Decades before clickbait was a thing, antinuclear rhetoric was on its way to become the ultimate clickbait. Just throw the words nuclear, cancer, waste or radiation into a title and you’re bound to get thousands of hits.
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS, has been inundated with this stuff for a long time. But the intensity seems to be growing, even eight years after the nuclear power plant shut down. The recent focus has been on the spent nuclear fuel, better referred to as slightly used nuclear fuel.
This fuel has been out of the reactor for between 8 and 27 years. The really hot stuff decays away before 5 years while the spent fuel is still in pools of water. The half-life of the remaining hot stuff, Cs-137 and Sr-90, is only 30 years, so these are a lot cooler than when they were in the reactor. After 200 years, the fuel isn’t very radioactive at all since all the hot gamma-emitters are gone.
Yet contrary to anywhere else in the world, the fear seems to have grown in southern California regarding this shuttered reactor and its old fuel.
This fear is unfounded. No one has ever been harmed by commercial nuclear waste. No deaths, no cancers, nothing. Ever. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, social unrest and the beginnings of a depression, and these folks are concerned about old nuclear fuel?
One of the problems with this issue is that the public wants some reassurance that things are fine, that they don’t have to worry about something like this nuclear waste. Ever.
But the hurdle is that scientists and regulators must be technically correct and non-judgmental when they discuss scientific issues like this. We usually aren’t allowed to say zero. Instead, we use terms like virtually nothing, not statistically different from zero, or vanishingly small. We understand that in the scheme of things, values that can be described like this do not warrant any further worry.
So as a scientist who has worked on nuclear waste for 35 years, has handled and experimented on this waste, measured these systems to get exact numbers, designed disposal systems, was an author of the Yucca Mountain License Application, monitored the waste, have lived beside nuclear waste for these last 35 years, have had my children and grandchildren live next to nuclear waste – I can tell you without reservation that you have nothing to worry about from the nuclear waste at San Onofre.
Compared to all other risks that you face in Southern California, the risk from nuclear waste at SONGS is vanishingly small.
Nevertheless, last week, Southern California Edison’s Community Engagement Panel (CEP) held a virtual four-hour meeting to consider doomsday scenarios, or outlier events, concerning this waste. Teri Sforza at the Orange County Register gave a good accounting of the meeting.
SONGS has two dry storage systems. The new Holtec Hi-Storm UMAX system, a partially buried concrete monolith that will house 73 waste canisters, and the older, above-ground concrete-bunkered Areva NUHOMS system, which houses 50 waste canisters. The Holtec system features reinforced concrete at least 4 feet thick and its position fronting the ocean helps shield the Areva system.
The serious events that we consider all the time for nuclear waste include corrosion and cracking, dropping a canister from a height, sea level rise and submergence in water, tsunamis, earthquakes, sabotage, direct hit by an aircraft, even hydrogen explosions. These have been studied extensively for 30 years and none of them, if they occurred at SONGS, would cause an increase of radiation exposure to the public greater than background levels.
As an example, one accident scenario assumed the lid of a dry cask was completely removed, or blown off, and that all of the fuel rods were damaged. All of the volatile, or gaseous, radionulcides in the gaps and spaces around the rods, like Xe, Kr and I, are released. As bad as this is, and as unlikely as it would be to occur, the dose at 100 meters from the fuel would be only a one-time 3 mrem (0.03 mSv) dose.
Eating a bag of potato chips a day gives you more than 4 mrem/yr (Yes, potato chips are the most radioactive food with about 13,000 pCi of beta radiation per 12-oz bag, nothing to worry about, just to give some perspective)
This is why no one outside of SoCal gives nuclear fuel in dry cask storage much thought. That the regulatory authority over nuclear issues, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), says these systems are safe for decades, even centuries, doesn’t seem to mean anything to this segment of the public.
But then there’s the wild stuff you can imagine, that’s in lots of movies and science fiction books from the 1950s on.
What if terrorists launched short-range missiles at SONGS’ spent fuel storage systems? Or anti-tank guns? Or rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs)? Or North Korea sent over a nuke? The first three would do almost nothing, and the latter would be a lot bigger problem than some radioactivity from old fuel!
As a scientist in this field, it’s frustrating to hear these scenarios discussed as if they were serious. Just because you can imagine something doesn’t make it true, or possible, or important. And any terrorist that had these weapons wouldn’t waste them on such a lousy target.
Terrorists have long realized that nuclear facilities of any sort are too militarily hardened to make sense attacking. It’s the reason why 9/11 didn’t involve a nuclear plant. Flying a 747 into one wouldn’t do much except kill everyone on the plane. We’ve studied this a lot. Just look at the figure above. This much steel and concrete just doesn’t react like things do in the movies, even to a short-range missile.
Just lob an RPG at a chlorine tanker car as it passes through San Diego on Interstate 5 and you’ll kill more people than Chernobyl did. Or hit a natural gas plant – that would do real damage.
And nuclear waste is orders of magnitude less risky than an operating nuclear reactor.
There’s lots of myths that add to this nuclear fear and they always pop up during any nuclear discussion:
You can’t make a nuclear weapon out of commercial spent nuclear fuel – we tried to.
You can’t even make a dirty bomb out of commercial spent nuclear fuel – we tried to.
You can’t get cancer by living next to a nuclear power plant – we’ve studied that extensively. The only time that’s happened was at Chernobyl 34 years ago, and that was a meltdown at a weapons reactor that didn’t even have a containment building. All reactors in America have containment structures and are completely different types of reactors.
Contrary to popular opinion, nuclear energy is the safest form of energy there is, even renewables kill more people per TWh than nuclear, although renewables are really safe compared to fossil fuel.
“This was an unusual assignment,” said Dr. Tom Isaacs, an actual expert in this field, having been a member of the National Academy of Sciences, part of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and part of President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, among other things.
Isaacs is Chair of Edison’s experts team, strategizing over the future of nuclear waste at the retired San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. “It’s always good to push the envelope and ask the what if questions. But there’s no end to that — you can always imagine something more serious.”
Yes, you can always imagine stuff – it’s called science fiction – and has no place in serious discussions about nuclear energy or nuclear waste.
Of course, the best and only thing to do with this waste is bury it in a deep geologic repository, like we have in New Mexico. And we should store it at a single interim site until that happens, like is being proposed in New Mexico or West Texas. NRC has already said that would be safe.
That’s the effort that these folks and their elected officials should be hashing out with their counterparts in New Mexico and West Texas so that it happens as fast as possible.
Not wasting time worrying about short-range missiles coming off the ocean.