Earthquake Meltdown at San Onofre: It Can’t Happen Here?

by on March 11, 2011 · 6 comments

in Energy, Environment, Popular, San Diego

As a result of the 8.9 earthquake and subsequent tsunamis in Japan, the 40 year old Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor there is in big trouble.

Fukushima 1 is one of six reactors at the nuclear complex160 miles north of Tokyo.

The LA Times reported today that the nuclear rector’s “emergency cooling system has not been functioning properly and authorities fear a meltdown.”

Japanese officials have ordered 3000 people living within 2 miles of Fukushima 1 to evacuate. They also instructed others residing within six miles to stay in their homes.

Fifteen other nuclear plants, out of 33 in Japan, also shut down because of the 8.9 shaker.

Uncool Nuke

Inside a reactor a controlled nuclear reaction produces heat that is subsequently is used to generate electricity. But that reaction also creates lots of deadly radioactivity.

If the nuclear fuel gets too hot, it will start to melt, causing potentially catastrophic amounts of radioactivity to threaten to escape into the environment.

To avoid this calamity, the nuclear fuel must be constantly bathed in cooling water. The system that supplies the cooling water is powered by electricity.

At Fukushima 1, the supply of cooling water was stopped when the disaster knocked out the electrical supply that powered the cooling system. Ironically, the source of that electricity must come from outside the plant.

There is a backup system of diesel powered generators at Fukushima 1, but that system also failed.

The final line of defense to prevent a meltdown consists of batteries that can power the cooling system. The Times reported that these batteries went into operation “less than an hour” after the disaster cut off the juice.

But these batteries only last about eight hours, a stretch of time that has since passed at Fukushima 1.

Meanwhile the US Air Force and Japanese ground troops are racing replacement generators to the troubled site, the Times reported.

Why It Could Happen Here.

Nevertheless, pressure inside the reactor containment building has risen “to 50% above normal,” according to the Times. To deal with this dangerous development, authorities at the plant have started venting radioactive gases to the outside environment.

As usual, they claim this is a safe practice. And while it is preferable to the pressure inside the containment building blowing it apart, the National Academy of Science has established that there is no risk free dose of radiation.

On today’s Pacifica radio show, “Letters and News,” guest Robert Alvarez of the Institute of Policy Studies, and a former US Department of Energy official, reported that California’s two operating nuclear facilities, San Onofre and Diablo Canyon, were built to withstand an earthquake of only 7.5.

An 8.9 earthquake is many times more powerful.

Scientists are predicting a major earthquake is likely in California sometime in the next 10 years.

San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are also sitting on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, convenient to any tsunamis that might be speeding their way at up to 500 mph.

The owners of both facilities, however, would like to have the operating licenses of their aging nukes extended for an additional 20 years past their current 40 year licenses.

Diablo Canyon applied for such a license extension in November 2009, and could have it granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as soon as next year.

But the Japan disaster demonstrates not only why this should not happen, but also why Diablo Canyon and San Onofre should cease operation immediately.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Marisag March 12, 2011 at 12:44 pm

So scary, hasn’t San Onofre already had one reactor permanently shut down due to cooling issues, back in the early 80’s?


Rick Ward March 12, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Nuclear power plants built astride the “Infamous” Ring of Fire! Brilliant.


Jim Bell March 13, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Nuclear Power — One of Humankind’s Biggest Mistakes
Jim Bell,

Nuclear Power was a mistake and remains a mistake. If the human family survives it, our descendants will wonder what we were thinking to justify leaving them nuclear power’s toxic legacy — a legacy they will be dealing with for hundreds if not thousands of generations.

And why did we do it? To power our lights, TVs, radios, stereos, air conditioners, etc. and the tools we used to make them.

Our creation of nuclear power will be especially difficult for our descendants to understand because they will know that in the nuclear era, we already had all the technologies and know-how needed to power everything in ways that are perpetually recyclable, powered by free solar energy and which leave zero harmful residues in their wake.

On its own, nuclear power’s toxic radioactive legacy should be enough to give any thinking person sufficient reason to want to eliminate it as quickly as possible and do everything to protect our descendants from the radioactive wastes already created.

The human family has been at war with itself for the majority of its history. Human history is full of successful, advanced and sophisticated civilizations that utterly collapsed. To the informed, even our current civilization(s) don’t feel very solid. Plus there are earthquakes, tsunami’s volcanoes, severe weather, terrorism, and just plain human error. This given, who can guarantee that anything as dangerous and long-lived as nuclear waste can be kept safe for even 100 years much less the hundreds to hundreds of thousands of years it will take before some of these wastes are safe to be around.

And even if an insurance company did guarantee its safety, what is their guarantee worth? What could they do to protect us and future generations if San Onofre’s spent fuel storage pond lost its coolant water. If this happened an almost unquenchable radioactive fire would spontaneously erupt, spewing radioactive materials wherever the wind blew for weeks if not months — rendering Southern California a dangerous place to live for thousands if not hundreds of thousands of years.

Notwithstanding the above, the nuclear industry is lobbying the public and the government to continue supporting them politically and economically so the industry can expand.

Its latest rational is that nuclear power will produce fewer greenhouse gases than what would be produced using fossil fuels to make electricity. This is true if one only looks at what happens inside a reactor. It’s not true when accounting for all the fossil fuel energy consumed during nuclear power’s fuel cycle, and what it takes to build, operate and dismantle plants when they wear out. Additionally, even if nuclear power was ended today, fossil fuel energy must be consumed for millennia in order to protect the public from the radioactive residues that nuclear power has already generated.

