Momentum is building for keeping existing nuclear reactors operating and for deploying new reactors that utilize advanced technology and designs that increase nuclear’s already robust safety margins. A huge reason for that momentum is the acknowledgment that non-polluting sources of reliable electricity will be sorely needed if, indeed, we as a society want to stem (or reverse) the devastating effects of climate change, while maintaining a standard of living that empowers people to be their best.

But another reason, also important, is a realization that maybe a generation of “activists” haven’t been completely factual about nuclear energy and spent nuclear fuel, and their willingness to misinform people for the sake of ideology is suddenly catching a lot of disinfecting sunlight.

A cartoon depiction (at left) of SONGS spent fuel storage as imagined by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation; and a photo showing the actual construction of the Holtec system. Note there is no bluff.

We recently hosted Vice News correspondent Keegan Hamilton and his crew at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) for a piece focusing in part on the dismantlement of the plant and the storage of spent nuclear fuel. The segment is now on YouTube. What has been interesting to observe is the reaction to a comment made by anti-nuclear activist Linda Seeley of the group Mothers for Peace. Talking about potential blackouts stemming from the closure of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, Seeley was dismissive. When asked if she was OK with the lights going off every few days if the plant shuts down, her response: “Sure. You said it. Absolutely.” People noticed and challenged such dogmatic thinking.

Which takes us to the recent op-ed by Len Hering and Paul Blanch about spent nuclear fuel stored at SONGS. I must admit I completely agree with their headline, Misinformation About Nuclear Waste Does Not Protect the Public’s Safety.

 Unfortunately, the balance of the op-ed is more recycled anti-nuclear dogma. Spent fuel is “deadly” for 250,000 years, they write. Deadly to whom and shouldn’t that matter? Hippos are deadly, too, but as long as I stay out of their rivers, I’m good. Same with spent nuclear fuel. It’s safely packaged and sealed and will eventually be placed in a deep geologic disposal facility, kept apart from people and the environment. In a blog post, Geoff Russell does a very good job explaining the logistical gap in the activists’ nuclear waste argument, the chasm between perceived danger and potential for actual harm. “This has always been the nub of the waste problem. How to get people to swallow or snort enough waste to make them sick. The anti-nuclear movement has never solved this problem. They’ve just ignored it,” Russell writes.

For Hering and Blanch, the reader is not supposed to pull those threads because it undermines their key message: be afraid. Be very afraid.

Since James Bond sweated out a visit from a tarantula in Dr. No, we’ve learned quite a bit about these mostly non-aggressive, mostly harmless creatures.

Sorry, but in 2022 we don’t have to be afraid of things we can readily learn about and understand, thereby assessing, and then assigning, an appropriate level of risk. Which makes the reference to “Earthquake Bay” even more absurd. It refers to an 1855 California map. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography performed detailed seismic studies, just this century, in fact, of the faults offshore of SONGS so we have a really good picture of the seismic hazards present in the area. The 2005 geologic research Hering and Blanch link to was actually reviewed as part of the 2017 Scripps study.

Pulling this thread, how would an earthquake affect spent nuclear fuel? The storage facilities are rated to 1.5g peak ground acceleration in the horizontal direction. The loaded 5/8” thick stainless steel canisters weigh close to 50 tons and contain metal fuel assemblies, in stable metal racks, and helium. That’s all. The modules of the horizontal storage system at SONGS are connected and designed to “slide” during an earthquake, keeping everything structurally sound. Of course, getting something that weighs more than 6,000 tons to “slide” would take a pretty good shake.

The TN-NUHOMS dry fuel storage system at SONGS is rated to 1.5g peak ground acceleration in the horizontal direction. The 2019 Ridgecrest quake, a 7.1, resulted in 0.57g of lateral movement in the vicinity of the quake.

But rather than walking readers through why they are concerned about what could happen to spent fuel during an earthquake, Hering and Blanch simply toss out bits and pieces without tying it all together. They don’t seem to want the reader educated, they want the reader afraid. It’s the well-worn tactic of creating Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD). And, truly, it’s all they have left. So, they yell “earthquake” and “tsunami” and “terrorism” and we are all supposed to turn our minds off and just nod along with them. “Sure. You said it. Absolutely.”

Hering and Blanch get into more detail regarding tsunamis but are still ignoring the latest science. They make it seem like there are a lot of “unanswered” questions here, but, again, the opposite is true. Blanch in particular had his questions answered multiple times by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He just doesn’t like the answers because they don’t re-affirm his ideology.

Here’s what Hering and Blanch write in their op-ed:

A major tsunami could block the flow of cool air by packing mud, sand, and organic debris inside the silo.

Here’s what the NRC wrote to Blanch, just last year:

(T)he HI-STORM UMAX system design includes a cavity enclosure container (CEC), a cylindrical vessel with a closed bottom and an opening at the top to allow for ventilation, but otherwise has no penetrations or other openings. Thus, water from flooding events has no path for subsurface intrusion into the interior space of the CEC, and the top of the HI-STORM UMAX ISFSI pad at SONGS is above the maximum flood height at the SONGS site. (Emphasis added).

Where is Blanch’s dissection of the NRC response? There isn’t one. Instead, he moves on as if it never happened, as if the information isn’t available to all of us. The NRC has patiently and thoroughly responded time and again to questions about flooding at the dry fuel storage facility and Blanch and others just ignore it.

Further, what is the source of this “major tsunami?” Do Hering and Blanch have a study they can point to? If so, why not link to it? Because they don’t have one and the reader is not supposed to spend too much time contemplating such minor details. Just be afraid.

The photo used with the Hering/Blanch op-ed misidentifies the walkway wall as the seawall, while claiming “Waves threaten to overwhelm the seawall.” Both have been identified for clarity.

The Scripps study also looked at tsunamis and found the offshore undersea features would lessen any impact from far-field waves, and there was no historical evidence of large undersea landslides causing near-field tsunamis.

Further, the presence of the SONGS seawall wasn’t taken into account when the current state tsunami inundation maps (2009) were drawn up (they take a macro view using satellite data that did not pick up the seawall). Earlier this year, representatives from the California Office of Emergency Services and others surveyed the San Onofre site and the new map for San Diego County will remove SONGS from the inundation field.

That’s how it should work. People are presented with new facts. The facts are assessed and validated (or not) and then appropriate changes are made (or not). Based on the facts. But because the spent fuel storage systems can be inundated by at least 50 feet of water (125 feet for the Holtec system) and still perform their safety functions, we don’t even credit the seawall as a necessary barrier for safety.

Many of the other items in the tsunami thread labeled as “fact” are simply conjecture or the written manifestation of a desire for imagined calamity. They write “Asserting that a risk ‘is not credible’ demonstrates a lack of good judgment.” Blanch himself posited that a flooding event at SONGS would cause “radioactive geysers.” We responded to that and haven’t heard much about the so-called “Yellowstone Effect” since. The risk of radioactive geysers at SONGS is not credible.

In a January response to Blanch’s unsupported assertions, I wrote something that remains true today:

What we are witnessing is the last gasp of an activism that has consistently run into a wall of facts. We (in the nuclear field) agree with the mindset of questioning safety, in fact, we strive to do it every day in our work, and when we fall short, we analyze what went wrong so improvements can be made. It’s in our DNA. But you don’t improve safety by ignoring pertinent information, making wild claims that can’t be supported, or misrepresenting material, removing the context. Those are not the actions of an individual or group with public safety in mind. Readers can decide for themselves what might be the motivation to behave in this manner.

John Dobken is public information officer at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station for Southern California Edison. He spent 14 years as a journalist, and has been in the nuclear energy field since 2010.

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