Fukushima, San Onofre and Our Health

by on March 11, 2013 · 6 comments

in California, Energy, Environment, Health, History

fukushima nuke reactor

It’s been two years since Fukushima’s multiple meltdowns. San Onofre in the Southland has been shut down for over a year.

Time to look back and gaze forward. This article will concentrate on nuclear power plants’ radioactive emissions and their effects on our health.

To do this I’ll be drawing on a recent book, Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment.  This book came out last year, authored by Joseph Mangano, executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project (radiation.org). The RPHP has been studying nuclear power plant radioactive releases effects on human health for several decades.

Numerous peer reviewed epidemiological and clinical studies published in various scientific journals by Mangano and his associates in the RPHP have found that children living within 50 miles of nuclear power reactors have higher amounts of radioactivity in their teeth; have higher rates of cancer, including leukemia; and that such rates drop after reactors shut down.


As the world well knows now, on March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent gargantuan tsunami devastated northeastern Japan, causing the six reactor Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station to become powerless.

Mangano writes:

“What happened next was a nightmare. There were meltdowns in three of the reactor cores, and two of the spent fuel pools. Television viewers watched with horror as several explosions in the next few days tore apart the containment buildings, and huge amounts of radiation were released.”

And that radiation wasn’t confined to Japan for long.

As Mangano continues,

“It took precisely six days after the earthquake/tsunami for airborne radiation to hit the {North American} west coast. In the days that followed, the EPA produced data showing that environmental radiation levels had jumped. Elevated levels had reached all parts of the US.”

And subsequent data indicated that this radiation had almost immediate effects.

“Preliminary data,” Mangano relates, “from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that in the first fourteen weeks after the radioactive plume entered the US, the average number of weekly reported infant deaths in 119 US cities (30 percent of the population) rose 3.99% higher than the fourteen weeks of a year before.”

“The 2010-2011 change for the prior fourteen week periods was a decrease of 8.37%. There was also a gap for deaths for all ages.”

In other words, death rates rose for all ages groups after the Fukushima plume passed over the US.

Mangano and associate Janette Sherman subsequently calculated that this amounted to nearly 22,000 “excess deaths;” that is, that many more deaths than had occurred during the same period the previous year.

San Onofre

San Onofre hasn’t melted down—yet. Since both its formerly operating reactors closed down in January last year, it hasn’t had much of a chance to. And most people would like to keep it that way.

The reality is that no one knows what would happen if one or both reactors restarts.  Nor does anyone know what would happen if a 9.0 earthquake or monster tsunami hit San Onofre.  And who wants to find out?  But then again, have radioactive releases from San Onofre already caused us harm?

Evidence in Mangano’s book suggests so. To get to that though we first have to look at a nuclear meltdown that did happen in Southern California.

Mangano presents considerable detail about the meltdown of an experimental reactor at the Santa Susana nuclear facility, operated by Atomics International, in July 1959.  Mangano calls this meltdown “quite possibly the most severe in the sixty plus years of the UA atomic era.”   That facility is located in Simi Valley, 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The meltdown, as explained by Mangano, began on July 12, 1959, in an experimental sodium cooled reactor at Santa Susana. Things got out of control, heat inside the reactor skyrocketed, and nuclear fuel began to melt, creating vast amounts of radioactivity.

The reactor wasn’t shut down until the next day. But, incredibly, Atomics International started it back up the day after that. With the underlying problems unaddressed, radiation kept accumulating in holding tanks.  After the tanks were filled up, the company began to release the radioactivity into the air, usually at night.

One worker at the facility, Mangano reported, said, “They tried to make sure [the wind] was blowing towards the Pacific Ocean, instead to the San Fernando Valley, so it would affect fewer people.”

And how did it affect people?

The public was largely not informed this meltdown was happening, and what information did leak out minimized any possible impact Santa Susan’s releases might have on people.  And no studies subsequently were done to check out the public health situation.  Until Mangano’s book came out, in 2012, over 50 years later.

