San Onofre—These Five Red Flags Spell Disaster
If it were your job to protect your community against the dangers of nuclear waste, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to achieve that? Don’t you think the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should, too? Unfortunately, the NRC’s response to a recent newsworthy incident at SONGS makes it clear they are not.
NRC and the Near-Drop Incident.
That recent newsworthy event occurred on August 3. when a 49-ton canister filled with superheated nuclear waste came within a quarter inch of dropping 18 feet while being loaded into storage. How did this happen? It got hung up on a quarter-inch lip near the top of the vault’s inner lining, aka “divider shell.” Since the two large slings intended to protect the canister from a fall continued to descend as if the can were loading properly, the operator and spotter believed it was. No one suspected a problem until a technician noted unanticipated radiation.
How did the NRC choose to make their case about this incident? By hosting a three-hour public webinar only the press and diehard activists would bother to attend, where they could showcase their findings as established fact. The NRC’s presentation raised a number of red flags.
Red Flag #1—Edison Hand Slapping The webinar opened with the NRC saying straight out that the incident occurred due to Edison’s failures. Then they quickly pointed out that no harm was done, that Edison was standing by their agreement not to load more cans until the NRC has completed its analysis and is satisfied that sufficient remediation is in effect, and that we the public have nothing to worry about.
What Edison failings did the NRC identify?
1) A lack of adequate procedures, oversight and training. The NRC spokesman basically claimed that had the operator and spotter been paying attention to lining up the can, and had the supervisors been able to see the event from their safe zone, the loading would have been uneventful.
2) Edison’s failure to report the incident (which only became known thanks to a courageous whistleblower). Clearly, this event demonstrates critical failings on Edison’s part. But as the NRC spokesman explained, as time passes and duties become routine, human vigilance naturally relaxes. And accidents happen. The NRC assures us they are drafting new regulations to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
Okay. But take a closer look at Edison.
They have the worst safety record of any such facility in the US! This is the company that brought us Three Mile Island AND the 1959 Santa Susana meltdown, just 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles—arguably the worst US nuclear disaster ever.
So…given its poor record, are we really naïve enough to believe Edison is diligently going to enforce the NRC’s new requirements forever? Hardly.
Red Flag #2—Setup for a Repeat Yes, Edison’s failures must be corrected. But by laying the rap on Edison’s systems and its employees, the NRC is allowing the primary cause to go unchecked and thereby setting us up for something like this to happen again.
The primary cause of this incident was an engineering defect: as the NRC pointed out, there should have been no quarter-inch lip. The lip served no purpose, and without it there would have been nothing for the canister to get caught on. The NRC spokesman called the defect “unfortunate” and said it has been rectified for a Missouri site. Yet he made it clear that there are no plans to correct this engineering flaw at SONGS, where it will remain a feature of divider shells for all cans yet to be lowered into storage.
Red Flag #3—Denial The NRC spokesman has repeatedly claimed that the can was undamaged and would not have been breached even if it had fallen 18 feet. Retired systems analyst Donna Gilmore, founder of www.sanonofresafety.org and widely respected for her nuclear expertise, her investigative skills and her “dog with a bone” refusal to accept blindsiding pseudo-answers, contests this. She points out that according to the August 17th NRC Inspection Charter to Evaluate the Near-Miss Load Drop, “This load drop accident is not a condition analyzed in the dry fuel storage system’s Final Safety Analysis Report (FSAR).”
She further refers to an NRC document that states that “if a canister drops more than 11 inches inside a transfer cask, contents must be inspected.” True, Canister 29 was not in a transfer cask at the time of the hangup, but why would a drop during loading cause less damage than a drop inside a transfer cask? How could the NRC spokesman be certain an 18-foot fall wouldn’t breach a canister? Could he have been just telling us what the NRC wanted us to believe? As Lawrence Criscione, the NRC’s own risk analyst, said in a December 2017 CBS News interview, “It’s the NRC’s longstanding practice to consistently declare the plants are safe and to avoid directly answering any questions that might suggest otherwise.”
