San Onofre’s nuclear waste poses no special dangers, national experts say
The words “nuclear power” once sent chills down the spines of everyone from schoolchildren to grandparents. During the 1970s and ’80s, televisions routinely broadcast footage of protests against the construction of new reactors. Americans feared that radiation leaks would harm legions of people.
In the public’s imagination today, images of mushroom clouds have to a notable extent been replaced by scenes of melting glaciers, flooding from sea-level rise and demonstrations over oil and gas pipeline projects.
Individual communities might still harbor concerns about their local nuclear power plant, such as the debate on how best to store spent uranium from the shuttered San Onofre facility in northwestern San Diego County. But experts agree the widespread alarm, the fevered opposition that became the stuff of Hollywood movie plots in bygone decades has largely died down.
In fact, worries about climate change have renewed support for nuclear power among some environmentalists and scientists. This energy option’s relatively small carbon footprint is prompting a cautious rethinking — even among people who once fought on the front lines against splitting atoms for electricity.
Prominent environmental organizations have downscaled or shifted their focus away from nuclear issues.
Perhaps the best-known is Greenpeace, which launched its anti-nuclear campaign in 1971. Today, the group has mostly disbanded its efforts to oppose such power plants in the United States.
“It’s not that we’re not concerned about nukes. It’s that the biggest threat we perceive to the stability of our climate and environment is the oil and gas industry,” said Jason Schwartz, spokesman for Greenpeace on climate and energy issues.
America’s cultural shift on nuclear power is driven by a mix of factors.
For one, nuclear power has logged an enviable pollution and safety record when compared with fossil fuels. There have been only a handful of meltdown incidents at nuclear power plants worldwide, and they have led to far fewer deaths and injuries than what’s attributed to pollution from coal- and gas-burning facilities.
The biggest nuclear meltdown in U.S. history occurred in 1979 at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, when large amounts of radioactive coolant escaped into the atmosphere. But scientists and public-health officials have consistently found no cause-and-effect connection between the radiation leak and rates of cancer in that region.
In 1986, a series of failures at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl plant released radiation into the atmosphere for nine days — radiation that traveled across Europe. Experts have linked that radiation to about 4,000 cases of cancer — a significant number but considerably lower than the health toll associated with coal-fired power plants. Up to 10,000 new cancer diagnoses each year are linked to coal-fired facilities just in the U.S., according to analyses by groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Defense Fund and the American Lung Association.
The Chernobyl disaster is one of two nuclear meltdowns in global history that were given the most severe rating.
The other involves the Fukushima facility, which was hit hard by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011. The incident has been widely regarded as an example of increased safety over the decades, made possible by improvements in building standards and retrofits, as well as nuclear containment technology and procedures for dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear disaster.
Although the Fukushima facility suffered three meltdowns, several explosions, the release of radioactive material from multiple reactors and the overheating of a pool used to store spent fuel, no one has died from the crisis.
Experts cite one other significant element for Americans’ changing mindset: Nuclear energy appears to be a slowly dying industry in the United States, especially as cheaper fuels like natural gas and renewable ones — including wind and solar — threaten to cut into nuclear power’s roughly 20 percent share of the U.S. energy market.
No new nuclear power plants are being proposed in this country, and many of the existing ones have been slated for closure or are nearing the end of their operational life.
Environmental and other activists are debating what would be the safest way to decommission such facilities and, perhaps most of all, what to do with the radioactive waste piling up at dozens of sites around the nation.
“You might see concerns about nuclear reactors, but I don’t think you’re seeing much of that. All the concern is primarily around spent fuel and nuclear waste,” said M.V. Ramana, a physicist at the University of British Colombia who’s working on international security issues related to nuclear energy.
One of the best examples of this discussion is playing out with the now-defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station, which is undergoing the decommissioning process after experiencing a small radioactive leak five years ago. The plant has more than 3.5 million pounds of nuclear waste, and all of it needs long-term storage.
Researchers in the field generally believe nuclear waste should be moved as soon as possible from individual power plants, including San Onofre, to a centralized and federally run storage facility. The U.S. government promised to create such a site by 1998, but has yet to follow through.
The same researchers, along with national environmental and other advocacy groups, have also said the situation at San Onofre isn’t particularly dangerous when compared to the dozens of other locations nationwide that have radioactive waste onsite as well.
In San Diego and Orange counties, local environmentalists and many residents living near the shuttered nuclear plant couldn’t disagree more. They argue that San Onofre is a uniquely precarious situation, namely because of the region’s threats of earthquake, tsunami and sea-level rise.
“Storing spent fuel adjacent to the coastal waters, adjacent to one of the busiest railroads in the country, adjacent to a freeway that accommodates 140,000 vehicles per day, adjacent to 4.8 million people within a 50-mile radius, and finally, over an active earthquake fault — what could possibly go wrong?” said Garry Brown, executive director of the environmental group Orange County Coastkeeper.
Brown has served on the community engagement panel for San Onofre’s decommissioning since Edison created it in 2014. Other panel members include people affiliated with the American Nuclear Society, California State Parks, Camp Pendleton, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and regional universities.