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Photo by Mike McGillThe much-maligned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) has finally gotten some recognition—but probably not the kind it wants: it now ranks among the U.S. facilities most likely to suffer a meltdown, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a scientific group that monitors nuclear safety.
A serious meltdown at SONGS would result in a massive release of radioactivity that could immediately kill more than 100,000 people in South County and northern San Diego County and ultimately cause hundreds of thousands of cases of cancer and genetic defects.
The risk at SONGS stems from a design defect that could jam the nuclear plant's emergency cooling system in the event of a leak from the reactor vessel or cooling-water pipes.
At issue is the potential for debris to clog the screen on the containment-vessel sump. Such a clog could prevent water from being pumped through the reactor core, causing the reactor's fuel rods to overheat.
Southern California Edison (SCE) maintains it does not need to shut down SONGS to make structural changes, which California Energy Commission data show could result in a loss of some $7 million per day in revenue. Instead, the company says it can manage the hazard through good housekeeping and providing plenty of backup water in the event of a cooling-system breach.
"Containment cleanliness is really important," said SCE plant spokesperson Ray Golden. "We have a very thorough program to assure performance of the re-circulation sumps."
But according to David Lochbaum, nuclear-safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a number of factors —including the shape of the containment structure, size of the plant's sump screen and the amount of material that could form debris—makes a clogging accident more likely at SONGS than at almost all of the 66 other similar plants across the nation. SCE's proposed safety-training programs may not do enough to eliminate the hazard at SONGS.
"Currently missing is the homework to show that whatever fix is implemented will likely succeed and the implementation of actions to support the fix," Lochbaum said. "Until then, intentions provide little protection."
In an Aug. 1 filing with the commission, the utility said it would train its operators by Nov. 30 to prevent and deal with sump problems. SCE also plans to remove or secure materials that could clog the sumps, regularly inspect the containment structures and sumps at the plants to keep them clean, and outline procedures to maximize use of various stores of water at the facility should a breach occur.
In the Union of Concerned Scientists ranking of riskiest nuclear plants, SONGS tied for third most-dangerous with Point Beach 2 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The Vogtle 1 and 2 plants in Augusta, Georgia, tied for first place. Robinson 2 near Florence, South Carolina, tied for second place with Indian Point 2 and 3 outside New York City.
The recent study only adds to the mounting controversy over SONGS. Given the plant's proximity to millions of Southern Californians, the plant is especially vulnerable to terrorist attacks. But SONGS' safety drills only envision a terrorist attack by three people working with one conspirator inside the reactor area. Meanwhile, toxic waste from the plant is being stored on-site in cooling ponds, which are even more vulnerable to terrorist attack than the reactor vessel and which will remain radioactive for another 10,000 to 20,000 years.
But now there's the more immediate concern of a meltdown.
"The containment-sump issue is a credible one," said Scott Burnell, public affairs officer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Officials at the NRC are studying ways to correct the defect and plan to develop solutions by 2005 that the nuclear industry would have to fully carry out by 2007. Burnell said more recent data from Los Alamos National Laboratory shows the actual risk of such an accident by 2007 is less than one in 100, though activists say that is still too high, especially given the plant's proximity to millions of people.
"You're basically running a car without brakes and hoping you don't come across any red lights," said Daniel Hirsch, president of the Los Angeles-based Committee to Bridge the Gap. "In San Onofre's case, you have an unfortunate nexus between the risk and its location. It's a facility where the safety needs to be even greater."