Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran would like to see nuclear power leave Southern California for good. His city sits 22 miles from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a plant he’d like to see decommissioned immediately.
Agran gave a presentation to the City Council on March 27 where he presented his findings from a year of research into nuclear safety and seismic risk. It was a project he began shortly after the devastation of the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami, and the subsequent nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
“Like Fukushima Daiichi, San Onofre is an aging nuclear power plant with a troubled history, located in a geologically uncertain and unstable place,” said Agran in his opening comments. “I believe that our shared community commitment to public safety requires that we bring about the safe, orderly decommissioning of the SONGS as soon as possible.”
However, according to documents available at the SCE website dedicated to the SONGS facility, such drastic steps are not necessary.
“As operator of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, Southern California Edison’s highest priority is protecting the health and safety of the public and plant workers,” reads a document regarding emergency response.
Furthermore, SCE says that they are using the disaster at Fukushima to review their own safety standards and practices.
“Southern California Edison is committed to learning from the Fukushima accident, and is re-evaluating the capability of its equipment, procedures and training to respond to “beyond design basis” response events. We will incorporate the operating experience from the events in Japan, enhancing and further hardening the facility as needed.”
It is the “beyond design” emergencies that concern Agran and other anti-nuclear activists. One such activist is Donna Gilmore who participated in Agran’s March presentation. There, she gave testimony that SONGS was designed to withstand a 7.0 earthquake, but sits by a fault capable of generating an 8.0 earthquake. Additionally, Gilmore said, the 30-foot tall tsunami wall is only 14 feet above high tide.
According to an information sheet on the SONGS facility design, the Richter Scale is only one of two methods to measure the strength of an earthquake. The other, which measures “peak ground acceleration,” is the “more meaningful way to measure an earthquake’s potential impact.”
Additionally, the utility says that the strike-slip fault structure located near the SONGS facility is not capable of producing tsunamis of the same devastating magnitude of the 2011 Japanese disaster.
However, nuclear power generation is not without its risks. Even during normal operations, the pressure inside the reactors, the heat generated by the process, and the materials involved all can present hazards to plant workers and local residents alike.
In January 2012, technicians discovered that one of the two reactors at SONGS had suffered from rapid deterioration of steam tubes used inside the reactor. Each reactor uses thousands of small tubes to allow heat transfer between radioactive and uncontaminated water. That transfer creates the steam that spins the turbines, thereby creating electricity.
In just 2 years, 30% of the tube’s materials had been worn away.
Later that month, a total perforation occurred in one tube in the other reactor, allowing radiation to escape the plant. In all, 321 tubes had to be plugged between the two reactors, and the plant temporarily stopped producing electricity.
A report by Fairewinds Associates reviewed publicly available documents and in a report said several factors worked together to create the wear and the perforation.
Last week, the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission visited the site and toured the reactors with Senator Feinstein and Congressman Issa. Chairman Gregory Jaczko said that the NRC wanted to “get to the bottom of why SONGS is having trouble” with the steam tubes. He did not comment on the report.
Councilman Agran is not waiting for Southern California Edison or the NRC to act, he’s asking city staff for answers to a series of questions that range from disaster preparedness to how the city plans to wean itself off of nuclear energy over the next 20 years.