The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, the location for two mammoth nuclear power generators sitting atop a world-renown surf break 20 miles south of Laguna, needs to clean up its act, the City Council agreed in a 4-1 vote Tuesday.
The council, with Elizabeth Pearson declining, agreed to join San Clemente in demanding that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission enforce stricter safety measures and comprehensive evacuation plans or else permanently dry-dock the two behemoth generators, operated by Southern California Edison.
The plant supplies 2200 megawatts of nuclear power or one-fifth of power used to the Southern California electricity grid, according to an SCE spokesperson.
“If it’s so bad that we can’t be evacuated, we need to stop operating it,” said council member Verna Rollinger. “I wish it were going to shut down tomorrow. Either we need to figure out how to deal with nuclear issues in a safe manner or we need to change the way we get our electricity.”
The council’s decision comes one week after a “low-level“ radioactive gas leak was detected from a storage building next to the plant’s southerly reactor. The leak is due to a thinning steam-generating tube inside the reactor, according to SCE. The reactor was shut down to assess the problem.
“There is no such thing as a minor incident involving radiation leaks from nuclear power plants,” stated resident Alan Boinus, one of a dozen locals speaking in favor of supporting San Clemente’s position.
The NRC recently reported that two other tubes in the second unit are damaged beyond repair with hundreds of other tubes in measurable disrepair even though the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ equipment is less than two years old.
The council will send a letter of support along with a copy of a 1982 city ordinance that supported San Clemente 30 years ago in requesting stricter safety measures when Unit 1 at SONGS was shut down due to malfunction after only 46 days in operation. The incident occurred three years after the meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania.
Councilwoman Toni Iseman disclosed that, after five hours of internet research, she learned that Unit 1 is now buried at the San Onofre site.
The council’s letter will also request the removal or safer storage of radioactive waste, known as spent fuel rods, which is now at 4,000 tons, before relicensing is approved in 10 years.
“I’m assuming that with 104 plants that exist across the country, we are all storing our waste on site because nobody else wants it?” Rollinger queried Chris Abel, SCE spokesman. “There’s no place to take it,” Abel replied, due to the lack of a federally allocated location. Abel said SCE has not decided if the utility company will apply for license renewal in 2022 when SONGS reaches its 40-year lifespan.
The timing of the demand letter with the recent leak at San Onofre is coincidental, according to Rollinger. Rollinger said she asked to place the item on the council’s agenda last November when San Clemente’s mayor, Lori Donchak, requested Laguna’s support. Rollinger said she was told her request was sent to committee for review, which she said was equivalent to sending it to “paperwork Siberia.”
“They were very thoughtful in the last 10 days to have the incidents that they’ve had so that everybody knows we’re not making this stuff up,” commented Iseman. “It’s one of those things where you go, ‘How did we miss this for so long?’”
Tourism, the city’s biggest money-maker, would nosedive with toxic levels of radiation leaks, Iseman said. “As far as the city goes, we might as well forget it because most of our money comes from hotels, restaurants and our visitors and they have choices,” she said.
The council’s concern with SONGS, the second-worst rated plant for safety out of 104 in the U.S., according to NRC reports, comes nearly one year after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan. Radioactive contamination there now stretches beyond the evacuation radius, according to Toyo Keizai Online reports. Fukushima is the largest nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Japan is now employing more sustainable sources to supply 50 percent of its power, according to reports.
Resident Audrey Prosser suggested replacing the nuclear station with a solar plant or a wind farm on the hills surrounding nearby Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps’ west coast base. “There would be no need for emergency evacuation plans, siren drills, sheltering instructions, distribution of iodine pills or designated emergency locations for people to go,” she said. “If all that is needed, how can this plant be safe?” Prosser suggested switching to energy-efficient light bulbs as a start in reducing the need for nuclear energy. “There is no way to evacuate seven million people.”
Elsa Breezy urged the council to “reassess our nuclear bomb.”
Pearson voted against the letter of support, saying she wanted to hear from the industry first. “We’re not experts here,” she said. Abel later invited the council for a tour of the plant.
“If we would ask the cigarette industry if their product is safe, they would probably come and tell us it is,” commented resident Mike Beenan. “Or if we asked the oil industry if drilling in the Gulf is safe, they would probably tell us it is. Let’s face it, industry experts are paid to tell us their products are safe.”
The 1982 resolution also expressed concern about Laguna’s designated position to “shelter” if a disaster at San Onofre were to occur, which meant that residents would be required to stay put to prevent massive panic and gridlock while others closer to the site evacuated.
A letter from the NRC to SCE last March revealed that SONGS’ employees felt pressure not to disclose safety issues out of fear of retaliation and job loss. The letter stated that NRC had received 53 separate allegations regarding safety concerns at SONGS in 2008-09, well over the industry average.
The push to improve standards at SONGS was initiated by Gary and Laurie Headrick of San Clemente Green, who told the council Tuesday that they were approached by whistleblowers from SONGS who were afraid of losing their jobs.
“Once you’re approached by something like that you just can’t turn your back on it,” said Headrick, adding that there are 8.4 million people from Los Angeles to San Diego who live within 50-mile radius of SONGS. He suggests reducing energy use and exploring more life-sustaining alternatives rather than perpetuating a power source he considers incompatible with living people, plants and animals.
An article in the NY Times last September revealed a pattern by Japan’s nuclear-power industry of underestimating or hiding seismic dangers to avoid costly upgrades and continue operating. Japan has since passed legislation to discontinue operating nuclear-power plants as licenses come due. Germany will also defuse its nuclear generating stations, pulling the final plug in 2022, and Switzerland is also phasing out its nuclear energy plants.