'Shut Down San Onofre': The New Front Line in the Fight Against Nuclear Power

Not long after the meltdown at Fukushima, workers at the San Onofre nuclear power plant, north of San Diego, discovered radioactive steam leaking into the air. Hundreds of steam tubes had been banging together and vibrating, investigators said, until one of them sprung a leak. And the tubes had been installed less than two years ago.

So in January they shut down the reactors.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the two reactors won't be restarted until the end of the summer. But many here are calling for the plant to be shut down permanently.

Southern California Edison (SCE), which runs the facility, doesn't call it a "nuclear plant"; instead it uses the musical acronym "SONGS"--for San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. What kind of people, they ask, would want to put an end to SONGS?

The answer: it's not just Helen Caldicott and the local no-nukes activists. They have now been joined by powerful mainstream voices, including the Los Angeles Times editorial page

Even before the January 2012 incident, activists argued that the plant should be shut down because it is threatened by both earthquakes and tsunamis. New studies show the seismic threats are greater than those the plant was designed to face.

If an earthquake cuts the power that runs the cooling system that keeps the nuclear core from overheating, San Onofre has diesel backup generators that are supposed to take over. But in May a study found that the backup generators could inadvertently shut down in an earthquake, causing a nuclear meltdown--exactly what happened in Fukushima.

One more thing: more than 7 million people live within fifty miles of the plant.

Also, the state wants San Onofre to stop using seawater for cooling because it's killing the fish. As the LA Times editorial pointed out, "A replacement cooling system could cost even more than new steam generators."

And of course there's the problem of what to do with the nuclear waste, which currently remains on-site and thus vulnerable to those earthquakes and tsunamis.

San Onofre has the worst safety record of all 104 reactors in the United States, but you won't learn that from SCE. "Nothing matters more to the men and women who operate our San Onofre facility than safety"--that's what SCE says.

Yes, but workers who have reported safety problems say they have been fired in retaliation. The LA Times reported on July 5 that several former workers sued SCE under the state's whistleblower protection act--but lost because of an obscure technicality in the law: because San Onofre lies inside Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base and thus federal land, SCE is exempt from state law.

Edward Bussey, who worked at the plant as a health physics technician, sued SCE in state court after he was fired in 2006. He said the firing was retaliation for complaining about safety issues to his supervisors and the NRC. According to the LA Times, SCE got the case moved to federal court, where a judge dismissed it, declaring that "wrongful-termination claims didn't apply in a federal enclave."

Defenders of nuclear power say it's cheap--but the new generators at San Onofre that turned out to have crippling design flaws cost $671 million. SCE reports that more than 1,300 tubes that carry radioactive steam are so heavily damaged that they will have to be replaced--once they figure out what went wrong with the design.

Defenders also say the state needs nuclear power to meet its air quality standards. But natural gas has become cheap and plentiful, while wind and solar sources can be greatly expanded. And the state right now has a power surplus, even with San Onofre offline.

Leading the fight to shut down San Clemente have been locals Gary Headrick of San Clemente Green, Gene Stone of Residents Organized for a Safe Environment and Donna Gilmore of San Onofre Safety, along with Dan Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap. They've gotten help from Arnie Gundersen and Friends of the Earth and of course Helen Caldicott. Activists have held rallies, spoken at official meetings and petitioned the NRC and Congress.

It's hard to disagree with the conclusion of LA Times editorial: "Now is the perfect time for Edison, and the state as a whole, to begin the planning for a non-nuclear future."

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