City Council Approves Watered-Down Resolution on Nuclear Waste
By Roger Johnson
Many will quickly recognize the famous Edvard Munch painting “The Scream” which was recently sold by Sotheby’s for $120 million. This primal scream may describe the reaction of many who sat through a contentious San Clemente City Council meeting on Nov. 6. The council had before it a fine resolution designed to take a small political step to toward getting nearly 2,000 tons of uranium and plutonium moved away from Zip Code 92672. Instead of passing the resolution, the council botched it. They tore it apart, emasculated it, and ended up with a resolution which was about the same as the flawed resolution they passed a year ago.
Instead of simply asking for the waste to be removed from from San Onofre, they asked for a permanent solution to all the nuclear waste problems for the entire county. They got fixated on repositories such as the one in Carlsbad, NM which closed last Feb. with fires, explosions, and radiation leaks. The nation’s only repository was supposed to last for 10,000 years but it failed after only 15. Funny thing, The Scream relates to this botched repository because they planned to bury a copy of The Scream 2150 feet underground along with the radioactive waste. Knowing that nuclear waste retains its lethal toxicity for hundreds of thousands of years, the thinking might be to warn future aliens how human civilization foolishly destroyed itself.
Burying The Scream in a repository will have to wait because it is unlikely that there will be a repository, at least not in our lifetime. Besides, the government and the nuclear industry already have a solution: keep highly radioactive waste stored above ground indefinitely in places like San Onofre.
This nightmare “plan” was quietly announced on Aug. 26 by the NRC. It is this “plan” that the resolution was supposed to address. The new resolution was a carefully crafted collaboration involving the city manager, emergency planners, and councilwoman Donchak, all of whom worked harmoniously for weeks with local environmental groups, residents, and activists. Activist, by the way, are those citizens who are trying hard to get the city government to do its job to protect the health, safety, and future of San Clemente as the Mission Statement requires.
Baker and Brown attack the resolution
The resolution was the first item of new business. Discussion began when several dozen residents urged the council to pass the resolution. Some asked the council to pass it intact. No one spoke against it. Council member Donchak spoke in favor and urged passage. Hopes for a good resolution evaporated quickly when councilman Bob Baker joined with mayor Tim Brown in attacking it. Baker questioned why there was a need for a resolution at all. He was unable to tell the difference between the new resolution and the limited one passed in Dec. of 2013. He stated that it was a waste of time to ask simply for the removal of nuclear waste, and spoke in favor of doing nothing. Councilman Evert was absent and councilman Hamm was quiet most of the evening.
The resolution contained 11 “Whereas” statements and10 sections of requests. The team of Brown and Baker spent the next hour watering down the resolution and trying to rewrite it word by word and sentence by sentence. The exercise was a farce. No one in the audience understood what changes were being made, and those with the microphones appeared befuddled as well. This dysfunctional city council meeting was town government at its worst.
It soon became obvious that Mayor Brown and councilmember Baker were fixated on the failed Yucca Mountain repository. Several times the mayor asked people his favorite leading question about whether moving the waste to Yucca Mountain was a good idea. If they said “no” because scientists proved that it was unsafe, they got cut off. We all know that many politicians support “screw Nevada” legislation, but they ignore the fact that scientists finally concluded that the site was more seismically and volcanically active and more porous than they had realized. After decades of trying it turns out that there is no technology to prevent underground water penetration which would react catastrophically with nuclear waste.
Mayor Brown and councilman Baker objected to some of the specific and technical language of the resolution. Then they went on to demand that the resolution contain the presumption of telling which agency of government should solve the problem (the DOE), what the solution to nuclear waste should be (a repository), where the waste should be located (Yucca Mountain), and that there should be a permanent rather than an interim solution. They succeeded in deleting the section calling for the removal of nuclear waste to a temporary site away from populated areas. The resolution in effect opposes the removal of nuclear waste until we can get all branches of government, all states, all federal and state agencies, all citizens and environmental groups, and all scientists agreed to ship the waste to Yucca Mountain. This will never happen. The net result of this botched resolution might be to increase rather than decrease the chance of having it remain here indefinitely.
Brown and Baker went on to remove language asking for safer storage canisters, more emphasis on defense in depth, and a better aging management plan. They also removed the section requesting real-time publicly accessible radiation monitoring. Mayor Brown thought it was acceptable to depend on monitoring which is part-time, periodic, and done in secret with readings available only to Edison and government authorities. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there have been 33 serious accidents at non-military nuclear facilities going back to the meltdown at Chalk River, Canada, in 1952. A short history teaches us that officials have always used secrecy, denial, misinformation, deception, and outright lies whenever there is a radiological emergency.
Without independent radiation monitoring, we can be certain that this will happen here. Maybe it is time to learn from the Japanese: never trust the government or the utilities: just go buy your own Geiger counter. Now that we live next to a nuclear waste dump, it is too bad that our mayor is so hostile to the idea of keeping the public informed about radiation dangers.
Edison speaks but the public is silenced
Another low point in the meeting was when the mayor repeatedly called on Edison nuclear officer Tom Palisano and allowed him to speak uninterrupted at length. Mr. Palisano gave the impression that the casks are completely safe and that they are regularly monitored and inspected. In fact they are known to be vulnerable to embrittlement and cracking. There is no known technology to monitor the radiation internally and no known technology to repair the canisters if they do leak. The canisters are welded shut and even Dr. Singh (president of Areva, a storage canister vendor) admits there is no way to re-weld them safely if they do leak. Any repairs would have to be done underwater, but this will be impossible because Edison plans to demolish the fuel pools. They can’t transfer leaking or cracked canisters, and if they leak gamma radiation no human being could get anywhere near them. We will end up with about 150 canisters (some are already a decade old), all designed for temporary rather than permanent storage and transfer. They are licensed for 20 years and some hope that maybe some of them will last more than 30. So we are all waiting around to learn when (not if) the canisters leak. The NRC says it is working on the problem and hopes to discover a solution before the leaks begin.
The fact is that Edison has never pulled out and inspected any of the 50 canisters now stacked at San Onofre next to I-5. The NRC keeps allowing them to delay inspections, and when they finally do an inspection (hey, this costs money) they are required to inspect only one. Same old story: minimize cost and effort and maximize risk (and start every meeting stating that Safety is Edison’s Number One Priority).
Another example of misinformation is when Mr. Palisano put the nuclear industry spin on what happened at Fukushima. He stated that it was the tsunami rather than the earthquake which knocked out the power. Actually it was just the opposite. The earthquake knocked out the power and caused significant damage 40 minutes before the tsunami stuck and made it worse. The nuclear industry knows that many plants are vulnerable to earthquakes, but only a few (like those in California) are vulnerable to tsunamis. It is important for them to get the public to believe that tsunamis are a big danger but earthquakes are not.
Many in the audience were well-aware of the misstatements and misrepresentations being made, but mayor Brown silenced residents who tried to speak up. It is not clear just why Mayor Brown is so obsequious toward Edison and completely trusts their every word. It is too bad he doesn’t show the same respect for his colleagues or for residents who disagree with him. His term of office is soon up, and it remains to be seen how the council will change with the addition of Kathy Ward and a new mayor.
Another big mistake by the city council was not having on hand the city emergency planning officials who helped write the document. Lori Donchak, the lone voice of sanity at the meeting, recognized the folly of what was going on and asked to have the resolution tabled and reconsidered after consulting with emergency planners. She was overruled by the mayor.
In the end, the resolution focused almost completely on a request to make Yucca Mountain the permanent solution to the nation’s problems. Sorry to disagree with Mr. Baker and Mr. Brown, but this resolution is major missed opportunity. Not only did they delete the request to have the waste moved to an interim site, they also injected politics into the debate. It is no secret that Republicans nationally are already gearing up get payback and revenge against Harry Reid by demanding that nuclear waste be forced on Nevada even though the site is known to be unsafe. Once again, political ideology first, science second.
Will everyone ignore a flawed resolution?
Will this resolution do any good? Perhaps other towns will be inspired to pass resolutions. Perhaps they will be wise enough not to make the same mistakes. Maybe Governor Brown, hero of the nuclear moratorium of 1976, will finally start asking questions. Maybe Congressman Issa will come out of his hiding in Washington and show some concern that his District 49 is now a nuclear waste dump. He has done nothing at all to help his district other than request (just like the city council) that the waste be sent to Nevada. No wonder the public clearly favors the name “The Darrell Issa Nuclear Waste Dump.” His 92% favorability rating for naming rights hasn’t changed in weeks. If you haven’t voted, be sure to do so:
What is really needed, and what was eliminated from the resolution, is an attempt to persuade officials at all levels to start engaging in a constructive dialogue. We need out-of-the-box thinking to come up with alternatives to the failed mentality of a permanent repository that is safe and that will please everyone. A fight for this will go on for the rest of this century. We owe it to our kids and grandkids not to pass along our failures to them. Why should every nuclear power plant in the country suddenly be turned into a long-term nuclear waste dump? Why should there be a “generic” interim plan in which San Onofre is considered no different from any other facility? San Onofre may be the most dangerous one in the country due to its position on earthquake faults in a tsunami zone, its aging structure and skeleton crew, its long history of accidents and mishaps, its location in the middle of two major metropolitan areas, and its vulnerability to terrorists. By the way, what does everyone think about the 15 mysterious drones that have been buzzing French nuclear power plants in recent weeks?
