- Bill Thomas
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks that destroyed New York’s twin towers and damaged the Pentagon, immediate attention focused on nuclear power plants around the world as the next favored targets. Forthcoming public relations releases assured us that every possible step was being taken to negate the reoccurrence of those horrendous events. Air and ground surveillance were mobilized, armed security was beefed up, employee identification and backgrounds re-checked, public tours canceled, and questionable information removed from nuclear information websites. This war, declared by the American president, would be different. Terrorists didn’t play by the normal battle rules. Their newest weapons included commercial airplanes, teenage bombers, poison gas, and dirty detonators.
In the midst of it all the question remains … Could our radiation production plants be vulnerable to further terrorist tragedy?
Even though nuclear power stations have been generating electricity for over 35 years, pros and cons are still debated and questions asked. What is nuclear power? How does it produce electricity? Who uses it? How much
radiation does it create? Why are the "anti-nukes" against it? Who’s responsible for nuclear power in the U.S.? Can nuclear power plants explode? What is the China Syndrome? Is nuclear power a solution to the continuing energy crisis? What’s done with nuclear waste? And, more locally and specifically, how safe is the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant?
What is nuclear power?
Starting with the bigger picture, nuclear power has had two primary uses: weapons and commercial. For both uses, major public concerns have primarily centered on danger from explosions and uncontrolled radiation. It’s true that nuclear matters related to the nation’s defense have been shrouded in secrecy since the 1940s, conducted for many years with little regard for the environment. On the other hand, commercial nuclear power has been scrutinized thoroughly by the public from its very beginnings in the middle‘50s. In addition to nuclear power plants, radioactive material has been successfully incorporated for medical diagnosis and the treatment of cancer, heart ailments, and other diseases, as well as for the testing of metals and pipe seams, among other emerging applications. The safety record of commercial nuclear power has been commendable; the environmental problems with some defense installations, deplorable.
How does it produce electricity?
The nuclear process of electricity generation begins when heat is created from the splitting of atoms (nuclear
fission). This heat warms water, located inside a self-contained, pressurized water reactor and associated piping. As the hot water flows inside tubes, heat is transferred to the fresh water surrounding those tubes producing steam. The steam flows over turbine blades, which spin, thus, generating electrical power. The spent steam condenses back into water by contacting the outside of condenser tubes cooled by seawater.
Who uses it?
Currently in the U.S., 131 nuclear plants produce about 20% of the nation’s total electrical power, operating in 39 states. Coal still supplies over 50% of our electricity, natural gas, 15%. Three percent is developed through renewable sources such as solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal. Medical and industrial use of nuclear power continues to rise. Worldwide, nuclear energy currently provides 17% of the collective electrical power, with the overall volume increasing annually. France heads the list of nuclear power consuming countries with 75%, with Belgium, Sweden, Bulgaria, and Hungary hovering around 50%. More and more European countries and Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have jumped on the nuclear energy bandwagon.
How much radiation does it create?
Our environment is, to say the least, all radioactive: soil, rocks, rivers and oceans, foods, and water. Even our own
bodies radiate (guess what?) radiation. We’re exposed to it all the time. In coastal areas, such as Florida and the communities surrounding San Onofre, and at higher altitudes, people are exposed to slightly more than in other
geographical vicinities. Eighty-five percent of radiation exposure comes from our natural surroundings, while the rest emits from x-rays and radioactive materials used for medical diagnosis and therapy and a smaller percentage from such innocently used consumer products as television sets, smoke detectors, and clocks. Scientists admit that radiation doses above 100,000 mullirem (1/1000 of a rem) yearly could be hazardous to a human’s health. However, the most we normal people absorb is around 250, or 1/400 of that amount per year.
In his book, Bluebells and Nuclear Energy, Albert Reynolds, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Virginia, writes "nuclear energy has the least negative impact on the environment of any of the ways of generating electricity." He compares the environmental effects of fossil fuels to nuclear energy, claiming that all fossil fuels coal, gas, and oil produce greenhouse gases when they burn. In other words, gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are trapped in the ceiling of the earth’s atmosphere, thus influencing global warming. Reynolds claims that, along with renewable energy sources, there is almost no release of toxic substances or gases from nuclear plants, "which have collectively recorded a superb safety record."
In other geographical locations, in 1978 and 1980, higher radiation levels were caused in China by atmospheric weapons tests, and, in 1986, attributable to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident. The mistakes made at Three Mile Island, PA, which included human error and equipment failure, and a faulty nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, served as wake-up calls for a maturing nuclear industry.
Why are the "anti-nukes" against it?
"Nuke" started as a slang word for nuclear weapons, and now encompasses all aspects of nuclear power. "No nuke" means no nuclear power for war or for "so-called" peaceful domestic uses. Along with the rise in nuclear electricity creation, the fear of nuclear explosions, thermal pollution, and radioactive by-products wastes that must be stored for thousands of years - prevails. Here is one frequent anti-nuke quote: "Is there a ‘peaceful’ atom?"
Who’s responsible for nuclear power in the U.S.?
According to its chairman, Richard A. Meserve, "The mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is to ensure adequate protection of the public health and safety, the common defense and security, and protect the environment by regulating the Nation’s civilian uses of nuclear materials. In undertaking this mission, we oversee nuclear power
plants, non-power reactors, nuclear fuel cycle waste disposal, and the industrial and medical uses of nuclear materials." The NRC conducts all licensing, monitoring, evaluation, and inspection of U.S. nuclear producers. top of page
Can nuclear power plants explode?
Radiation is like a prison inmate with a life sentence; it must be contained in each nuclear plant and not allowed to
escape. One fearsome danger doesn’t exist: a nuclear explosion. Because of the low concentration of uranium in the fuel and the solid form of uranium pellets rather than being a gas or liquid, most "so-called" experts believe it’s impossible for a nuclear plant to explode like an atomic bomb.
