San Onofre

San Onofre Nuclear Waste Generating Station (SONWGS) is a pair of aging Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs) in the midst of Southern California’s burgeoning, vibrant, forward-thinking, technologically advanced, interconnected, health-conscious population.

It doesn’t belong here at all, and it’s well past time to get rid of it.

Conceived in the 1950s, the two units that still operate were designed in the 60s, built in the 70s, went online in the 80s, and have been falling apart ever since. And they have been piling up nuclear waste along our coast ever since, too — at the horrific rate of 500 pounds per day, with nowhere to put it. There are over eight million pounds of so-called “spent fuel” at the site right now — making it potentially worse than Fukushima in an accident.

And “spent fuel” is quite a euphemism, considering that after use, it is about 10 million times MORE hazardous than before it went into the reactor. And it will remain so for tens of thousands of years. After use, it’s full of biological-systems targeting fission products.

Spent fuel’s “protective cladding” — one of the major shields of defense that the nuclear industry promotes (along with the domes, the emergency core cooling systems, backup diesel generators, and one or two other systems that may or may not work when needed (and don’t always work when tested, and aren’t always tested)) — is pyrophoric and releases explosive amounts of hydrogen gas when it comes in contact with air. The gas can collect under one of the other “shields,” causing an explosion.

If it sounds complicated, it is. So complicated, the “experts” got it wrong. Very wrong.

Fukushima proved the “experts” didn’t understand how accidents can progress at nuclear power plants (although we had warned them pretty exactly…), and continues to prove that the “best” minds in the nuclear industry don’t know what they are doing (and still won’t listen to us…).

Fukushima has baffled the “experts” for more than four months now. Yet they (the NRC, DOE, SCE, TEPCO, etc.) still pretend to be experts! The public should not be fooled. Real “experts,” first of all, oppose nuclear power. And even they are baffled as to how to keep Fukushima’s deadly effluent away from the environment, from people, from fish, from plants, from everything that lives.

Back in the USA, San Onofre has had numerous fires, explosions, electrical shorts, radioactive coolant leaks, and even a few near-misses over the years. It was only built (rebuilt, actually) to withstand earthquakes less than one tenth the magnitude scientists predict can (and probably WILL) occur in the area.

SanO’s tsunami sea wall is barely 14 feet above mean high tide! Evacuation plans are obsolete and were never workable anyway. KI tablet (potassium iodide) distribution systems in the event of an accident are a joke — a deadly one.

Not that KI does all that much good, but it does do some good, protecting the thyroid from the uptake of radioiodine (Iodine-131), which has a half-life of about eight days. However, the PROPOSED response — distribution after the fact — is virtually useless, since in a meltdown, the iodine is usually (as we have seen at Fukushima) released from the fuel pellets in a matter of hours (or even minutes) as the actual meltdown occurs. Fukushima suggests this is usually followed by a hydrogen explosion, which is when everything actually gets released to the environment. San Onofre claims to have “hydrogen recombiners” which Fukushima could have had, but didn’t. However, even the most passive hydrogen recombiners can fail, be poorly maintained, poorly positioned, or simply be overwhelmed.

There is a better solution, of course. Shut San Onofre down forever. It’s a failed technology even without a catastrophic failure. It’s not cost-effective. It never can be.

San Onofre’s workers are totally unprepared for an accident. Many are foreign, speak little or no English, and can’t follow the public debate about the plant. They have neither family nor roots here (there are exceptions, of course). Many are contract workers and/or temporary hires, and/or have only been at the plant for a few years, since massive replacements of contractors and SCE employees have occurred periodically.

Not surprisingly, the staff are scared to report problems, and lie to the regulators publicly and to the public regularly. They fear retaliation, and there are numerous testimonies from whistleblowers that those fears are fully justified.

It’s a given that the plant is far more dangerous than it looks. Fukushima looked very pretty, too. It’s easy to paint the walls and ignore the cracking, the rust, the embrittlement, the growing misalignments of parts… everything can be covered up with fresh paint! (Yes, they even paint the domes at San Onofre now and then, because so much bird poop accumulates on one, and not the other, that it looks strange and worrisome to the plant’s owners; it might attract publicity again (it has in the past…)!)

More than seven million people live within 50 miles of San Onofre, and 20 million more live just beyond the 50 mile mark. San Onofre is a catastrophic trillion-dollar accident just waiting to happen.

San Clemente is the nearest city to San Onofre, just a few miles north of the plant. The mayor of San Clemente has recently assured nervous residents that the tritium which leaks out of San Onofre is minor, harmless, and safe. She uses, as her source for information on tritium, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s web site, a very poor choice (the EPA’s web site wouldn’t have been much better).

Over the years, San Onofre has leaked an enormous amount of tritium into the environment — dozens of teaspoons’ worth!

Of course, that doesn’t SOUND like a lot!

