The ongoing demolition of the San Onofre nuclear plant has long fueled unease among locals over the periodic release of diluted, radioactive material from the reactor into this iconic surfing spot’s waters.
Such dumping has been going on since the 1960s, for years without public notice.
That was until 2019, when state regulators required the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) parent company — Southern California Edison — to publicly notify surrounding communities of such releases.
Since then, 16 such releases have occurred, with 48-hour notices to the public and nearby communities, according to the company.
Each time, Edison places potentially radioactive wastewater from the company’s decommissioning activities into a tank, circulates it through ion exchangers and filters, “highly” dilutes it, and then samples the liquid for safety before it’s released more than a mile offshore.
A diagram and collection of past data on the releases can be found here.
These radioactive liquid releases will continue as SONGS is deconstructed and will vary in size over the years, according to Edison. The size of such releases were initially known to average around 20,000-25,000 gallons of water, and may become larger in the future.
San Clemente High School student Carson Kropfl said the facility’s landmark twin domes never leave his sight whenever he surfs the nearby waters.
“You see it every time you’re in the water, so it’s always kind of in your mind,” he said. “The potential risk of it.”
In middle school, Kropfl started a group called “Save SanO” to raise communities’ awareness about their radioactive neighbor.
SONGS officials contend the release of radioactive material — primarily, Cesium-137 — into the ocean poses little risk to people at San Onofre state beach, because it’s diluted to a concentration that’s far below risk thresholds set by federal nuclear regulators.
Katie Day, a scientist with the coastal advocacy group Surfrider Foundation, said previous effluent reports from Southern California Edison show the radiation dose of such releases from SONGS are “supposedly low.”
“Yet the amount of radioactive isotopes released into the beach water during each event is not shared publicly,” Day said, adding:
“The SONGS annual radioactive effluent report, which is published nearly a year after releases take place, only provides the amount of each radiological isotope released by quarter, not the amount released during each batch.”
She said her group is trying to get the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts to conduct “before, during and after” sampling of the beach water near San Onofre.
The result, Day said, would be what she calls “independent,” “publicly accessible” and “precise measurements of Cesium-137” with “third-party oversight.”
The Woods-Hole Oceanographic Institution’s testing is also more sensitive to radioactive materials like Cesium-137.
Edison currently runs its water samples through GEL Laboratories, a South Carolina-based environmental consulting group, according to the company.
Dr. Eric Goldin, a part-time contractor and project manager at SONGS whose background includes nuclear engineering and radiation biology, in an interview said Edison’s sampling methods are “completely in compliance with the regulations.”
He added while Woods-Hole could detect Cesium-137, the radionuclide is so “ubiquitous” in the ocean due to factors like “weapons fallout” and past nuclear disasters that with a more sensitive lab testing system, “you’ll probably find that in ocean water that is far removed from San Onofre as well, at similar levels, because the Cesium is everywhere.”
Yet some locals are beginning to worry about much more than what may be in the water.
Roger Johnson, a SONGS watchdog and San Clemente resident, points to SONGS’ releases into the air, as well, saying the atmospheric releases pose just as much, if not more, of a risk.
That concern appeared after community forum last year, where a radiation expert from London warned locals and nuclear watchdogs of what he called a less-discussed hazard in the air: a radioactive isotope known as tritium, which SONGS emits.
Dr. Ian Fairlie, the radiation biologist in London who once headed the Secretariat of the UK Government’s CERRIE committee on internal radiation risks, during the November, 2020 forum pointed to SONGS’ latest 2019 radioactive releases report:
“By my estimation, from the figures that I’ve seen and in 2019, there were 25 curies of tritium emitted to air from this process,” he said. “That’s a huge amount of radioactivity.”
SONGS maintains the tritium being released poses little risk to the public, pointing to federal nuclear guidelines that identify it as a weakly radioactive isotope that can occur naturally and is found in self-luminescent devices like buildings’ exit signs, aircraft dials, and luminous paints.
“From a radiological perspective, it’s not a very large component of radioactive exposure,” Goldin said.
Still, according to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), exposure to “very small” amounts of ionizing radiation “is thought to minimally increase the risk of developing cancer, and the risk increases as exposure increases.”
Johnson voiced concern over the fact that atmospheric releases from SONGS don’t get the same type of public notification system as liquid batch releases.
Edison spokesman John Dobkens said the company releases extensive information on atmospheric releases in its year-end reports. He pointed to the latest one from 2019, specifically at data from that year’s first quarter.
That data, he pointed out, showed atmospheric radiation releases were at 0.0000371 mrem (millirems, one thousandth of one rem or large dose of radiation), “which is 0.000247% of the allowable limit.”
Johnson points out the effects of radiation can be cumulative.
“Each exposure adds to previous exposures,” he said.
Goldin and Dobkens were unable to provide an estimate of the cumulative amount of atmospheric radiation that SONGS has released over the years.
“How many times can you be exposed to the waste until it’s unsafe?” Kropfl, the San Clemente High School student, said.
It was that question, he notes, that in part prompted him to start the Save San-O movement at his middle school.
Part of that group’s work involved going out to the beaches when the waves were good and passing out informational flyers about SONGS to the long line of cars that snaked around the area, full of surfers waiting to take advantage of the good conditions.
Johnson said “no one knows for sure whether the decades of radiation releases increase cancer risks” but that regional discussions about a state-of-the-art study on the issue were canceled by the NRC in 2015.
Since then, a petition with 1,200 signatures calling for a return to the study was delivered to a number of local Orange County congress members late last year, including 49th District Congressman Mike Levin, who vowed at the time to prioritize it in future funding legislation.
Meanwhile, Fairlie — the radiation biologist from London — recommends people, especially pregnant people or those of childbearing age, to steer clear from SONGS. About 3 miles away from the perimeter fence, to be precise.
“I’m aware that includes quite a few houses and schools, but you asked for my opinion, and I’m giving it to you,” he said.
Goldin called that statement “absurd,” claiming that radius recommendation is based on studies from Europe “that I think has no relevance to the power plants here.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.