San Onofre's nuclear plant is vulnerable to malfeasance from both adjacent 5 Fwy and the ocean. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to obfuscate is to be evasive, unclear or confusing. Other synonyms include cloud, muddy, fog, blur, obscure, divert, complicate, and confound.

On May 26, Voice of OC published an opinion piece from professor emeritus Roger Johnson which explains why California rightfully decided in 1976 to ban construction of new nuclear power plants and why recent calls, to both extend the operating license of Diablo Canyon, the state’s last operating nuclear plant, and to build new ones nationwide, are seriously misguided. His reasoning includes that “nuclear power is the most expensive, the most unreliable, the most dangerous, and the most environmentally unfriendly form of energy production.”

Extending the life of Diablo Canyon, California’s last operating nuclear power plant, beyond its slated closure in 2025 is hotly contested. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

John Dobken is a spokesperson for Southern California Edison, the operator of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Clemente which was shuttered in 2013 following radiation releases caused by steam generator failure. His rebuttal to Johnson, published in the Voice of OC on June 6, is a lesson in the art of obfuscation.

In his opening salvo, Dobken’s cited examples of “new supporters” for nuclear energy are a Brazilian fashion model, an advocacy group headed by a singer-turned-nuclear-enthusiast, and unnamed “various community members who value service through membership in civic groups.” He also points to an online poll showing increased support for nuclear energy among registered California voters. The listing intentionally obscures the fact that no nuclear experts are cited. Omitted, for example, is the blockbuster joint statement issued in January by nuclear authorities from the United States, France, Germany and Great Britain detailing strong opposition to any expansion of nuclear power as a strategy to combat climate change.

Next, Dobken makes a case that spent nuclear fuel is not dangerous, claiming it has “never harmed anyone” and never will because “we isolate the material from the environment and people.” As support, he points out that no one was harmed when, in April, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm’s entourage walked through San Onofre’s outside storage pad containing dry storage spent fuel canisters without wearing protective gear. This illogic confounds the risks of a casual stroll through the canister storage pad with the repeatedly stated concerns of nuclear safety advocates in Orange and San Diego Counties.

Serious concerns about the San Onofre plant include: (1) that it is located in an earthquake zone which makes it vulnerable to earthquake damage and tsunamis, as caused the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactors in 2011; (2) sea level rise is inevitable due to climate change, and the storage canisters are already only 108 feet from the shoreline and just 18 inches above ground water; (3) the canisters are thin-walled, never designed for long-term storage or transport, and vulnerable to stress corrosion cracking from the marine environment and other conditions; (4) the absence of any technical or political progress on creating a geological repository for the nation’s roughly 100,000 tons of deadly nuclear waste has turned San Onofre and other plants across the nation into de facto permanent nuclear waste dumps; and (5) the storage canisters at San Onofre are highly visible and completely vulnerable to terrorist attacks such as airplane crashes, truck bombs, and land and sea launched rockets and missiles. 

One of Three Mile Island’s two nuclear reactors melted down in 1979, just three months after going online. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dobken also clouds the dangers of nuclear waste by omitting the uncontestable fact that spent nuclear fuel is far deadlier than the original fuel that goes into reactors. Inhaling just a tiny speck of dust containing plutonium can kill you. Spent fuel is so deadly it has to be isolated from humans and the environment for a million+ years.

Dobken provides no evidence to support his statement that the failure of the federal government to find a solution to the nation’s nuclear waste “does not mean we don’t know how to safely store spent fuel on site at plants (operating or decommissioned) around the country.” This claim blurs the critical issue of timeframes when discussing nuclear waste storage – the half century that nuclear waste has been accumulating at the nation’s nuclear plants versus the million+ years it needs to be secured. Dobken also obscures unspoken facts, as the canisters at San Onofre and most plants around the nation were never designed for more than very temporary storage, and there is no plan in place to replace a failed canister leaking radiation into the environment.

Dobken goes on to claim that “many environmentalists who once opposed nuclear have looked at its safety record and its carbon-free generation of electricity and declared it good for mankind” and that the anti-nuclear movement is ignoring “new data, new facts.” Yet notice, he cites not a one. This confuses the reader into thinking the unnamed persons and facts are so obvious that they need not be spelled out.

Dobken rebuts Johnson’s statement that “every scientist knows that radioactive exposure is cumulative in its effects” with an unsubstantiated “this is simply false….” Without justification, he negates what anyone searching the internet can confirm is true in two minutes, that radiation effects are indeed cumulative. He attempts to confuse the reader’s rational mind with totally irrelevant measures, like the amount of radiation we receive from natural and manmade sources (like x-rays and CT scans) and the amount San Onofre dumped into the ocean in one radioactive water batch release in May.

None of the numbers Dobken offers up say anything about, for example, the impacts of radioactivity accumulation into the local marine food chain from bioaccumulation over decades of ocean dumping, or what level of exposure could result from routinely surfing at San Onofre State Beach on batch release days. He also purposely uses numbers unfamiliar to most readers to cloud their thinking and hide that the comparisons are not relevant to the issue of cumulative effects. The fact that San Onofre has been releasing radiation into the ocean and atmosphere for over a half century with unknown health impacts goes unaddressed.

Dobken muddies the issue raised by Johnson of possible cancer risks from living near nuclear plants by pointing to unrelated research on exposed nuclear plant workers and veterans. He quibbles over whether or not there’s been any research in the United States in 30 years to distract from the importance of the issue Johnson’s raising. Though Dobken is correct that one study  – the one of children in Illinois living near nuclear plants – found no association with cancers, he is nevertheless guilty of cherry picking (another obfuscation technique) by not acknowledging compelling studies from abroad that have found significant associations. He hopes readers will miss Johnson’s point, which is simply that we should welcome, not block, research on possible cancer streaks in communities within 50 kilometers of San Onofre and other nuclear plants around the country.

It can be challenging, and frankly quite tiring, to counter obfuscation. Because obfuscation’s purpose is not about having an honest debate or seeking the truth, countering it is a lot like trying to nail a blob of mercury with a needle. While Johnson’s article might not be flawless, it is well-documented and well-intended. His purpose is to alert the public to the renewed rush to embrace nuclear energy in the name of the climate crisis when the United States is no closer to addressing the dangers associated with nuclear power and its deadly waste than we were when California blocked expansion of nuclear power back in 1976. Momentum toward clean energy sources should not be derailed by bringing back dirty and dangerous nuclear energy. Dobken’s article uses obfuscation at every turn to confuse and lull the public into a false sense of safety about nuclear power and its deadly waste. My response to Dobken is that the public is not that gullible.

Sarah Mosko, PhD is a longtime resident of Orange County and freelance journalist focused on environmental issues, like climate change and nuclear safety, and rational solutions. 

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