An increasing number of former industry and non-industry experts are saying that at best nuclear power releases slightly fewer greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than if the fossil fuels embodied in it had been burned to make electricity directly.

In his 2002 book, Asleep at the Geiger Counter, p. 107-118, Sidney Goodman, (giving the industry the benefit of the doubt on a number of fronts and assuming no serious accidents or terrorism), concludes that the net output of the typical nuclear power plant would be only 4% more than if the fossil fuels embodied in it had been uses directly to produce electricity. This means, best-case scenario, replacing direct fossil fuel generated electricity with nuclear generated electricity will only reduce the carbon dioxide released per unit of electricity produced by 4%. Goodman is a long practicing licensed Professional Engineer with a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering.

Other experts believe that nuclear power will produce about the same amount of energy as was, is, and will be consumed to create, operate and deal with its aftermath. This case was made in an article published in Pergamon Journals Ltd. Vol.13, No. 1, 1988, P. 139, titled “The Net Energy Yield of Nuclear Power.” In their article the authors concluded that even without including the energy that has or would be consumed to mitigate past or future serious radioactive releases, nuclear power is only “the re-embodiment of the energy that went into creating it.”
In its July/August 2006 edition, The Ecologist Magazine, a respected British publication, featured a16-page analysis of nuclear power. One of the conclusions was that nuclear power does not even produce enough electricity to make up for the fossil fuels consumed just to mine, mill and otherwise process uranium ore into nuclear fuel, much less all the other energy inputs required This is not surprising given that typical U-235 ore concentrations of .01% to .02%, require mining, crushing and processing a ton of ore to end up with 1/2 oz to 1 oz of nuclear reactor fuel.

To put this in perspective, the typical 1,000 MW nuclear power plants uses around 33 tons or over 1 million oz of nuclear fuel each year.

As a teenager I saw a TV program that showed a man holding a piece of metal in the palm of his hand. He was saying that if what he held was pure uranium it would contain as much energy as the train full of coal that was passing by him on the screen. I became an instant “true believer” in nuclear power. I thought if something that small can produce the same amount of energy as all that coal, there will be plenty of energy and therefore plenty of money to address any dangers that using it might pose.

Unfortunately, to get that level of energy from a small amount of pure or near pure uranium it would require that it be exploded as an atomic bomb. Of the uranium used in a reactor, only a fraction of the energy in pure uranium gets used. That’s why we are left with depleted uranium and other long-lived wastes.
The nuclear industry says that nuclear power is safe, a big net energy producer, and that it will be cheap and easy to keep its wastes out of the environment and out of the hands of terrorists. But if these claims are true, why has an industry that supplies only 8% of our country’s total energy and 20% of its electricity consumed hundreds of billions of tax dollar subsidies since its inception? The 2005 Federal Energy Bill continues this trend. According to U.S. PIRG,

Taxpayers for Common Sense, Public Citizen and the Congressional Research Service say that the recently passed 2005 Federal Energy Bill includes “a taxpayer liability of $14 to $16 billion” in support of nuclear power.

If nuclear power is so safe and wonderful, why does it require the Price Anderson Act? The Price Anderson Act puts taxpayers on the hook if the cost of a major radioactive release exceeds $10.5 billion. According to a Sandia National Laboratory analysis, this puts taxpayers on the hook for over $600 billion to cover the damage that a serious radioactive release would cause. Another Sandia Laboratory study focusing just on the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York, concluded the damage caused by a serious release from that plant could cost up to a trillion dollars. Needless to say, any serious radioactive release from any U. S. plant would wipe out any net energy gain by nuclear power if — there ever was one.

Realizing the potential cost of a serious radioactive release, manufacturers, insurers and utilities, were unwilling to build, insure or order plants. They only got seriously involved after the Congress assigned these cost to the taxpaying public. On page 7 of a report by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research titled The Nuclear Power Deception, they included the following 1996 quote from then NRC Commissioner James Asselstine, “given the present level of safety being achieved by the operating nuclear power plants in this country, we can expect a meltdown within the next 20 years, and it is possible that such as accident could result in off-site releases of radiation which are as large as, or larger than the released estimates to have occurred at Chernobyl.” Bare in mind, a meltdown is only one of several things that could happen with nuclear power to cause a serious radioactive release.

As I said in the beginning, nuclear power is a mistake. Especially considering we already have all the technologies and know-how needed to make us completely and abundantly renewable electricity self-sufficient with out nuclear power. As a bonus, solar energy leaves no radioactive residues for our children or future generations to deal with. Additionally, although not completely environmentally benign yet, solar energy collection systems can be designed to last generations, be perpetually recyclable and leave zero toxic residues behind.

If San Diego County covered 24% of its roofs and parking lots with 10% efficient PV panels, it would produce more electricity than the county consumes. This assumes that 3 million resident use, on average, 10 kWh per capita per day after installing cost-effective electricity use efficiency improvements.

For ourselves, our children and future generations, let’s move into the solar age.

For details read my free books at They are also available in most San Diego County libraries.


dave rice March 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm

I’ll chime in, too – I sat down a few months back with Rochelle Becker of the Alliance For Nuclear Responsibility to talk about re-licensing and the risk of earthquakes near our own nuclear plants. What she had to say was quite informative, and also quite disturbing…


tj March 15, 2011 at 8:28 am

Nukes in earthquake country = brilliant …

It’s amazing how GREED (& it’s resulting stupidity) so rules virtually every aspect of our lives.


“Don’t worry, we’ve got a plan” …

Germany is obviously smarter …


Sunshine March 16, 2011 at 9:26 pm

perhaps they should use solar power generators at these nuclear plants to supply the necessary electricity to keep the damn things cooled until they can shut them down for good.


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