Opinion: investing in more nuclear power cannot be our solution to climate change
If you live in Orange County or San Diego, I hope you know that the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant has been turned into a nuclear waste landfill for the foreseeable future. If you live on planet Earth, it is wise to follow national and foreign initiatives aimed at increasing dependence on nuclear energy.
The United States ushered in the atomic age in 1945 by dropping a uranium bomb on Hiroshima and a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. We now have 3.6 million pounds of these and other deadly radioactive elements on San Onofre Beach in temporary cans, programmed to stay there indefinitely.
No one has figured out how to safely dispose of deadly nuclear waste. Yet to tackle the climate crisis, the United States and the world are proposing to create more by extending the life of existing nuclear power plants and building new ones. Has the world learned nothing from the disasters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima?
Since the closure of San Onofre in 2013, controversy has revolved around the waste dry storage systems selected by the plant operator, Southern California Edison.
As is the case with all US nuclear power plants, San Onofre was not designed for the storage of nuclear waste after decommissioning. The Nuclear Waste Act of 1982 mandated the construction of a deep geological repository to store the country’s spent fuel for the hundreds of thousands of years it remains deadly. However, as hopes for a Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada crumbled amid concerns over groundwater contamination, discussions turned to establishing “interim” storage sites in Texas and the United States. New Mexico, although those states balk at this prospect as well.
The current reality, as stated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is that a repository might never materialize, forcing nuclear power plants to store spent fuel on-site indefinitely.
Last August, all of the spent fuel from San Onofre had been transferred to 123 dry storage containers, each with the potential to release as much highly radioactive cesium-137 as during the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.
San Onofre cans are thin-walled (5/8 inch) stainless steel and susceptible to “stress corrosion cracking” in a marine environment. They were not designed for safe maintenance, inspection, storage or transportation.
The potential consequences of cracks are much worse than small emissions of radiation into the atmosphere: the cans are filled with helium expressly to limit corrosion and prevent explosions triggered by air or water entering them. .
Compare this with the thick-walled (10-19 inch) drums used in most countries that are not susceptible to stress corrosion cracking and are designed for maintenance, inspection, storage and transportation.
As a place of waste storage, San Onofre is very risky. Located along the shore and in a seismic zone, it is vulnerable to destructive seismic earth movements and tsunamis. The photographs show waves splashing already near the top of its sea wall at high tide.
If the cooling air vents that surround the cans are clogged with sand, water, salt, or other debris, it may not be possible to quickly clean the vents. Air cooling could cease, and even contractor Holtec admits that in a few days, temperatures could rise above 1,000 degrees, near the maximum temperature the cans can withstand.
The vulnerability of cartridges to terrorist attacks is also of concern, as they are stored in wide open and easy targets.
Advocates by nuclear security advocates to move radioactive waste to safer, thicker drums have been rejected by Southern California Edison and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Nuclear reactors in the United States were originally licensed for 25 to 40 years of operation. The commission granted operating extensions of up to 60 years to several dozen reactors, raising concerns about worn components and outdated operating systems.
Kalene Walker is an Orange County resident who studies the problem of nuclear waste storage. In response to his question as to whether there are any critical parts of reactors that can never be inspected, Dr Allen Hiser, senior technical advisor to the License Renewal Aging Management Commission, admitted that some components do not. cannot be inspected due to inaccessibility or high risk of irradiation.
Although Hiser suggests inferring the condition of non-inspectable components by sampling similar inspectable parts, this cannot eliminate the risks when anybody can know when non-inspectable components may fail.
Nuclear power is neither renewable nor sustainable, and it costs more today than solar or wind power.
With the nuclear waste problem completely unsolved, it is appalling that 50 new nuclear reactors are under construction around the world. In the United States, 24 applications for the construction of new reactors have been filed since 2007.
Creating more nuclear power plants and deadly waste in the United States makes no sense when we cannot guarantee the safety of existing aging plants or the more than 80,000 metric tonnes of spent fuel already being generated. The argument that nuclear is necessary to combat global warming reflects the same reckless mindset – ignoring long-term negative impacts for short-term gains – that created the climate crisis in the first place.
We must no longer dump radioactive nuclear waste on the road. It is time to tackle the problem head-on.
Sarah Mosko is a licensed psychologist, sleep disorders specialist and freelance environmental writer who grew up in San Diego but currently lives in Orange County.