San Onofre Nightmare Generating Station

Photo by Mike McGillEver since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it has been an open secret that if the hijackers had crashed two jumbo jets into a nuclear reactor, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of Americans might have died. Of all U.S. nuclear plants, none has the potential to kill more people than the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), which straddles the Orange County-San Diego border. In recent weeks, top Bush administration officials have announced that future terrorist attacks on U.S. soil aren't just likely but inevitable—and that a terrorist-related nuclear disaster is the No. 1 danger facing America. Hold that thought while you consider 10 other reasons why SONGS should be shut down for good.

1. The U.S. government's antiterrorist security drills for nuclear plants are outdated to the point of absurdity. While SONGS is seemingly the least vulnerable of our nation's nuclear plants—located next door to Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base—it has been incredibly reluctant to improve security over the years. "Nuclear reactors are a very attractive target for two reasons," says Dan Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles-based anti-nuclear group. "Successful destruction of a plant can cause immense casualties, and the security is way below that necessary to repel a Sept. 11-size attack."

Only after the 1993 World Trade Center truck bombing did SONGS agree to install concrete barriers that could prevent a similar attack at the plant. Meanwhile, the plant's safety drills only envision a terrorist attack by three ambulatory attackers armed with automatic weapons and aided by a conspirator inside the reactor area. Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the LA chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) says it's irresponsible for the government to allow nuclear plants to continue operating after Sept. 11 with such outdated security standards. "We simply can't afford to have these potential nuclear bombs in our community," he argued.

2. There's no safe way to store radioactive waste at a nuclear plant. Like many U.S. nuclear reactors, SONGS stores a large amount of radioactive waste on site in cooling ponds, which are essentially dirty bombs waiting to be detonated. The cooling ponds have been there since 1983 and are less protected than the reactor itself—officials at Southern California Edison (SCE), the plant's majority owner, admit it's unsafe to keep the waste there forever. The toxic junk in those pools will be highly radioactive for another 10,000 to 20,000 years, about the same length of time it took for Homo sapiens to go from living in caves to landing on the moon. 3. Edison has no respect for Native Americans. For years, SCE backed a plan to dump radioactive waste at Ward Valley on sacred Native American land near Needles, a few miles uphill from the Colorado River aqueduct. While environmental concerns have all but killed that plan, SCE still wants to dump its nuclear waste in traditional Shoshone Indian land near Yucca Mountain, Nevada, in direct violation of the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863. In the treaty, the Shoshone nation gave the U.S. right of passage through their land—but there was no mention of the right to perform bomb testing or bury radioactive waste there. Yucca Mountain is just one example of how Native Americans are routinely fucked over by the nuclear industry. As a backup plan, SCE is trying to open another dumpsite at the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah. 4. Before it desecrates Native American soil or leaks into the Colorado River, San Onofre's toxic waste has to make it to the desert dumpsite without spilling en route. This is the so-called Mobile Chernobyl scenario. Recent estimates say that once it opens, Yucca Mountain would receive 77,000 shipments of waste during the next 15 to 30 years. A lot of that traffic would flow through California to Nevada by way of railroad, along the infamous Cajon Pass, which is the most dangerous train route in California. Just one spill could cause dozens or hundreds of deaths. "Depending on how concentrated the radioactive plume is, people could die from acute radiation exposure," said anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott. "The people handling the accident would be irradiated. They'd be sacrificial lambs." 5. SONGS may be slowly killing its own workers. Five families of San Onofre workers who have died of rare forms of cancer have sued SCE for failing to disclose radiation leaks at the plant. SCE doesn't deny that such leaks have occurred, or even that radiation may have "migrated" off-site, but insists that 20 percent of Americans die of cancer and therefore the company isn't responsible for a similar rate of the disease among its workers. According to James Warf, one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, there's another danger inherent in working at nuclear facilities like SONGS: radiation that doesn't kill you but causes birth defects in your kids. "One regulation that might be considered is that only people beyond childbearing years can be hired to work at nuclear plants," he said. 6. The U.S. government is now distributing anti-radiation pills to people who live in the area surrounding SONGS and other nuclear reactors. The pills, which contain potassium iodide, will prevent thyroid cancer if taken one or two minutes after you breathe air that has been contaminated by a radiation leak. All nuclear plant workers carry the pills, as do emergency response teams, but only now are the pills being made available to the public. The reason for the government's hesitation? The pills only protect against radioactive iodine, one of several deadly compounds that might be released during a radiation leak and may lull locals into a false sense of security. Their best advice for what to do if there's an "event" at San Onofre is to stay indoors with the windows shut or run for the hills. 7. In case SONGS blows up, leaks, or otherwise causes massive death and destruction, SCE doesn't want to pay any hefty fines. So far, there hasn't been any Chernobyl-style "worst-case scenario" disaster at any U.S. nuclear reactor, but the government estimates that one such incident could occur every 30 years—so we're overdue. Which may help explain why SCE and other utilities support an effort by the Bush administration to reauthorize the 45-year-old Price-Anderson Act, which says that the operator of a nuclear plant that leaks, blows up or otherwise experiences a catastrophic incident should only be liable for $10 billion in cleanup expenses. The rest of the money would be paid by taxpayers.

If $10 billion sounds like a lot of money, consider this: the estimated cost of a nuclear accident, according to 1982 estimates, would be as high as $590 billion per reactor. "The proposed law says contractors are not liable for one extra cent of any damages they cause, even if they are found to be negligent in the accident," said Diane D'Arrigo, radioactive-waste project director at the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

8. Nuclear power is a rip-off. When all its reactors are up and running, SONGS produces only about 20 percent of SCE's energy, but every penny of SONGS' $4.3 billion construction cost has been paid for by California taxpayers, thanks to a unique deal with the California Public Utilities Commission. But that's only half the story: the public is also paying every cent of the cost of "decommissioning" the plants, which basically involves classifying each part of the reactor by radioactivity, breaking up the plant into pieces, and burying them on some Indian reservation. SCE has already started taking apart SONGS' Unit 1 reactor, but it won't be finished until 2008, and remember, there are still two more reactors to go. Because there's still no place to safely bury all this waste—see No. 3 above—the cost of decommissioning is still unknown but definitely measurable in the billions of dollars. 9. Although SONGS was designed to be operated safely for just 20 to 30 years, SCE has already extended its license to operate the plant until 2022. As the concrete-lined reactor walls get older, their ability to contain the pressure involved in containing a nuclear accident gets weaker. Think of the aging passenger jet that lost its roof 24,000 feet over Hawaii a few years back. "When the chain reaction that creates nuclear energy takes place, it embrittles the containment vessel," said PSR's Parfrey. "Then, if you ever have to cool the rods in an emergency, you will have a structure that will not be able to contain the pressure." 10. Even without the threat of terrorism, the damn thing is just too dangerous. San Onofre's environmental-impact report estimates that if a major release of radiation occurs at SONGS, here's what we can expect: 130,000 immediate fatalities, 300,000 latent cancers and 600,000 genetic effects passed on to Southern California residents and their children. Have a nice day!

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