But it takes tens of billions of gallons of water to dilute it to regulatory (drinking water) standards! That should be a clue to tritium’s extreme toxicity. In fact, the current regulations are probably way too lax. Too much tritium gets out, and permissible levels are too high.

The NRC downplays the dangers from tritium as well as the difficulties in handling it. They appear, in fact, to be unfamiliar with the many ways tritium can be harmful, and even (hopefully not on purpose) present some of tritium’s most dangerous properties as if they were benefits!

If enough people understand the hazard this one radioactive isotope — tritium — represents to humanity, perhaps it will be enough of an impetus to get the public to demand the permanent shut down of the tritium-producing, plutonium-producing reactors (merely two of over a hundred radioactive elements reactors produce and release, these two being just about as nearly at the opposite ends of the periodic table of elements as you can get, and two of the most hazardous, as well).

About 2/3rds of all U.S. reactors have recently been “discovered” (like we couldn’t have guessed) to have leaked tritium; the others might also be leaking it as well (gee, I wonder…). It’s time to shut down the tritium factories!

Tritium 101

Here are ten facts about tritium (T) that every lay person should know:

1) T, aka H3, is normally bound with water (ie, a normal H and an O to make HTO, aka H2O, aka water). Tritium has a half-life of about 12.3 years.

2) Water evaporates, leaks, damages electronics and electrical equipment, flows to the sea, floods your basement, corrodes pipes, carries even more corrosive substances… Water can be nasty stuff when it’s where you don’t want it (tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, waterboards, inside your cell phone…).

3) No living organism, and no normal table-top chemistry process can distinguish tritium or any other radioactive substance from a stable isotope of the same substance until the moment of radioactive decay occurs. By then, of course, it’s too late. (You need rows of thousands of centrifuges or other special equipment to separate various isotopes of elements. Just ask Iran, they do it all the time…)

4) Hydrogen is a basic building block of all life-forms. Proteins are molecules often containing thousands of hydrogen atoms in a precise configuration with other atoms. Damage one atom, break the special shape of the molecule in any way (as all ionizing radiation can do), and a signal protein could become a poison instead — or at least, would fail to transmit its signal. (Life is made of signal proteins more than just about anything else.)

5) If they leak tritium, which is almost always bound up as HTO, chances are pretty good it will evaporate, and never make it into the ground. We will breath it as water vapor. It will be in doses too low to measure accurately, thanks to all the tritium everyone is already dumping into our environment. (There is very little ‘natural’ tritium on earth at any one time.)

6) When tritium decays, it releases a beta particle. The way beta particles harm biological systems is by the fact that they are (negatively) charged and very high speed. Damage is done on a time and distance basis: The longer and/or closer the beta particle is to another charged subatomic particle (electron) or particles (atoms, molecules) the more effect the beta particle can have on any given thing, and thus, the more damage it can cause. Therefore, virtually all the damage is done at the END of the beta particle’s track. THEREFORE when the NRC or SCE describes tritium’s beta particle as a “soft” or “low energy” beta particle, it is a misrepresentation, because they want you to believe that’s a GOOD thing, and protects you. Actually, since they measure tritium by total energy dumped per unit of body mass, the fact that it is a relatively low energy beta release means there are more releases per total energy amount — and thus there is MORE, not LESS, damage for a given amount of energy released! (This phenomenon is known as Bragg’s Hump.)

7) Since T is usually bound with H and O as HTO (masquerading as H2O), when it decays from that state, it leaves an OH free radical molecule — hydrogen peroxide, which is extremely damaging to cell structures in its own right! Your body does make OH but only in very controlled ways. THIS OH molecule is almost invariably in a bad place, and causes a lot of damage for a long time (eat your anti-oxidants, folks!)

8) Normal cell death is a biologically controlled function. Cells normally live until signalled by the body’s control mechanisms to commit “cell suicide” (apoptosis) and then they do so, and are absorbed by a nearby cell before completely collapsing as a structural unit. It’s very controlled and happens about a million times a minute inside your body, and is part of the process of life. But random cell death causes inflammation, which is NOT a good thing! And random damage to the DNA can cause cancer, which is even worse!

9) The biological hazard rating for tritium has been raised in the past, but surely is still not high enough (it’s more dangerous than they admit). Tritium is used in fewer and fewer medical procedures because it is so difficult to handle safely, and so dangerous in such minute quantities.

10) A typical reactor is only allowed to release about a thirtieth of a teaspoon of tritium in a whole year! A bad year is maybe a whole teaspoon of tritium. That’s how deadly this stuff is! And if that teaspoon of tritium evaporates, do you think it gets measured accurately, and properly reported? What it does get is a special dispensation from the NRC to release the extra tritium that year.

And here is one bonus fact about tritium:

Tritium is a vital part of thermonuclear weapons. Eliminate access to tritium, and such weapons become duds after a few years. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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: