Opinion: California’s San Onofre nuclear plant is a Chernobyl waiting to happen via Los Angeles Times


Nuclear accidents often aren’t surprises. Whistleblowers had warned of the dangers before such disasters occurred in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and 25 years later in Fukushima, Japan. As one of the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations, the U.S. may be no better prepared.

Many U.S. states have aging nuclear power plants brimming with four decades of self-heating, highly corrosive and toxic radioactive waste. Last month, the California Coastal Commission gave Southern California Edison permission to dismantle the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and move its 3.55 million pounds of nuclear waste from wet to dry storage.

Local activists cheered after the troubled San Onofre plant was permanently shut down in 2013 after a 75-gallon-a-day radioactive leak was discovered in a new steam generator. Closing it didn’t stop the threat. Now activists must wait until the plant’s nuclear waste is removed to a yet-to-be-built national nuclear waste repository or until the waste decays in several thousand years, whichever comes first.


In an examination of more than 25 archives in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, I found that most of the official Chernobyl accounts are incomplete or misleading. Forty thousand people were hospitalized the summer after the accident from Chernobyl exposures, not the 300 Soviet officials claimed.

The effect of the Chernobyl disaster on the region’s population is staggering. 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.

Belarusian and Ukrainian leaders begged the United Nations General Assembly for aid to move 200,000 more people from contaminated land, and for a long-term study on low doses of radiation on health. The aid never came. It didn’t help that other U.N. agencies, especially the International Atomic Energy Agency, asserted that increased health problems in Chernobyl-contaminated territories had nothing to do with nuclear fallout.


The lack of preventive measures at San Onofre is disturbing. There is no procedure in place to remove the 50-ton casks of highly radioactive waste from their vaults in response to changing environmental conditions such as erosion or rising sea levels. There is no budget to inspect the spent fuel, nor funds to transfer radioactive waste from thin-walled to sturdier thick-walled casks. In the event of corrosion and loss of containment, there are no procedures in place to repair or slow the leak of radioactive contaminants.


Greg Jaczko, a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, recently changed his mind about the safety and feasibility of nuclear power after witnessing how lobbyists campaigned to undercut recommended safety regulation changes following the Fukushima accident, which is expected to cost more than $500 billion to clean up over the next four decades. Sadly, the International Commission for Radiological Protection no longer says, “it couldn’t happen here.” Instead, the group schools the public on how to deal with radioactive contaminants in their environment “as a key factor to control radiation exposure.”

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