Is a repository the only possible plan?
Since a permanent plan is not in the making, It is clear that we better start thinking about an interim plan. We want the waste removed ASAP to a secure and remote area which is seismically stable, away from populated areas, and of no interest to terrorists. We need to move the casks soon before they become brittle and start to crack. Why spend $400 million to stack casks next to I-5 when they could be stacked in a remote area? All it takes is about four acres of land and a lot of concrete. The casks were designed to be transportable, so let’s transport them to a safer area. If the feds can’t find a solution, let’s find a California solution. That’s what we did with the nuclear moratorium of 1976…and it worked.
It is also clear that there are many possibilities, none of which is being discussed by anyone. Be warned, the NRC and the DOE together with the utilities and the nuclear industry don’t want anyone talking about spending money on interim sites. They already have a solution: keep the waste local indefinitely and buy some time until there is a catastrophe somewhere. They see this as a public relations problem which is a lot cheaper to address than a technological or health/safety problem. After all, utilities are indemnified by the Price Anderson Act of 1957. The game plan of the nuclear industry has always been to pass along the huge costs and the enormous risks on to the sucker taxpayers and those who were stupid enough to allow a plant to be built in their backyard in the first place.
Here is my 2 cents, the one I started to explain at the meeting but got cut off. I’m sure that others can come up with much better plans. First, I have very little faith in the federal government’s ability to solve this problem anytime soon. I also know that the government agencies delegated to protect the public are actually in the pocket of the nuclear industry. They will fight hard to do what is in their financial interest which in this case means endangering the public.
I look to the military as a possible solution. They might be able to bypass the layers of bureaucracy and political meddling which now block progress. I recognize that this might work only for San Onofre, the only nuclear power plant in the country which is located on a military base but perhaps this will inspire those elsewhere to explore their own solutions. Camp Pendleton is a very important military base vital to national security. We all know that the U.S. marines have a “can do” attitude, but the fact is that there is no defense against radiation. Consider the current hushed-up problem of the aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan which was doused with radiation 100 miles off shore from Fukushima. They spent weeks trying to hose it down, but vital parts (like the miles of air ducts) got contaminated. Some suggested towing it out to sea and sinking it. There is now a big class action lawsuit in San Diego involving about 200 sailors claiming illnesses who such as leukemia, ulcers, gall bladder removals, brain cancer, brain tumors, testicular cancer, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, thyroid illnesses, stomach ailments and a host of other complaints. I repeat: there is no defense against radiation, even for the U.S. Marine Corp.
Does anyone live within 100 miles of San Onofre?
One point to ponder is if this incident happened 100 miles from the radiation release at Fukushima, a similar exposure here could contaminate those in a circle from Oxnard through Barstow almost to the Arizona border and well into Mexico. But the main point is that storing thousands of tons of uranium and plutonium on Camp Pendleton could wipe out the entire base if there were a serious radiation event. All equipment and facilities would be contaminated and all personnel would be forced to evacuate, perhaps forever. Does the military want to risk losing this entire base?
This is a national security issue. The U.S. cannot afford to lose Camp Pendleton. The military has lots of bases all over California. Some are virtually uninhabited, out of earthquake and tsunami zones and of no interest to terrorists. The military also has lots of experience with nuclear waste and they move it around the country all the time. Why not pack it up and move it out? Just don’t cross any state borders. The casks are all designed to be transportable.
But where to take it? Here is one suggestion, the seldom used Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range only 100 miles away. This has few roads or population centers, no major earthquake faults, it is a no fly zone off limits to the public, and it is four times the size of Camp Pendleton. It has 456,000 acres of land, so how about devoting 4 acres to an interim waste site? Or would Chuck Hagel prefer to risk Camp Pendleton? I actually wrote to him about this but got a lame answer from the Dept. of Navy telling me to contact Edison and the NRC. Why doesn’t the city council write to him? Why doesn’t the commandant of Camp Pendleton write to him?
After the USS Ronald Reagan incident, one would think the Navy would get it about radiation. And in a city where you can get a citation for leaving a big mac wrapper on the beach, one would think a lot of plutonium a couple miles from Concordia Elementary School would concern more than a few people. Why is there so little concern from parents, teachers, or the business community? Maybe no one will get it until a few canisters crack. Maybe then it will be too late.