San Onofre Credit: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

As Southern California Edison dismantles the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, we scoff at the utility’s “just trust us” attitude toward the continued release of radiation into seawater and the air.

In Brandon Pho’s Jan. 25 article, How Safe is it to Surf or Live Near the San Onofre Nuclear Reactor?, Edison contractor Eric Goldin defends the utility’s radiation monitoring as “completely in compliance with regulations.”

As Edison dismantles the old plant, simply following the rules isn’t good enough as public exposure to radioactive isotopes released into the atmosphere and ocean will increase during demolition.

Here’s what we know. Edison’s on-site monitoring of radioactivity is bare-minimum. Data from atmospheric and ocean releases don’t consider cumulative impacts. The utility’s monitoring locations and methods don’t provide meaningful data.

Radiation is everywhere, the utility says, so ignore our releases at the nuclear plant. In other words, “just trust us.”

Are they serious?

Why doesn’t Edison show us radioactive concentrations as the releases are happening, in real time, instead of aggregating the information into a year-end report? Edison has this data. We call on them to make it available, especially during decommissioning.

We’ll need that data for decades to come, and for our children. That’s because the plant’s iconic domes and industrial clutter will be long gone — and the tritium-laced dust will have long since settled — but the deadly spent nuclear fuel that has piled up over 50 years won’t be going anywhere.

Highly radioactive waste, 3.6 million pounds of it, will be left behind, stranded in a storage vault that straddles a seismic fault system. No one knows how long the spent fuel will remain in its location 100 feet from the sea.

We do know that the stainless-steel canisters holding the waste aren’t built to last. It gets worse: With Edison cleared to remove cooling pools as part of the plant’s decommissioning, the utility will have no place, or plan, to repair a leaky canister.

This brings us back to sampling and monitoring. At the storage location, the utility should welcome and the government should fund a UC San Diego laboratory to provide independent, real-time air-quality monitoring as long as the waste remains on site. In other words, indefinitely.

Meanwhile, how safe is it to surf or live near the San Onofre nuclear plant?

Until we have meaningful data, and a utility and regulators we can trust, we just don’t know.

Dr. Bart Ziegler is president of the Samuel Lawrence Foundation and received his doctorate degree in community and environmental medicine, with an emphasis in inhalation toxicology, from UC Irvine. For the past 10 years, he has advocated, on behalf of the public interest, for improved environmental health and safety measures at nuclear power plants and for the high-level radioactive waste left behind at each site. 

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