with which we are somehow supposed to seal up the (broken) windows from the earthquake, the one that’s coming, “The Big One”, the one which will knock down the bridges and crack the reactor, and made us GUESS that we should “shelter in place” for the next two weeks, or thirty years, because there will be no radio stations to tell us what’s going on because they won’t know — and we won’t have any power to hear them, and there will be no internet, and no phone service, and none of the local governments had even been monitoring radiation levels so they could tell their citizens what’s happening.  The only one’s who might know are the scattered few who had purchased battery-powered radiation detectors — and they would be blocking their windows and not going out!

Let’s not have to face THAT sort of disaster here in Southern California.  It’s clear the owners and operators of the San Onofre Nuclear Waste Generating Station have no idea why the tube burst in Unit III’s new steam generator nearly a month ago, resulting in a five-inch (13 cm.) gash, causing a primary-to-secondary coolant leak, forcing the operators to SCRAM the reactor and release radiation to the environment.

Unit II’s steam generator tubes are also falling apart, and perhaps were — or are — only a short time away from rupturing too.  Or perhaps Unit II will suffer something even worse:  A cascade of tube ruptures, which could send fragments of metal throughout the primary and secondary coolant systems, blocking pumps, pipes, valves, flow channels, and ripping apart the zirconium rods that hold the uranium fuel pellets — and the fission products.

The wear in Unit II has resulted in plugging about 1% of the tubes, and although that might be within SCE’s expectations for “wearing in” these new parts, Edison is downplaying the more serious aspect:  How worn some of those tubes that were plugged turned out to be.  Tube wear was reported to be at least 30% of the thickness of the (incredibly thin) tubes on two tubes, and at least 20% on nearly 70 tubes.  And, considering that nearly 10% of the tubes in Unit II had 10% wear or greater, how come many of them are NOT being plugged up?  The answer is obvious:  If you plug up too many tubes, you can’t make as much money!

Put another way, SCE isn’t plugging the “lightly” worn tubes because they are HOPING that the wear was entirely due to “settling in” (whatever that means) and NOT due to excessive wear from contaminants rushing through the system, including (but not limited to) chemical imbalances in their mixture, or microscopic particles of very dense material (such as uranium or plutonium) that have broken off the ceramic nuclear reactor fuel itself, and are now traveling at tremendous speed throughout the primary coolant loop, as well into the other loops and then into the environment.

Long ago, Dr. John Gofman, the first person to isolate working quantities of plutonium for the Manhattan Project, described the building of nuclear reactor power plants as “premeditated murder.”  After Fukushima and Chernobyl, there can be no doubt.

The burst and worn steam generator tubes at San Onofre were “new” a little over a year ago.   But thousands of pipes, pumps, valves, control cables, and other parts of San Onofre are very old.  Replacing them all would be costly and time-consuming for the utility, with the possibility of incorrect installation always present.  Waiting for parts to fail is the standard policy instead.  But the replacement parts have been just as faulty as the parts they are replacing! But either way, the public is put at risk.

Why do they keep rebuilding these old reactors?  Because new ones are A) Prohibitively expensive and B) Prohibited by law in California.  So instead, San Onofre has been permitted to replace major parts that were never meant to be replaced, and to let uninspected parts continue to operate until they fail.

They had an ammonia gas leak at San Onofre last fall, and had to evacuate hundreds of workers from a portion of the reactor site.  It could have been a lot worse but the root cause is obvious:  Old parts fail, new parts fail, and the radiation, heat, vibration, salty sea breeze, and years of neglect and a policy of “fix on fail” have all taken their toll.  And even if every part were perfect, the operators aren’t.   And if they ARE perfect, then why do they keep getting caught lying?

At a million dollars a day in revenue per reactor, giving up has never seemed like a good option to the utility.  But if you lose your home because one of their reactors melts down, they know they won’t have to pay you!  They are protected by something called the Price Anderson Act, first passed in 1957 and renewed periodically ever since.

When the new steam generators arrived a few years ago, there was already trouble.  Southern California Edison, in cooperation with the lapdog Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and with the help of the manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, did extensive work to re-inspect and repair them before they were installed.  Supposedly they were in extra-good shape after that fiasco.  So much for promises, assurances, and expectations.

During Unit II’s current refueling outage, now extended indefinitely, SCE also replaced the reactor pressure vessel head — a huge operation: RPVH’s for Pressurized Water Reactors like SanO weigh tens of thousands of pounds and have dozens and dozens of bolt-down points and dozens and dozens of holes in the top for the control rods.  Replacing them is a big job, and was never supposed to have to happen in the whole life of the reactor.

A lot of heavy and yet very precise lifting is involved in replacing the RPVH.  But it wasn’t all that long ago that they dropped a crane at San Onofre, that they were moving with a gantry.  The 80,000-lb crane was dropped because they didn’t use a “spreader bar” to even the load.

A few weeks ago, someone dropped a flashlight into the reactor coolant, and — violating every rule in the book to try to retrieve it — fell in!

Who knows if the new RPVH was annealed properly when it was forged?  Was it properly x-rayed and inspected afterwards?  Did SCE inspect it properly when it got here?  Why didn’t the old one last the life of the reactor?  Were the holes for the control rods drilled properly, each and every one, or did they drill too fast or pour cooling oil on the drill bit too slow, so that something overheated and changed the structure of the metals?  Was everything aligned properly so the control rods won’t jam when they are forced down into the reactor?  Were the bolts tightened down in the proper sequence and to the proper torque?

Do we really want to find out the hard way that any of this went wrong?

There are two steam generators in each reactor.   When one fails, the other is the backup, and there has to be a backup because that’s how the heat is removed from the reactor — through the steam generators.  Some pressurized water reactor designs have three or even four steam generators, but San Onofre’s reactors have only two.

Each reactor has only ONE reactor pressure vessel head, and if a hole develops in THAT, there will be little or nothing that can be done to prevent a Fukushima USA from occurring.  Do we trust the new RPVH after what’s happened with the steam generators?  And if so, why?  Are we nuts?

We must demand an immediate PUBLIC inquiry into why these new tubes burst, and why the old problems of mismanagement, worker intimidation, lying, and fraud are not considered CONTRIBUTING FACTORS to what’s wrong now.  We must demand that the reactors remain shut not just until these problems are sorted out, but FOREVER.

What we get if we start them up again is the worst of everything:  Electricity for a moment, and radioactive waste for millions of years.

Nuclear power is a failure.  Fukushima proved it — and those were American-designed reactors.  Chernobyl proved it — that was human failure coupled with bad design.  Davis-Besse, Three Mile Island, Brown’s Ferry — all these nearly-catastrophic failures in America also proved it.

It’s time to get very realistic about San Onofre.

It’s time to dismantle it.

Russell D. Hoffman lives in Carlsbad, California. He is an educational software developer and bladder cancer survivor, as well as a collector of military and nuclear historical documents and books. He is the author and programmer of the award-winning Animated Periodic Table of the Elements. He can be reached at: rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com

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