Evac­u­a­tion plan for San Onofre is scaled back

Safety con­cerns rise as of­fi­cials drop emer­gency plans re­gard­ing San Onofre

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Mor­gan Lee mor­gan.lee @ut­sandiego.com

Of­fi­cials say the risk has de­clined since the nu­clear plant was re­tired.

Nu­clear-emer­gency pre­cau­tions and es­cape plans are be­ing scaled back for com­mu­ni­ties near the re­tired San Onofre power plant in north­ern San Diego County be­cause fed­eral safety of­fi­cials re­gard a ma­jor dis­as­ter as in­creas­ingly un­likely.

The U.S. Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion has ap­proved a re­quest by nu­clear plant op­er­a­tor South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son to do away with elab­o­rate plans for the evac­u­a­tion, shel­ter­ing and med­i­cal treat­ment of peo­ple living within a 10-mile ra­dius of San Onofre’s twin domes to guard against an air­borne ra­di­a­tion plume.

The de­ci­sion to dis­con­tinue emer­gency plan­ning, ex­cept within the plant’s bound­aries, of­fi­cially puts to rest a decades-long era of anx­i­ety re­in­forced by pe­ri­odic testing of air-raid-style sirens and the dis­tri­bu­tion of house­hold potas­sium io­dide or “KI” tablets that can block ra­dioac­tive io­dine from dam­ag­ing the thy­roid gland.

At the same time, new safety con­cerns about the stor­age of spent nu­clear fuel are emerg­ing and are likely to en­dure for gen­er­a­tions as en­gi­neers test the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of waste casks and bunkers.

Donna Gil­more of San Cle­mente, who lives within five miles of the plant, says it is too soon to re­lax evac­u­a­tion plan­ning and no­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tems when the ef­fects of cor­ro­sion on nu­clear stor­age casks are not fully un­der­stood.

“Their jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is that noth­ing is go­ing to go wrong,” said Gil­more, an ac­tivist and re­tired sys­tems an­a­lyst. “It’s crit­i­cal that peo­ple know we have this tick­ing time bomb stand­ing there at San Onofre.”

San Onofre’s twin beach­front re­ac­tors — half­way be­tween down­town San Diego and Los An­ge­les — have not pro­duced power since Jan­uary 2012, when a small ra­di­a­tion leak was traced to rapid wear on newly in­stalled steam gen­er­a­tors. Edi­son re­tired the fa­cil­ity in June 2013.

Dis­con­tin­ued emer­gency plans were fo­cused most in­tently on com­mu­ni­ties within 10 miles of the plant, in­clud­ing San Cle­mente, San Juan Capis­trano and Dana Point, along with peo­ple who come and go from San Onofre State Beach and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendle­ton.

Sim­i­lar ex­emp­tions to emer­gency plans have been granted at other U.S. nu­clear plants as they are closed down and dis­man­tled. Edi­son spokes­woman Mau­reen Brown said the com­pany will con­tinue to alert lo­cal emer­gency re­sponse agen­cies if dan­gers arise at the plant.

In a news re­lease, the Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion said that “Edi­son pro­vided analy­ses to show the [emer­gency plan] ex­emp­tions are war­ranted be­cause, when com­pared to an op­er­at­ing power re­ac­tor, the risk of an off-site ra­di­o­log­i­cal re­lease is sig­nif­i­cantly lower and the types of pos­si­ble ac- cidents sig­nif­i­cantly fewer at a nu­clear power re­ac­tor that has per­ma­nently ceased op­er­a­tions and re­moved fuel from the re­ac­tor ves­sel.”

Encini­tas res­i­dent Tor­gen John­son, an ac­tivist on nu­clear safety is­sues since the 2011 tsunami and nu­clear dis­as­ter in Ja­pan, wor­ries that au­thor­i­ties are down­play­ing po­ten­tial prob­lems re­lated to spent nu­clear fuel at San Onofre.

