Just south of San Clemente, an idyllic beachside community in Orange County, California, a potentially hazardous and dangerous dismantling of a nuclear power plant is about to begin.
Back on January 31, 2012, a 75-gallon-a-day radiation leak at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station led to the discovery of extensive damage to hundreds of tubes inside the virtually new steam generators, prompting the power-down of one reactor.
Almost exactly eight years after that fateful day, the tear-down of San Onofre Units 2 and 3 will finally, formally begin. Southern California Edison mailed notices to 12,000 residents in a 5-mile radius of the plant on Wednesday, Jan. 22, saying it expects to launch “deconstruction” work about Feb. 22.
One of the first orders of business will be to upgrade the rail spur at the north end of the site. Rather than trucking debris out, Edison will move as much as possible by rail.
However, this operation is fraught with challenges and danger.
In October, impassioned activists beseeched officials to spare San Onofre’s spent fuel pools from destruction, raising the specter of an “apocalyptic nightmare” — crippled canisters stuffed with dangerous radioactive waste, stranded on an abandoned beach because the pools that could have helped repair or repackage them no longer exist.
Last year, as a crane operator maneuvered to place a 50-ton cask of spent nuclear fuel into a storage vault, the massive cask got caught on an inch-thick steel guide ring and hung there for about an hour. Workers at the site were not prepared for such a dangerous complication.
If the canister had fallen and leaked radioactive gas or liquids, the 18-foot plunge could have led to a panicked evacuation along the coast of California. Even with thoughtful planning, safeguarding people and the environment from a nuclear accident is a complex problem, affirmed a recent report by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.
An accident could cause a Chernobyl type disaster.
The effect of the Chernobyl disaster on the region’s population was staggering. Forty thousand people were hospitalized the summer after the accident from Chernobyl exposures. Radioactive contaminants migrated toward population centers in dust, water, airways and food. Thyroid disease, autoimmune disorders, anemia, and diseases of the circulation system, digestive tract and lungs increased year by year. Leukemia, pediatric thyroid cancer, and cancers of the mouth, throat and stomach followed.
The problem began with a faulty redesign of San Onofre’s steam generators, which cost $671 million and were supposed to give the plant new life. The new generators were installed by 2011, and premature wear of the heat transfer tubes inside them was discovered in 2012 after that radiation leak.
Blame was placed on Mitsubishi, the manufacturer, for “faulty computer modeling” during the design of the steam generators. Those modeling flaws caused excessive vibrations among thousands of tubes in each of the steam generators. The vibrations then caused unexpected wear in some of the tubes.
Today, San Onofre remains home to 3.5 million pounds of incredibly dangerous spent fuel and nuclear waste.
The facility sits on an erosion-prone bluff 2 feet above the mean high tide. Seismic activity often occurs, and four tsunamis hit the region between 1812 and 1930. Geologists say the potential for another tsunami is elevated in the area, which has 8.4 million people living within a 50-mile radius.
The entire process to dismantle the plant and fully remove waste could take more than a decade to complete. Residents in this densely populated are are praying the procedure goes well, because as one said, “If there’s a Chernobyl here, we don’t get a second chance.”