Dobken: People Deserve Facts and a Science-based Discussion Regarding Spent Nuclear Fuel at San Onofre

While working as a journalist 16 years ago, I walked into the newsroom one day and the assignment editor handed me a hard hat. I asked “what’s this for?” He told me if you’re going to be in the newsroom you have to wear it because of falling ice. Lexington, Ky. had recently experienced an ice storm and chunks of ice were falling off the guy wires attached to the 900-foot broadcast tower, smashing onto the roof of the station. The rear of the station was off-limits completely. Cars were damaged in the parking lot. My thought was if we have to wear hard hats in the newsroom, perhaps we shouldn’t be there. Shortly thereafter we re-located to the local cable TV office and used its studio to broadcast the news for the next several days as ice continued falling.

Today I work about 100 yards from what will be a facility housing 3.6 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel. I don’t wear a hard hat at my desk. More importantly, I don’t wear dosimetry to measure radiation dose. Why? Because it isn’t needed nor required due to the robust shielding of the storage system. So if one lives 30 miles from the spent nuclear fuel at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), and I work 100 yards from it, have you talked to me about any “dangers?” Not one person who has made statements about spent nuclear fuel affecting millions of people in a 20, 30 or 50 mile radius has inquired about my safety. And that’s fine.

Sarah Mosko is offering her opinion on the situation, and selectively using the opinions of others to paint a picture of spent nuclear fuel storage that is inaccurate at best and completely dishonest at worst. After her piece first appeared in the Fullerton Observer, I emailed her roughly 2,200 words of factual information from reports and studies, on everything from chloride-induced stress corrosion cracking to threats from terrorism. She ignored nearly all of it and instead sought out additional sources of non-credible information, such as from people associated with the Samuel Lawrence Foundation.

The Tom English paper cited in Mosko’s piece includes a footnote to a paper English and his colleague submitted to a national nuclear waste conference earlier this year. After a peer-review the paper was rejected and it was then scrubbed from the Foundation website. All that remains is the footnote to a non-existent paper.

Torgen Johnson, also with the Foundation, has been pushing a resolution that claims communities around SONGS reside in a “50-mile emergency planning zone.” There is no EPZ around SONGS and there hasn’t been since 2015, and even then it was 10 miles. With only spent nuclear fuel on site, there is no opportunity for public impact. The fact that no EPZ exists has been pointed out to Johnson but he continues to mislead elected officials and the public. The resolution also features the absurd claim spent fuel could “cripple military readiness at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.” Perhaps Mr. Johnson should tell the Marines?

Mosko asks Charles Langley of Public Watchdogs about chloride-induced stress corrosion cracking, Stress corrosion cracking has been well-documented going back to India in the early 19th century, despite Mosko’s selective use of a video clip to make it seem we don’t have extensive understanding of it. According to Langley, CISCC happens “quickly.” As I told Mosko in an email, CISCC at SONGS would take 80 years for a through-wall crack to develop, if it happened at all. Mosko didn’t include that caveat. Chloride-induced stress corrosion cracking only affects weld areas on the canisters. However, SCE laser-peened the welds, adding a layer of compressive stress relief that inhibits CISCC. Torgen Johnson then adds that the 316L stainless steel used at SONGS wasn’t designed for a marine environment. Literally the exact opposite is true.

Mosko features Donna Gilmore and her chart of the supposed benefits of “thick-walled” casks. As someone recently remarked, if SONGS had gone with thick-walled casks Gilmore and others would be arguing for welded-lid canisters.

What Gilmore fails to tell people about thick-walled casks is that none of the available casks can be used at SONGS. See the chart below.

The casks Gilmore advocates for are also made of ductile cast iron, an inferior metal compared to 316L stainless steel. Choosing these casks is to choose to permanently store spent fuel at SONGS. We aren’t interested in doing that and neither are the communities around us. No welded-lid spent nuclear fuel canister has ever failed. I specify “welded” because a bolted-lid cask has failed. Again, we don’t use bolted-lid casks at SONGS.

Mosko writes about the 25 year warranty on Holtec canisters for “manufacturing defects.” These are items that would stem from the initial manufacturing of the canisters – not what occurs after delivery. Twenty-five years is more than adequate to determine if something that occurred during fabrication will present itself. It’s actually a very robust warranty.

Plutonium may be toxic, it is a heavy metal, but one would have to ingest a sufficient quantity for it to be lethal. How would one do that with spent nuclear fuel? Remove the 35,000 lbs. shield lid, cut through the welded-lid (which also weighs about 10,000 lbs.), rip out a fuel rod and cut through the zirc-alloy cladding to get at the fuel pellets. Then swallow a couple. That sounds ridiculous but this is the reality Mosko and others won’t tell you. There is no motive force in the canister to propel any material out into the environment.

Fear is the Mission
In an effort to create an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and doubt about spent nuclear fuel, activists and others have had to ascribe consequences to it that aren’t realistic or supported by the science. That’s one reason they only talk in buzz words (“plutonium,” “tsunami,” “earthquake”) without supplying any of the relevant information that provides necessary context. For instance, the recent 7.1 magnitude earthquake near Ridgecrest produced shaking of 0.57g (g refers to the force of gravity) near the epicenter. The dry fuel storage systems at SONGS are built to withstand 1.5g of motion. Tsunami? The dry storage systems at SONGS are rated to submersion by 50-125 feet of water. But what would happen to 54-ton spent fuel canisters in an earthquake or tsunami? They won’t tell you (the answer is nothing) because then they would have to provide data and facts to prove their wild claims. We provide the data and facts and Mosko believes this is “downplaying” the risk. She had 1,000 words to explain the risks and couldn’t. That says a lot.

We have public walking tours at SONGS and we encourage readers to come out and see for themselves. Learn the facts about spent nuclear fuel storage. The next step is then to reach out to Federal elected officials to have the fuel at SONGS removed to a permanent or interim Federal disposal facility, which is the law of the land since 1998. That’s what we are working toward. In the meantime, I will continue to look out my office window and know the spent fuel at SONGS is stored safely and securely.

John Dobken, from San Clemente, Calif., is the Public Information Officer at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. He spent 14 years as a journalist and has worked in the nuclear energy industry for nine years.

 

For a different view on this issue, consider: 

Mosko: Public at Risk, Scandals at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org