July 2012 home page

Nuke Nervousness
Donald Mosier | Councilmember, City of Del Mar


San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) remains offline this summer while problems with their new steam generators are being investigated. The most optimistic projection is that Unit 2 may be restarted in August or September, perhaps at reduced output, if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves. SONGS normally provides 20% of the power to the San Diego area, so we are in the midst of an interesting experiment that will help determine how crucial this 20% contribution is during the peak power demand this summer.

There are two major concerns about continuing to depend on nuclear power plants. The first is the potential for catastrophic failures such as Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in March of 2011. The second is the threat of nuclear terrorism, which a recent Harvard study judged to be a high risk to our national security. There are roughly 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world, which contain 1.6 million kilograms (kg; 2.2 lbs.) of highly enriched uranium and 0.5 million kg of plutonium. A nuclear bomb would require only 25 kg of uranium. Nuclear power plants have been identified as prime targets for terrorists, and spent nuclear fuel can be used in “dirty bombs."

My laboratory at Scripps Research Institute is funded by federal grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As I was writing this article, I received an NIH announcement seeking proposals to develop “medical countermeasures for post-exposure mitigation/treatment of injuries resulting from a radiation/nuclear incident.” To quote from the announcement, “Concern about the threat of nuclear or radiological attacks has grown in recent years due to the increased activity of global terrorist organizations and documented illicit trafficking of radioactive materials. In addition, recent natural disasters, which have threatened the security of nuclear power facilities, highlight the need to stockpile countermeasures to treat radiation injuries in the civilian population. However, few licensed medical products exist to counter the variety of acute and long-term injuries that can result from nuclear or radiological attacks.”

SONGS has the worst safety record of any nuclear power plant in the U.S. The 50-mile evacuation zone includes 8 million residents. The plant is 6-8 miles from a major fault that is overdue for rupture. Hundreds of spent fuel rods are stored in a water pool that depends on power to pump cooling water, but the backup diesel generators are not designed to survive even a moderate earthquake. Premature wear of the tubing in the steam generators could lead to a tube rupture, with loss of core cooling capacity. And, as the NIH announcement indicates, we have no suitable antidotes for most forms of radiation exposure. Japan and Germany are both phasing out their older nuclear power plants and planning for a nuclear-free energy supply. It is time to consider whether the risks associated with keeping SONGS online are worth the power it supplies.


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