San Clemente's Nuke Plant Radiation Mystery

The visitors arrived just a day short of the one-year anniversary of the March 11, 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami that wiped out the country's Fukushima nuclear plant and nearly caused a countrywide nuclear emergency. They were a pair of residents of Miyagi Prefecture who had come to San Clemente to "warn Californians about the horrors of nuclear power plant disasters," in the words of one local anti-nuke activist who described the visit in a March 12 email to city officials.

"The Japanese guests took their Geiger counters down to the crowded public beach in downtown San Clemente and found levels of radioactivity in the sand equal to those found on the beach in Miyagi Prefecture (near Fukushima) where children are developing tumors and cancer," the email states. "This was yesterday here in Southern California! They also tested the inside of a home they were staying at in San Clemente and found radiation levels equal to those in their own homes in Miyagi Prefecture Japan!"

The obvious culprit behind the radiation: the nearby San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS, which plant officials shut down on Jan. 31 after a ruptured tube leaked radioactive steam into the air.

The email doesn't specify the exact radiation levels detected by the activists, but speculates that it may be the result of either what SONGS refers to as recent "minor leaks" at the plant, "radiaoactive fallout from Fukushima one year ago," or "40 years of constant venting of radioactive material that the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] has allowed San Onofre to quietly do on a regular basis."

The email in question quickly made its way around town, leading to widespread panic, or at least so reported San Diego's KPBS radio news on March 13. "The result of the readings have been shared with many  North County residents by email, the Internet and social media, alarming some," the station noted. "But an expert questions the accuracy of those findings."

The expert, Murray Jennex, a professor with San Diego State University's Homeland Security Program, told KPBS that the readings had to be false. "I've been monitoring background radiation and radiation in Oceanside off and on for the last year since Fukushima, and I've never seen anything above background," he said. "I don't believe the readings they got were correct."

But with the recent leaks at the plant, and amid criticism by activists who complain that the only systematic monitoring near SONGS is done by the plant itself, San Clemente officials appear to investigate whether to establish an independent radiation monitoring system for the reactor. At its next meeting on March 20, they're expected to hear the results of a staff report on the issue, so stay tuned.

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