Tuesday discussed effects of radiation and radiation released by accidents; possible earthquakes and tsunamis; failures of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and technical and regulatory problems inside San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
San Clemente hosted its second of three meetings to learn about the risks and benefits of nuclear power and the lessons learned from the Fukushima, Daiichi disaster in Japan.
The spring earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan concern which prompted the series of meetings.
The crowd was decidedly friendlier to Tuesday's speakers than they were to
NRC and Oversight Problems
Arnold Gundersen, who spoke via teleconference from Vermont, is a nuclear scientist, former plant executive and nuclear safety advocate. A running theme of his commentary and later presentations was that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is compromised as an oversight organization.
“That a serious accident happened in Japan is not a statement on Japanese culture, it demonstrates the pressure the nuclear energy industry puts on nations around the world,” he said.
Gundersen said that the five appointed Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners are always vetted by the industry group the Nuclear Energy Institute. He pointed to a number of congressional reports about the NRC, one of which indicated “malfeasance” on the part of one commissioner, and another report in which a commissioner was asking industry players for jobs, and then spent his last months on the commission making favorable decisions for the company that promised him a $1-million salary at the end of his term.
Gundersen also said regulators weren’t taking into account all the risk factors of operating a nuclear plant. They use a computer program that assesses risk, but they use parameters that are unrealistic in figuring out what a potential disaster would cost.
“You know the old saying ‘garbage in, garbage out,’” Gundersen said. “If you have low input parameters, you’re never going to get the plant to make [safety] modifications because it’s not worth it. They put a low value on life, they put a low value on cleanup after an accident.”
Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear policy expert with UC Santa Cruz, also pointed to failings within the NRC.
“, and the employees were fabricating the log,” Hirsch said.
He cited the need for fire watches at nuke plants as evidence the NRC is ineffectual. Many nuclear plants have flammable wire insulation, Hirsch said. After a 1975 wire insulation fire at Browns Ferry nuclear plant, the NRC ordered plants to replace the wire insulation.
Industry players said it would take too long and be too expensive, so they would institute “compensatory measures,” meaning someone has to look every hour to make sure nothing is on fire. The NRC agreed to go along, Hirsch said.
A Potential Accident
The biggest concern by the public over the seven months since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster has been the potential for an accident that would cause a meltdown or other radiation release from San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
“The risk that something like Fukushima could happen here is not quantifiable,” Hirsch said. “It’s just rolling the dice. Science, particularly seismology, is not an exact art. The ability to predict an earthquake—let alone its magnitude—is pure guesswork at this point.
“It’s quite possible that San Onofre could operate for the rest of its life without a major accident,” Hirsch said. “It could have a major accident tomorrow.”
Hirsch cited regulatory violations by San Onofre, , and he cited problems with diesel generators used for backup.
San Onofre has multiple redundant systems for dealing with a loss of power to the station. Electricity is always necessary to run pumps that keep the fuel cool with water, which is why all plants have backup diesel generators and battery power.
This property of nuclear fuel to continue to give off heat is also the reason Fukushima Daiichi had so many problems; during the “total station blackout,” the diesel generators were inundated and inoperable, causing the spent fuel to lose its cooling water.
Radiation in the Event of an Accident
Nearly all of the experts referred to a 1982 draft environmental study by the NRC of the potential risks of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
Dr. Helen Caldicott of Physicians for Social Responsibility said the study predicted a staggering potential effect from a possible San Onofre accident, assuming the weather conditions followed a worst-case scenario.
The study predicted, “130,000 prompt fatalities, 300,000 latent cancers and 600,000 cases of genetic defects within 35 miles of the plant,” Caldicott said.
The experts also said that the plant regularly emits small amounts of radioactive gasses like xenon. Tritium is another emission that combines with water to make radioactive steam and is hard to contain.
Hirsch said that as long as the plant was operating normally, however, these leaks wouldn't pose a huge cancer risk among the population.
“I don’t know that the risk to you living here is any more than the risk of living next to the El Segundo oil refinery—nothing in our environment is pure,” he said. “It’s not a trivial issue, but it’s not top-of-the-list.”
The San Clemente City Council will have an item about the nuclear plant on its regular agenda Tuesday. The council members are expected to make some kind of statement of opinion or policy regarding the continued operation of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, though they have no jurisdiction over it.