Mortal Statistics

Within Nuclear Madness Magano includes his studies comparing Ventura County (where Santa Susana is located) with California’s 17 other largest counties for vital factors and disease rates that can be associated with chronic exposure to radioactive releases from nuclear reactors.

Mangano found that residents of Ventura County had increasingly high rates of low birth weight babies in more recent years, Ventura also had the highest rates in the largest 18 state counties for childhood cancer incidence 2002-06; highest for childhood cancer deaths 2003-07; and fourth highest county rate for thyroid cancer 1988-2008.

All of these diseases can be associated with chronic exposure to radiation.

Also disturbing in this research is San Diego County’s role with high rates for some of these diseases.

San Diego County had the third highest rate in childhood cancer incidence 2002-06; second highest for childhood cancer deaths 2003-07; and fourth highest for thyroid cancer 1988-2008. Again, these are of California’s 18 most populous counties.

San Onofre, like all nuclear power plants, has to release radioactive poisons into the environment in order to operate.

Until the final chapter of San Onofre’s history is written, these poisons will continue to proliferate, and so too will the risk of the diseases they can cause. And so too will the risk of meltdown continue.

The sooner that chapter is written the better. And that time is now.





{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Frances O'Neill Zimmerman March 11, 2013 at 4:39 pm

On this second anniversary of the nuclear disaster and subsequent tsunami at Fukushima, Japan, it was reported that 19,000 Japanese have died and many of the survivors are still displaced. And this morning a 4.7 earthquake was reported in Southern California near Riverside.

Our own nuclear time-bomb at San Onofre has been shuttered for more than a year now while operators SDG&E and SoCal Edison wrangle with faulty parts-supplier Mitsubishi and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over who will pay for energy not delivered and who will pay for “repairs” to this dangerous and damaged seaside nuclear power plant.

Shut down San Onofre now, NRC. Reimburse the people, SDG&E and Edison. We don’t want to become another Fukushima.


John March 12, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I’m anything but a nuclear power proponent but have to point out the absurd fallacy of trying to associate San Diego County childhood cancer rates with the San Onofre power plant. Anyone with a lick of knowledge of statistical data compilation, clinical research and simple geography will recognize that as far as distance and population distribution the notion is far fetched. Radioactivity and its health effects is very distance oriented. San Onofre is nowhere near the large population centers of our county. A statistical analysis of such cancer rates between the areas of Oceanside and the city of San Diego for instance would have to show Oceanside’s were off the page to begin to make such a correlation and even then that’s hardly a causal relationship.
I’m pointing this out not only because such fallacious arguments diminish the truth of the cause when the intelligent see them but also because they inadvertently serve as cover for the real causes of the disease. What if it was the Navy’s nuclear powered ships and submarines stationed here, far closer to our densely populated neighborhoods- or a more innocuous source, and when San Onofre closes we think our bogeyman has been vanquished?
To be sure I’m not asserting that such a link can’t be established but there’s a lot more to it than casually observing “San Diego county has a nuclear power plant and higher cancer rates, so there!”


sunshine March 12, 2013 at 3:30 pm

when those who want to operate nuclear power plants put them in their own back yard, then, and only then, will safety be a priority.


John March 12, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Nuclear Disaster and The Border —-
Nobody can claim to know whether San Onofre can withstand a disaster. But certainly, we can be cautious and look for alternatives when the nuclear power plant can’t even be maintained properly.
Yet, I’ve imagined a natural or maintenance disaster where San Diego (Oceanside south) is cut off from the 5 corridor north and the eastbound routes are so congested that the population tries to go south. But guess what, Mexico has decided to stop illegal Americans from crossing the border into Mexico.
The only positive thing that I see about the San Onofre power plant (other than power) is that it breaks up the otherwise intolerable urban sprawl from TJ to Santa Barabara. Once San Onofre goes, politicians and developers will force Pendelton inland and the land grab will begin.


Kelly May 9, 2013 at 2:28 pm

My nephew lived on Camp Pendletgon when he was a toddler , died at age 12 in 2004 of leukemia.


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