Safe­guard­ing spent nu­clear fuel at the Fukushima Dai­ichi site in Ja­pan be­came a crit­i­cal safety is­sue af­ter the earth­quake. An ex­plo­sion blew the roof off the re­ac­tor No. 4 build­ing, ex­pos­ing a cool­ing pool packed with fuel-rod as­sem­blies and in­cit­ing fears that they might over­heat and com­bust.

Those events even­tu­ally led to the in­stal­la­tion of new in­stru­men­ta­tion at U.S. fuel pools. Some short­com­ings in U.S. reg­u­la­tory over­sight of spent fuel pools were high­lighted in a March re­port from the com­mis­sion’s in- spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice.

John­son wants di­rect public ac­cess to ra­di­o­log­i­cal mon­i­tor­ing at the plant with­out de­lays, so that neigh­bors of the plant don’t have to wait on cues from the plant op­er­a­tor and lo­cal agen­cies.

“Un­til all the fuel is re­moved from the site, then step­ping down the emer­gency prepa­ra­tion is an un­eth­i­cal thing to do,” John­son said.

The nu­clear com­mis­sion con­tin­ues to an­a­lyze ra­di­o­log­i­cal prob­lems that might ac­com­pany a mas­sive earth­quake or other un­pre­dictable events at San Onofre.

Most of the spent nu­clear fuel at San Onofre is be­ing stored in pools of wa­ter for cool­ing. Were the pools to rup­ture or drain some­how, ex­posed nu­clear fuel as­sem­blies could even­tu­ally over­heat and ig­nite.

The Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion es­ti­mates that San Onofre’s ex­posed spent fuel would take more than 13 hours be­fore get­ting hot enough (at about 600 de­grees Cel­sius) to begin destroying its metal cas­ing. Edi­son has sev­eral backup strate­gies for dous­ing the fuel be­fore that hap­pens. It would take more than 17 hours unat­tended for the nu­clear fuel to reach the auto-ig­ni­tion tem­per­a­ture of 900 de­grees.

That leaves enough time, fed­eral of­fi­cials say, to “ini­ti­ate ap­pro­pri­ate mit­i­gat­ing ac­tions, and if needed, for off-site au­thor­i­ties to im­ple­ment protective ac­tions.”

Edi­son also will be do­ing away with emer­gency pro­vi­sions pro­tect­ing con­sumers from ex­po­sure to es­caped ra­di­a­tion through agri­cul­tural prod­ucts, wa­ter and live­stock. That emer­gency zone ex­tended 50 miles out­ward from the plant, south past Pa­cific Beach and to the east be­yond Ra­mona, Val­ley Cen­ter and Te­mec­ula.

San Onofre op­er­a­tors say they no longer need a spe­cial­ized net­work of emer­gency sirens in out­ly­ing com­mu­ni­ties, though the sirens will be avail­able to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties through 2019. Edi­son says neigh­bors of the plant can dis­pose of their potas­sium io­dide pills with­out worry.

The nu­clear plant will con­tinue to em­ploy its own emer­gency staff and con­duct con­tin­ued ra­di­o­log­i­cal mon­i­tor­ing at the plant, while off-site re­spon­si­bil­i­ties shift to­ward the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency and lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

Edi­son plans to move all its spent nu­clear fuel from San Onofre’s cool­ing pools to steel-and-con­crete casks that will then be en­tombed in an un­der­ground con­crete bunker.

That project could be com­pleted as early as 2019. Dis­man­tling the re­ac­tors is ex­pected to take about 20 years and cost South­ern Cal­i­for­nia util­ity cus­tomers about $4 bil­lion. Most of those funds al­ready have been col­lected and set aside in a spe­cial in­vest­ment fund.

Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

THE SAN ONOFRE PLANT

hasn’t pro­duced power since Jan­uary 2012. Some neigh­bors and ac­tivists say its fuel stor­age still poses risks.

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