Radioactive Waste: The San Onofre File

by on February 10, 2009 · 10 comments

in Energy, Environment, San Diego, War and Peace

San Onofre via the eye in the sky...

Though a meltdown at a nuclear plant may be its worst case scenario, the dangers and risks by no means end there. In fact they go on every day.

Radioactive releases into the air and water are routine at nukes. As is the transportation of radioactive wastes offsite by road, rail and water. These activities are the seldom discussed everyday threats to people, other living beings, and the environment as a whole.

This report delves into what goes on at the San Onofre Generating Station in these respects.

San Onofre’s liquid radwastes flow out of the plants through “outflows” pipes and empty into the Pacific. They are highly diluted but nevertheless still there. According to the plant’s 2007 Radioactive Effluent Release Report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there were 202 liquid effluent “batch” releases that year. These releases lasted a total of 489 hours, or over 20 days. The longest was 7.6 hours in duration. The releases averaged 2.4 hours.

The releases contained many dangerous radioactive chemicals, including cesium 137, cobalt 60, iodine 131 and strontium 90. Cesium 137 has a radioactive life of over 300 years, cobalt 60’s over 50 years, and strontium 90’s almost 300. Iodine 131’s radioactive life is only a few months, but during that time it is intensely radioactive. I-131 mimics regular iodine, and concentrates in the thyroid gland if it enters our bodies. I-131 caused high rates of thyroid cancer after Chernobyl exploded and burned its nuclear core, releasing virtually all its radioactivity.

San Onofre’s airborne radioactive releases included all of the radioactive chemicals cited above.

The 2007 report informs us “waste gas decay tank releases are considered to be ‘batch’ releases. Containment purges and plant stack releases are considered to be ‘continuous’ releases.”

Though San Onofre Unit 1 permanently shut down in 1992, the 2007 report states that its liquid and gaseous radioactive releases did not cease until 2006.  And in 2007, though Unit 1 had been shut down for nearly 15 years, a radioactive accident happened in April, the report states.

During the transfer of the contents of a large liquid container there, “a worker noticed a steady flow of water exiting a pipe onto the sand in an area that had been recently excavated.” Turns out that a pipe had been “inadvertently severed…As a result, nearly all of the contents…about 2000 gallons, spilled through the severed pipe onto the sand.”

The spill contained “trace amounts” of cesium 137.

Out of Sight, Out of Their Minds

Also in 2007, the report states, “solid [radioactive] waste” from all three units was “shipped offside for burial or disposal.” In fact, the report states, there were 599 such shipments. This waste contained, among other radioactive chemicals, plutoniums 238, 239, 240, 241 and 242. Plutoniums 239 and 242 have radioactive lives in the millions of years.

San Onofre’s shipped-out radwastes end up in Utah, Tennessee and South Carolina. The public is not notified of these shipments. If it were, it would have to hear of them just about every day.

Playing a prominent role in spiriting San Onofre’s radwastes away is EnergySolutions, headquartered in Salt Lake City. The company’s motto is “Energy Solutions, we’re part of the solution.” Among its operations is operating privatized radioactive waste dumps. If you’re a basketball fan, you may recognize the company’s name. It adorns the home court of the Utah Jazz.  EnergySolutions operates a low level radwaste dump in Clive, Utah, about 75 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, near the Nevada Test Site. The latter site is where the US blew up atomic bombs above and below ground.

The company also operates a high level radwaste site at the defunct Big Rock nuke plant in Michigan. High level radioactive waste includes spent fuel, nuclear fuel that has outlasted its commercial life but remains lethally dangerous thousands of years after it is removed from nuclear reactors.

According to the 2007 report, in 2004 all of Unit 1’s spent fuel was transferred to this site, dubbed the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation.

The federal government’s plan to transport all the spent fuel from commercial US nuke plants to Yucca Mountain, a sacred site on the land of the Western Shoshone tribe, is, like most of this radwaste, going nowhere. This site is also near the Nevada Test Site.

Lacking any real solution to the spent fuel problem, enter EnterySolutions, part of the problem. Because most nuclear safety advocates believe that until a real solution to this problem is created, the waste should stay on the sites of the nuke plants.

Nuclear authorities tell us that all of the above activities are perfectly safe, and that there is no threat to the public. That all the releases are below acceptable levels, and all the buried and “disposed” waste will never escape into the environment to harm us or succeeding generations.

However, numerous studies have found higher rates of cancers around nuclear power plants, such as the one reported recently in the OB Rag that found high mortality rates for childhood leukemia in counties adjacent to San Onofre. And virtually all nuke dumps, such as the massive one in Barnwell, South Carolina, have already leaked.

In addition, in 2005 the National Academy of Sciences committee to study the effects of radiation on our health concluded that there is no exposure to radiation without risk. The committee’s chairman, Richard Monson of the Harvard School of Public Health, stated “The health risks-particularly the development of solid cancers in organs-rises proportionally with exposure. At low doses of radiation, the risk of inducing solid cancers is very small. As the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk.” And since San Onofre has been operating since 1970, there are all too many lifetime exposures already.

And you will note that EnergySolutions low level waste dump isn’t anywhere near its HQ of Salt Lake City, but instead embedded in a restricted and defiled region riddled with the remains of atomic explosions, whose memory will forever shame mankind.