Red Flag #4—Delusion The NRC spokesman repeatedly insisted SONGS is becoming safer as time passes, since “the likelihood of a plutonium fire decreases as the cans age.” According to Gilmore, the hydrides from the high burnup fuel stored at SONGS (and at virtually all US nuclear sites) can cause canister explosions. All it takes is enough air to constitute five percent of the can’s contents. And as time passes and surface cracks become through cracks, air in the cans becomes more likely, not less. And what about cracks caused by water corrosion from rising sea levels? Not to mention the ever-increasing unpredictability of storms, earthquakes, tsunamis even. Saying the site is getting safer is insane.
Red Flag #5—Soothsaying The NRC webinar spokesman told us the plant’s “Aging Management Plan” provides for cans to be inspectable for cracks within the next five years, and that 10 years from now “there will be a longterm solution for waste disposal.”
Really? Based on what, a Tarot reading?
The reason the cans can’t be inspected is that they are welded shut. “None of these or any other welded thin-wall canisters have ever been inspected for cracks, because they cannot be inspected for cracks or repaired once loaded with highly radioactive nuclear waste. The nuclear industry and government have spent millions of dollars and wasted limited resources over the last 27 years to figure this out, yet still no solutions.” –www.sanonofresafety.org
Holtec President Kris Singh has admitted on video that “all it takes is a microscopic crack to get the release. To precisely locate it … is a tall order, and then if you try to repair it remotely by welding … you create a rough surface which becomes a new creation site for corrosion down the road.… As a pragmatic technical solution, I don’t advocate repairing the canister.”
Leading Expert Demands SONGS Recall These five weren’t the only red flags flying at the NRC webinar. If the situation weren’t so dire, it would be immensely laughable. Gilmore calls the Holtec nuclear waste storage system at SONGS “a lemon [that] must be recalled.”
The canisters are at significant risk of developing dangerous cracks as they bump and scrape against the metal guide ring during loading. As Gilmore states, “The NRC knows even microscopic scratches on the thin ~2nm layer of chromium oxide film on these stainless steel canisters can start the cracking process.
Why would they consider allowing Edison to continue loading and cracking more canisters?” … “They cannot make lemonade out of this lemon.” The Solution There is no single long-term solution at this time. The best we can do is find a way to stop Edison from loading the remaining 70 or so SONGS cans into the ground, which they intend to do within the next year, and transfer their contents into safer, thick-wall casks that are bolted shut, hence inspectable. Once that happens, the cans could be moved to permanent storage elsewhere. (The most logical site for that is not Nevada or Texas or New Mexico, but across the freeway to higher ground on Camp Pendleton land.)
No Time to Waste.
The time to stop Edison is NOW, because as NRC chief Greg Jaczko’s has warned (CBS News, August 2018), once the cans are in the ground they are likely to stay there forever.
Please Take Action
1. Put the State Lands Commission meeting (1pm December 3rd at Wyndham San Diego Bayside, 1355 North Harbor Drive) on your schedule. Go and speak out against destroying the cooling pools, because those pools are essential for moving the waste out into thick-wall cans.
2. Write to your Senators and Representatives to inform them that bills like Senate Bill 3053 are misguided, because the containers holding the radioactive waste cannot be inspected and therefore cannot safely or legally be moved to Yucca Mountain or anywhere else.
3. Write to newspaper and magazine editors.
4. Ask a City Council member to encourage the Council to issue a resolution demanding that Edison stop loading canisters into the ground immediately. (Contact info at www.publicwatchdogs.org/san-onofre-community-action-kit/ )
5. Make up stamped postcards demanding thick casks so the cans can be moved away from the beach, and hand them out to people to sign and send to their Senators and Representatives. 6. Invite friends and neighbors over to discuss the issue. If you’ve read this article, you’re likely far more informed than 99% of the people you know.
Get them to take these steps, too.
The clock is striking midnight. If we aren’t serious enough to do what it takes to stop this folly now, who can we blame when Fukushima happens here?