What is the China Syndrome?
In a worst case scenario, if flow of the cooling water of a reactor was stopped, the melting of nuclear fuel would generate such tremendous temperatures and pressures that the containment vessel could not hold it, nor could any man-made structure. The nuclear industry has called this potential accident, the "China Syndrome" because molten nuclear fuel probably, not only would melt its way through containers, but also keep on going all the way through the globe from the U.S. to China.
Is nuclear power a solution to the continuing energy crisis?
The production of over 20% of the nation’s electrical power, as well as radiation and radioactive materials being credited with generating pollution-free nuclear electricity are factors in its favor. In medicine, they are utilized for the treatment of cancer patients and in testing new pharmaceuticals. Industrial applications include their use in detecting flaws in jet engines, metals, and connecting seams for piping systems, as well as in controlling
crop-devouring insects, powering Naval submarines, and NASA space satellites, among hundreds of other practices. In recent years, no new nuclear plants have been constructed in the U.S. Further growth will depend on public attitude and political action.
What’s done with nuclear waste?
There are two types of nuclear waste: low level and high level. Low-level waste includes cloth and paper wipes, plastic shoe covers, filters, people, machine parts and tools, plastic gloves and lab coats, towels, test tubes and other items that have been exposed to radioactive material. This waste, which dissipates anywhere between a few minutes to a 100 years, is cleaned off on the spot or, if longer containment is necessary, sealed in vaults, isolated until the radioactivity dispels. High-level waste includes the solid spent, or used, uranium pellets and fuel rods, which must be removed from the environment for longer terms with high reliability isolation. A typical power plant produces about 2,000 tons of used fuel every year. Removed from reactors and handled by remote control, used fuel is stored in steel-lined concrete pools filled with 7 to 10 feet of water. After the used fuel is cooled for 10 years or so, it’s stored above ground in huge concrete or steel containers called "dry casks" or disposed of deep underground in very remote areas. Glass and multiple containers, one enclosing another, are commonly used for storage. Different radioactive isotopes in nuclear waste dissipate differently, some in just a few hours; others, like high-grade plutonium, could take more than 24,000 years before radioactive material can become "harmless." Safe storage of nuclear waste is a complicated and continuing problem. The nation’s Senate recently approved Yucca Mountain, NV, as the major underground repository for nuclear waste waiting to be transported from temporary holding facilities.
How safe is San Onofre? top of page
The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), owned jointly by Southern California Edison (75%), SDGE (20%), Cities of Anaheim and Riverside (5%), provides nearly 20 percent of the electrical power for more than 15 million Southern Californians. The plant’s 257 acres on Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base are leased from the federal government. Of its 2,000 employees, 60% live in local communities, San Diego or Orange County. With two nuclear reactors operating at full power, 2.254 megawatts of electricity are generated, the equivalent of 20-25 million barrels of oil each year. It’s refueled approximately every two years, when one half of the nuclear fuel assemblies are removed from the reactor vessel. As to its radioactivity, in an annual environmental report, released April, 2002, the Edison Company indicated that radioactive releases were "indistinguishable from natural sources and man-made elements that migrated long distances through the air or water." In a yearly testing practice, since 1968, soil, beach sand, air, crops, seawater, drinking water, marine life and ocean sediments near San Onofre are examined for radiation. These tests have shown noticeable decline over the past 20 years.
Can San Onofre withstand a major natural disaster, such as an earthquake, a tsunami (large ocean wave caused by an underwater earthquake or volcanic eruption), or a tornado?
Plant officials are confident that, since past local earthquakes from 1991 to 1994 (Big Bear, Landers and Northridge) were of "no consequence," the facility would safely shutdown if a nearby earthquake occurred. With a seawall 30 feet above sea level and building structures designed to withstand wind speeds of up to 260 miles per hour, waves and tornadoes are not considered potential dangers.
All communities within ten miles of the nuclear plant are part of its Emergency Planning Zone. Specific emergency protective plans have been developed in cooperation with federal, state and local agencies. Since 9/11, the staff of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant has concentrated on increased anti-terrorist security measures. They have completed a new radioactive-waste storage facility, repaired major turbines and continued the dismantling of the original Nuclear Reactor Unit 1, which came on line in 1968 with a capacity of 456 megawatts of power and was retired in 1992 with its core removed. The unit has been placed in cold storage. Nuclear Reactors 2 and 3 were completed in 1983 and 1984, respectively, each producing 2254 megawatts (1 million watts) of power which is transmitted to the plant’s electrical switchyard.
In March, the California Coastal Commission approved Edison’s request for the construction of 104 aboveground concrete vaults to hold the highly radioactive waste fuel removed from units 2 and 3 reactors. Although some commissioners and observers questioned the safety of long run waste storage, the jurisdiction of radiation safety was not within their purview but that of the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Completion of the first of the dry-storage units is slated for 2004. The original intent was that spent fuel and radioactive parts would be stored in underwater pools in each of the three units, later to be hauled away for permanent storage or reprocessing. Thus far, that intent has been postponed until ten years hence.
State of California officials have plans to distribute potassium iodide tablets to more than 400,000 people living within 10 miles of the San Onofre plant, as further precaution against a potential terrorist attack. The pill’s benefit is questionable, as its protection covers merely one of many types of possible radiation effects.
In spite of it all, at six every morning at San Onofre State Beach, adjacent to the nuclear power plant, within a cocoon of the U.S. Marine Corps, a long line of surfboard-topped vehicles stacked at the state park entrance can be routinely spotted. Despite the threats of polluted ocean water, terrorism, and radioactive fall out, this place remains a surfer’s dream spot.