San Clemente will seek federal legislation to require that data from radiation monitors around the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station be made public as frequently as possible, after several residents expressed concerns about safety at the 44 year-old plant less than three miles from the city.
The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to pursue expedited reporting by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) but rejected residents’ pleas and a city staff recommendation that it work toward adding more radiation monitors around the plant. Only Councilwoman Lori Donchak supported the increased monitoring.
“There’s a great deal of monitoring,” said City Manager George Scarborough. “The problem is the public doesn’t see it.”
Residents of San Clemente and nearby cities have been asking city leaders for a real-time, independent monitoring system after a series of recent issues at the plant.
San Onofre has been shut down since January, when a minor radiation leak was brought on by severe wear to tubes that carry radioactive water. The NRC told the Los Angeles Times that the tubes showed "many, many years" worth of wear despite being less than two years old.
San Clemente has no real-time radiation monitors within city borders, according to a city staff report. The nearest real-time station is in Anaheim, more than 10 times as far from the plant as San Clemente.
“I think we have to be weary as a public and understand that maybe we need to take more precautions to protect ourselves,” said Gary Headrick, founder of San Clemente Green.
San Onofre’s operators have several live monitoring stations within the plant that send data to the NRC, according to the city, but those results aren’t published.
The most frequently updated data from a radiation monitor within or immediately adjacent to San Clemente is from a site just south of the city. The data from that monitor is usually collected monthly and posted online once every three months, according to the city.
Radiation data from the Anaheim monitor, which is overseen by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, is collected every hour and posted online within two hours.
More than 100 other monitoring sites — seven of them in San Clemente — also dot the region, but their data is published only once per year.
There were heightened concerns Tuesday in light of a 7.4-magnitude earthquake earlier in the day in Mexico. It was an earthquake last year that triggered the tsunami that ultimately caused a massive radiation leak at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.
“I think [San Onofre] should stay turned off forever for the safety of San Clemente and the 8.7 million people that it would affect if something like this happened,” said Jerry Collamer, referring to the metro area surrounding the plant. “And we’re sitting on top of earthquake faults where this could happen.”
One resident, however, said he was “impressed” by the amount of radiation monitoring at the plant.
“Yes, it’s not in real time or even near real time,” said Richard Boyer, a San Onofre employee and radiation protection specialist. "But the idea that a nuclear plant would get away with emissions and nobody would notice — the amount of scrutiny that is being applied seems to put the lie to that idea.”
Several speakers said the root issue for them is one of trust.
”What we knew after Fukushima is the [Japanese] government lied to everybody about the radiation,” said Roger Johnson. “They concealed it.”
According to the New York Times, a Japanese government investigation found that “authorities grossly underestimated the risks tsunamis posed to the plant,” and officials have “admitted that Japanese authorities engaged in a pattern of withholding damaging information and denying facts of the nuclear disaster," including, among other reasons, “to avoid public questioning of the politically powerful nuclear industry.”
“They didn’t trust them in Japan, and I’m not sure I would trust them here,” said Johnson.
But to most council members, the current monitoring system is more than sufficient and the authorities can be trusted. As proof, Councilman Bob Baker pointed to a series of signatures on a report by San Onofre’s operator, Southern California Edison.
“I’ve heard about people not trusting people. There are an awful lot of signatures on this report,” said Baker. “These are real people that do this stuff. Just like we’re all real people.”
“I think adding a couple more monitors to that is a complete waste of time,” he added.
Councilwoman Donchak, however, said she appreciated the resident’s concerns. “I feel you’re a legitimate and important voice that we need to listen to,” she said.
Donchak then turned to her fellow council members and said: “You call it trust, I call it public confidence. Something is worrying a large number of people, and they’re coming to us for help, so I’m hoping we can be part of a solution.”
Mayor Pro Tem Tim Brown said the current level of monitoring is “sufficient,” and that several speakers were overblowing the risk without any factual basis.
"I also believe that there is an obligation on the part of the citizens here to not fear-monger, to not [make] blanket statements that you can’t prove, you can’t verify but that terrify people,” said Brown.
“To state that as fact, I think is irresponsible,” he added, without explaining which comments be believed were incorrect.
One of the speakers, Jenifer Massey, took issue with Brown’s critique.
“We’re not trying to scare our neighbors,” said Massey. “We’re trying to help people. We’re trying to save lives here.”