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Nuclear Regulatory Hearing April 28 on San Onofre safety

By Helen Villines
Editor Miriam Raftery also contributed to this report


“What if you had just 15 minutes to evacuate, looking around your apartment or house, trying to quickly decide what you will take, how overwhelmed would you be – knowing you couldn’t return for ten thousand years?” he asks.


The Greek fisherman’s hat slides down his forehead, exposing globs of silver hair as he looks out at the crowd. These are his people, working-class types: there are big, burly laborers, so work-tired they only make a meeting every three months or so; single mothers, their children in tow, youngsters dangling from knees and chairs; senior citizens, serious, frowning, the lines of economic insecurity etched in their faces; the disabled in wheel chairs and immigrants chatting in dozens of languages.


Rokcy Neptun shared a troubling story from a family member who used to work inside another California nuclear facility.


“My brother-in-law, Jerry Evans, a journeyman plumber, confessed to me just before his fatal heart attack a couple of years ago, how he had carried around the guilt of the faulty and cost-cutting work he had been instructed to do on the Diablo Canyon Nuclear power plant’s cooling pipes in the early 1980’s. He spoke of nightmares of nuclear meltdowns and eventually moved his family to Arkansas,” he said.


Neptun has been the volunteer director of San Diego Renters Union for almost 10 years. Now the members have asked him to run for mayor, not only to bring issues of rent control and free public transportation into the public debate but to focus attention on the continuing operation of the nuclear power station at San Onofre, which, in their view, poses a danger to their families.

“We have waited for the prominent environmental groups, like the Sierra Club or the Environmental Health Coalition, to act,” Jean Rogers, stood and told the group, “but there is this eerie silence.” She spoke of how incredible she fond it that weeks after the Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster, there was not a mainstream movement here in San Diego to shut down San Onofre.


“Just 45 miles from where we gather,” Neptun told the gathering, “is a nuclear power plant with two reactors working and one shut down, storing spent fuel rods, just like Fukushima. For far too many years, we have naively accepted our government’s propaganda that the facility is safe because in our Faustian bargain for cheap electricity we have hid from the truth.”


In Fukushima, Japan, a 30-mile exclusion zone around the plant will be uninhabitable for decades, perhaps centuries, following a nuclear disaster now rated a "7", the same rating given to the Chernobyl crisis in the former Soviet Union.  The U.S. advised an even broader evacuation zone of 50 miles around the troubled Japanese reactors.


An exclusion zone of 50 miles around San Onofre would take out most of San Diego, parts of East County, and heavily populated areas in Orange and Riverside Counties as well.  View how far you live from San Onofre at this link from CNN:  Put in your zip code at this CNN site to find out.  


On March 29, the Riverside Press Enterprise revealed in an article, a former Southern California Edison manager filed a lawsuit against his employer, claiming he was fired for raising safety concerns over San Onofre.  


According to ECM news partner 10 News, plant operators said their scientific modeling shows that they are prepared for any earthquake and tsunami created by an underwater fault. A 30-foot wall separates the plant from the water.  But critics raise concerns over whether that's high enough to protect the lives and safety of millions of San Diegans should a tsunami occur here.


"We are as confident as the most credible scientific data that is available. That is to say, we are quite confident," said Southern California Edison spokesman Gil Alexander.


Only six feet of concrete contain the plant’s spent fuel rods in reactor number one.  The building, situated near multlple earthquake faults, was designed to withstand a 7.2 earthquake, while the quake in Japan registered 9.0 and was followed by a devastating tsunami. Unlike Japan, California has never experienced a 9.0 quake.  But some geologists have suggested that Southern California may be due for an 8-plus quake.


“All it would take is a large earthquake closer to the California coast to generate a tsunami which could hit San Onofre, just a few feet from the ocean, without an effective sea wall,” Neptun said. “Eight and a half million people, including you and me, live within a fifty mile radius of that plant and that is exactly the distance that the United States government advised all US residents to evacuate from the disabled Fukushima facility immediately after the disaster.”


Unit 3 at San Onofre is 27 years old, while unit 2 is one year older.  Both are dependent on their cooling systems.  Neptun said that the the aging cooling systems, along with hundreds of miles of pipes and conduits, are "all that separate this scorching, churning, gaseous death from our families. An earthquake, a tsunami, a clever terrorist or even human error, as at Chernobyl, could be devastating.”


Neptun summarized a 2009 report by the New York Academy of Sciences which documented that from the April, 1986 Chernobyl disaster till 2005 a total of 125,000 people (soldiers, fireman, guards, cleaning crews) died from direct exposure and another 200,000 persons who lived within the fallout area have perished because of their exposure.  Other studies have put the numbers far lower, but still substantial.


The United Nations Health agency has estimated that 9,300 people are likely to die of cancers caused by radiation; other groups such as Greenpeace believe the death toll could be ten times higher over time.


On April 28 at 6 p.m., the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be rpesenting safety performance test findings on San Onofre. The meeting will be held at 33122 Valle Road in San Juan Capistrano--two days after the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Groups concerned about the twin reactor's safety at San Onofre are organizing protests at the April 28 event in Capistrano. 


"Do you want a Chernobyl or Fukushima in San Diego County?" asks a flyer being circulated.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein has called for an investigation into safety at San Onofre after touring the plant and learning that spent fuel rods laden with plutonium are stored onsite.  The U.S. currently has 71,862 tons of this nuclear waste and no permanent storage solution.

There are 11 years left on San Onofre’s license but Southern California Edison is already beginning the process for relicensing "this decaying facility by asking rate payers – you and I, since SDG&E owns 20 percent of the plant – to pay for a $64 million white-wash study of earthquake preparedness,” Neptun said. “They are asking for another 20 years to operate but have not come forward with a single plan to dispose of the dangerous, volatile spent fuel rods.”


“Most of the 104 operating nuclear reactors and all the 15 closed down ones house the spent fuel on site in water-filled cooling ponds or in dry cask storage bins but these storage holding facilities last a maximum of a hundred years – not the necessary ten thousand years," Neptun observed. “What arrogance, what hubris and selfishness we have as a society to push these dangers and lethal consequences of continuing nuclear power off onto future generations, especially since there are alternative energy technologies available like solar, wind power and the ocean."


If San Onofre were to shut down, replacing the lost power would pose challenges. Opponents differ on the best option, with alternatives ranging from solar and wind power to natural gas or increased energy conservation.


Neptun closed his presentation by quoting an Iroquois law, which states that "in every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation, even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of pine,” Neptun concluded. “So let’s get our act together and insure a habitable future for our descendents here in our beautiful San Diego region before it’s too late.”

Helen Villines is secretary for San Diego Citizens for Nuclear Free Neighborhoods,(619) 450-9804

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