San Onofre’s owners would like to operate their two remaining active reactors for an extra 20 years, until 2042, to continue their legacy of contamination for an extra generation, and its consequences for many more generations.

With true green energy looming on the horizon as real energy solutions for our future, why let the insanity that is San Onofre waste it?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Ellen Lee June 19, 2009 at 2:51 pm

My mother is dying of lymphoma. She has lived in San Juan Capistrano, just north of Dana Pt and within 5 -10 miles of San Onofre, for the past 30 years. Is anyone keeping a current registry of cancers among long term resident near San Onofre? June 2009.


leslie engel November 25, 2009 at 7:50 am

I have lived in North County for 20 years as well have taught in Oceanside for 14. I also rode my bike dozenz of times past San Onofre over these years and now have thyroid cancer! Someone should do a national story about this!


Ace Hoffman June 28, 2011 at 9:27 pm

I’ve lived within about 15 miles of San Onofre for about 20 years and have also developed cancer (bladder). But it is very difficult to assign definitive blame for these cancers. Most surveys divide areas up by voting districts, which can change over time, and are quite large aggregates of people already, and have odd shapes geographically. Other studies are done by city or town, again too large to get really good data which, obviously, would be best obtained by knowing the actual distance of the cancer victims from the suspected source. But then another problem arises: They move, they go to work, they vacation in more (or less) poisonous places… they are only in their homes maybe 1/3 of the time, and they generally are more sedate (and therefore breath less air) during that time. Then the statisticians divide all the cancers out into this kind, that kind, and some other kind, etc. which makes sense, one would think, but then you’re down to just one or two cancers (of a type) per district, and they point out that with so few cancers to study, normal variations in data could explain just about anything. All this being said, and true, some studies have been attempted, and, of course, they often show that cancer rates are higher around operating nuclear power plants and go down when the plants are shut down. A study was done in Europe a few years ago, and some studies have been done here, too. Since the data is so hard to collect, it is easy to argue with most of the studies for one reason or another. Confounding factors are always a problem for research list this. Generally, the late John Gofman’s research is considered among the very best. Also check out Rosalie Bertell, Chris Busby, Ernest Sternglass, Jay Gould, Joe Mangano, Janette Sherman, and of course, the mother of them all for this sort of research, Alice Stewart.


annagrace June 28, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Ace- it is horrifying to me to hear the truism that “it is very difficult to assign definitive blame for these cancers.” Because it is so difficult to assign definitive blame, life goes on and suffering and death also go on.

I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, where manufacturers dumped who knows what into the countless rivers. Our stories of premature births, rare cancers, children born without developed brain stems are merely “anecdotal. ” Thank you for commenting here. I wish you the very best, and I hope we are capable of doing the very best on behalf of the health of our citizens.


Gene Stone November 29, 2011 at 9:01 am

It is time to stop allowing Coop’s to freely do whatever to the earth and it’s people in the name of profits.


Laurie Headrick June 28, 2011 at 10:11 pm

We have lived in San Clemente for over30 years and spent many days at the beach with our kids. Now we have a granddaughter living in Dana Point. We are very concerned about continuing to live here. I am so sorry to hear about how cancer has impacted your lives. It is just insane that we allow energy companies to continue to operate theses aging plants with all their safety issues…San Onofre is #2 in safety violations in the country, in a seismically active area overdue for a massive earthquake, in a tsunami zone with only a 14 ft seawall for protection, storing 4ooo tons of radioactive spent fuel and accumulating more at the rate of 500 lbs/per day, all for 7.5% of our energy! For this we are exposing our families and communities to regular radiation releases as well as the very real potential for a catastrophe like Fukishima. We have started a grassroots effort to shut down San Onofre and Diablo immediately until we can be assured of their safety or move to decommission them. We have joined with several other anti-nuke groups and the momentum is building. If you are interested in joining us please contact us at


diane September 26, 2011 at 10:15 am

What are the ‘odds’ of two female neighbors, living across the street from each other, next-door to my home in San Clemente, both dying from brain cancer within 6 months of each other? There are probably 20 houses on each side of the street. This is our story in the south San Clemente ‘Trestles’ neighborhood… I’d like to know about other neighborhoods experiencing anything like this.


Gene Stone November 29, 2011 at 8:51 am

Action plan with nukefreecal a new phone campaign to Governor Brown no relicensing of Ca nuclear power plant’s 916- 445-2841 call today and often. One of the reasons to encourage them not to relicense is that neither of these two plants could be built under today’s rules and guidelines for earthquakes and tsunamis, and the NRC will not force them to meet the standards of today but yet they will overlook and easily relicense them. Please share this with your friends.


Debbie March 10, 2012 at 3:51 pm

I also lived in San Clemente for 20 years. I developed hundreds of large tumors on my thyroids, my Dr. said he had never seen anything like it ! I had my Thyroids both removed in 2007. My Daughter also lost one of Thyroids. She also has Lymphoma B. I never dreamed this could happen ! I went to Lowers and layed on the sand as my Husband surfs. I could barely stand to look at the plant. I wonder how many will get sick from this. I left San Clemente 3 years ago but I worry for my Children and Grandchildren still living in Oceanside. We never know the truth untill it is to late !


barry tufo May 12, 2013 at 5:25 pm

I had lived in san clemente for 13 years from 94 till present, i developed thyroid cancer in 07, i also had a trachea for 4 years from the surgery . There is a big problem.


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