by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
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Nuclear energy is “a hell of a way to boil water,” anti-nuclear activist Ace Hoffman said at an event sponsored by Activist San Diego at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest February 20. Hoffman addressed his talk against civilian nuclear power in general and two nuclear power plants in particular. One was the Dai-Ichi plant at Fukushima, Japan, which melted down March 11, 2011 when a major tsunami shut down the plant’s own electrical supply — including all the power for the emergency cooling and shutdown systems.
The other is the reactor complex at San Onofre in north San Diego County, near where Hoffman lives. The complex contains three reactors, one of which was built in the 1970’s and permanently shut down 20 years later. The other two have been in more or less continuous operation since the early 1980’s — though at the time Hoffman gave his talk they were temporarily shut down — and Hoffman said they’re notorious throughout the U.S. as the worst-run nukes in this country. Hoffman punctuated his talk with references to The Code Killers, an elaborate 74-page book, heavy on graphics and reproduced in full color, which he wrote to expose the dangers of nuclear power in general and the San Onofre reactors in particular.
Hoffman began his talk with a basic explanation of the physics behind nuclear energy and some of the terms involved. “The reason some atoms are radioactive is they have too many neutrons, and they just can’t sustain that level,” he explained. “When you split an atom, you produce radioactive fission products. … You’re creating waste that lasts millions of years, thousands of years or seconds,” depending on the so-called “half-life” (the length of time it takes for half the radioactive material to decay to stable, non-radioactive atoms) of the substance involved.
Civilian nuclear energy is based on the same atomic fission principle as the first atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan by the U.S. at the end of World War II. A heavy atom of an element like uranium or plutonium is bombarded with neutrons and, if it’s sufficiently unstable to be fissionable, it splits into two big pieces and releases more subatomic particles as well — including more neutrons, which split more atoms and continue the process until a chain reaction is created. In a bomb, that chain reaction is left uncontrolled and the bomb explodes. In a reactor, the reaction is slowed down by so-called “control rods,” made up of an element particularly good at absorbing neutrons, and the splitting of big atoms into smaller ones generates heat, which is used to boil water and turn steam turbines which power generators, which create electricity.
“When you split an atom, you get tremendous amounts of energy and heat, and once you generate the heat, you have to remove it,” Hoffman explained. “There are two kinds of reactors in America, boiling-water reactors and pressurized-water reactors. San Onofre has two pressurized-water reactors. Fukushima had six boiling-water reactors, and what happened at Fukushima was by no means as bad an accident as you can have.” Hoffman explained the difference between the two reactors, pointing out that the assurances of American utility officials that pressurized-water reactors are safer than boiling-water reactors are bogus.
The only difference, he said, is that a boiling-water reactor has two loops — it “boils water that produces steam, which turns a turbine, and then it goes through another loop that cools it again” — while a pressurized-water reactor has a third loop between the other two. Unfortunately, that third loop, called a “steam generator,” is so complex — at San Onofre, Hoffman said, each of the eight steam generators “contains 10,000 tubes in a U-shape, 40 feet up and 40 feet down,” with the steam going up under tremendous pressure while the second loop uses the steam to turn the turbines — it adds to the reactor’s complexity and opportunities for failure. Virtually all the problems reported at San Onofre in its over three decades of operation have had to do with steam generators.
Hoffman also warned his audience not to believe the nuclear industry’s hype of a so-called “fourth generation” of reactors, which are, he said, “just pressurized-water reactors with an advance cooling system that supposedly works without power. But if you crash an airplane into it, you have a terrorist attack or embrittlement issues, it’s not going to work.” “Embrittlement” simply means the wear on the pipes that occurs over time, as all that exposure to all that heat and pressure causes the metal the pipes are made of to become brittle and ultimately to disintegrate. Indeed, San Onofre has been shut down several times to replace pipes in the steam generators, and at one point the plant’s manager and primary owner, Southern California Edison (SCE), had the idea of cutting open the containment vessel — the concrete dome the reactor comes in, which is deliberately designed to be breach-proof — to replace all the steam generators so they could keep the plant going.
“There were three units there, and every 18 months they shut down the reactors and plug the leaks,” Hoffman said. “But that means primary coolant is leaking into secondary coolant” — which, in plain English, means that radioactive material is escaping with the water from the supposedly sealed pressurized pipes and ultimately going into the Pacific Ocean, from which San Onofre scoops its water. “At Unit 1 they plugged so many holes, it lost efficiency and they had to shut it down,” Hoffman explained. “Units 2 and 3 were installed in 1983 and were just re-licensed to the 2020’s, and once they got the license they built new steam generators. They were so surprised they were going to run it this long, they had to cut holes into the [containment] domes to install them. They put two new steam generators into each reactor 14 months ago, and then they shut them down for ‘refueling and maintenance’ — to replace the entire pressure vessel so they don’t have leaks of boreated water, which will eat away eight feet of metal.”
