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Nuclear disaster offers lessons to be learned in San Diego, as safety questions arise over San Onofre


By Miriam Raftery

April 27, 2011 (San Diego) – They are the tiniest victims of the world’s worst nuclear disaster: the children of Chernobyl. Yet few have seen their photos or heard their story, even as the world marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl crisis this week. If you haven’t seen these shocking images, view them here: http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/chernobyl.



Now imagine this happening to the children of San Diego, which lies within 50 miles of the San Onofre nuclear power plant.  Or having our city evacuated for our lifetime and beyond, as residents near the Fukushima, Japan, reactors are now enduring. 


These children have been hidden away from the world in an institution, horribly deformed, unable to care for themselves. Media reports on Chernobyl’s impacts focus almost always on deaths from radiation. But the living hell these young victims have been left in merits concern from us all.


This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union. It comes on the heels of the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, recently upgraded to a level 7, the worst rating given on an international scale and the same level as Chernobyl.

Granted, there are key differences in reactor designs that prevented the sort of massive explosion that occurred at Chernobyl, spreading radioactivity across much of Europe. But Fukushima has six reactors, not two. Fukushima’s reactors are on the coast, and no way of stopping radiation from leaking into the sea has yet been found. Amid recent safety concerns raised over San Onofre reactors north of San Diego, the question must be asked: Could a disaster on the level of Chernobyl or Fukushima ever happen here?

Chernobyl cast fallout for 10 days over 77,220 square miles, the Washington Post has reported. It released 400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A New York Times piece indicates 6 million people were impacted. Washington Post reports that 350,000 were displaced forever from their homes, contaminated for centuries by radiation. Another 5 million are still living in areas covered by radiation. Thirty-one workers at the plant died immediately battling the fire and another 29 soon after of radiation poisoning and burns. But the United Nations estimates 9,300 would die of cancers caused by radiation. Greenpeace estimates the real toll is 200,000 and accused the U.N. of whitewashing long-term affects to restore trust in the nuclear industry.

The highest estimate, however—985,000excess deaths between 1986 and 2004 from radioactive contamination-- comes not from an environmental activist group but rather a respected American scientific journal; the report, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catstrophe for People and the Environment, was published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

As of 2006, over 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children exposed during the Chernobyl accident had been reported. Other health problems have included increased levels of Downs syndrome, chromosomal aberrations, neural tube defects, anencephalics and other severe and sometimes bizarre birth defects. There are also lower life expectancies for adults and impacts on fertility in areas severely impacted.

No one knows what the long-term consequences will be for the people of Japan. Though likely less severe than Chernobyl, the 50-mile radius exclusion zone means many people will never be able to go home. Thyroid cancers are likely to occur, experts agree. The impacts of radiation exposure on pregnant women and their unborn babies cannot yet be known, nor can the long-term impacts of exposure such as cancers over time.

The operator of San Onofre maintains that it is safe and that a nuclear disaster is unlikely to occur due to engineering standards that supposedly will withstand a 7.2 quake and 30-foot tsunami. But there are spent fuel rods on site – as in Japan—raising the prospect of not only leaking reactors in a crisis, but release of deadly plutonium from the fuel rods.

Japan’s reactors were supposed to be engineered to prevent a catastrophe from occurring, but those plans failed.


The best engineers in one of the most technologically advanced nations on earth failed to plan reactors to withstand a 9.0 quake and tsunami several stories high. So some skepticism of pledges made by plant designers and operators is clearly reasonable.


Employees of California's nuclear reactors, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, have come forward to say they were fired or threatened into silence after complaining of safety violations.  Close calls have already occurred.  Recently, California Senator Dianne Feinstein called for a new safety investigation after visiting San Onofre--and observing some disturbing issues.

How severe would a nuclear accident at San Onofre’s aging reactors potentially be?

Even an accident on the scale of Fukushima left a 50-mile radius contaminated and likely uninhabitable for a century or more.


A 50-mile contamination zone around San Onofre would turn most of San Diego into a nuclear wasteland—along with large swaths of Orange County and Riverside County. That includes many places in East County, too. It would destroy our tourism and our economy, apart from the massive health consequences.

Are the risks too high?


Some say yes.  Protesters are planning to turn out at an April 28 hearing in San Juan Capistrano, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will release a report with new safety findings on the facility at San Onofre.

San Onofre’s operator, Southern California Edision, has applied for renewal of the license. Those with concerns about a nuclear facility on an earthquake fault in a heavily populated area contend that state regulators should consider the worst-case scenario and reject the application. Proponents of nuclear contend the power is needed and insist the facility won't fail.

While challenges in shifting away from nuclear power remain, California’s Legislature just enacted legislation signed by Governor Brown to require utilities to obtain larger portions of their energy in the future from clean, renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal.  Thus a shift to energy sources with less long-term potential for harm is in the works, and once such sources are operational, shifting away from nuclear power may be feasible without reducing total power usage.  


While no technology is without drawbacks, such as cost or environmental impacts, the negative consequences from other energy sources long-term are far less than from a nuclear disaster which could turn our region into a nuclear wasteland.


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