And Hoffman said this sort of nonsense is standard operating procedure at nuclear power plants. “In Monticello, Virginia, after 30 years of operation, they realized the bellows on the emergency core cooling system were bolted together, so they wouldn’t have worked in an emergency,” he said. “Instead of shutting down to replace it, they continued running it for eight more hours. At San Onofre it’s called ‘fix on fail.’”
Where to Put the Waste?
But one of the key problems with nuclear power is what to do with all that waste they generate. Some of it, Hoffman acknowledged, disintegrates so quickly it’s only dangerous for seconds — but some of it remains radioactive for millions of year. Hoffman quoted a figure of 240,000 years for the average length of time the detritus from a nuclear plant remains toxic enough to pose a danger to humans — 200 times the longest-lived human civilizations (the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and the Han Dynasty in China, all of which lasted about 1,200 years). Hoffman said that California has a law in place that forbids any new nukes from being built here until the waste problem is solved, and he’s part of an initiative drive that would require the currently operating reactors to shut down until the waste problem is solved …
… which, as Hoffman noted, is never. “There cannot be a solution to the waste problem,” he said. “We live on a very small planet, and every time you create nuclear waste, there’s no way to get rid of it. They’ve talked about launching it in rockets to the sun, but 20 percent of all rockets fail” — which would mean the radioactive atoms would return to earth via the atmosphere. “You can’t drop it into the ocean because we don’t know where it was going to go. There was a plan for 20 years to bury it at Yucca Mountain” — a natural salt deposit in Nevada, chosen because the theory was that if there were any water around, the salt would long since have dissolved — “but the site was seismically active, there’s water seepage and living things would carry it out.”
Hoffman said that the Obama administration cancelled the plans to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain — which one would have thought he’d have regarded as a good thing. The problem was that in addition to canceling the dump itself, he also threw out the laboriously acquired knowledge the scientists who’d worked on the Yucca Mountain had of just how difficult it is to dispose of any nuclear waste safely. Instead Obama appointed a “blue-ribbon panel” of people Hoffman described as “five to seven pro-nukers,” and their mountain’s labors brought forth a mouse of a recommendation calling for … further study.
“At San Onofre, we have eight million pounds of nuclear waste,” Hoffman said — and in addition to the byproducts of atomic fission, a lot of that waste consists of worn-out parts of steam generators and other plant equipment. According to Hoffman, this gets treated pretty much the same way all the other waste does: it’s put in the so-called “spent fuel pools” — giant pools of water in which they put the used-up uranium that powers the plant sits for five years — and then it’s put into what’s called “dry cask storage.” A dry cask is basically a huge concrete tub, held together by metal beams that, according to a San Onofre whistle-blower Hoffman talked to, are often sloppily welded together. It’s supposed to be a more permanent way of storing waste than the spent-fuel pools but, according to Hoffman, it’s really more dangerous because the waste isn’t in water and the zirconium coating for the uranium fuel rods is “pyrophoric” — that is, it can spontaneously catch fire in air.
Hoffman discussed some of the ins and outs of nuclear power — including the federal law that prohibits state and local governments from regulating nukes on the basis of safety concerns because safety regulation is exclusively the province of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), “and as long as the NRC says they’re safe, they’re going to stay part of the U.S. energy mix.” He also said that San Onofre is “number one in worker complaints” of all the nuclear power plants in the U.S., and one of the fears of SCE and their partners in running San Onofre (including San Diego Gas and Electric) is that “workers will go public [about the safety issues] and get the plants shut down.”
Ironically, despite the title of his book, The Code Killers — a reference to the likelihood that exposure to radioactivity can permanently alter the DNA of humans and other living things — Hoffman pretty much avoided the health issues of nuclear power. He also didn’t show the photo he put in his book of how short the sea wall is protecting San Onofre from the beach (which, before the nuclear plants were built, was a popular enough surfing destination that the Beach Boys mentioned it in one of their songs), which is especially relevant because one of the reasons Fukushima’s reactors were so devastated by the tsunami a year ago was that the huge wave overwhelmed a similarly puny little sea wall.
After Hoffman’s speech, veteran peace activist Carol Jahnkow came on to promote a major anti-nuclear event being put on by the Peace Resource Center, Citizens’ Oversight Projects (COPS) and other organizations on Sunday, March 11 — the first anniversary of the tsunami that melted down Fukushima — from noon to 3 outside San Onofre’s south gate on Old Highway 101. Though limited parking is available near the site at San Onofre State Beach, the organizers are recommending that people coming to the event from the city of San Diego travel by the chartered bus the group has arranged for. Seats are $10 per person, round trip, and the buses leave from San Diego at Park Boulevard and Presidents’ Way in Balboa Park or from the Oceanside Transit Center in North County.