Will the truth about San Onofre, Fukushima mean beginning of the end of nuclear power?


This has been a little lost in the fallout — no pun intended — from last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan. But a shutdown of the aging and problem-plagued San Onofre nuclear plant in Southern California could mark a sea change in the way that we view and deal with nuclear power in this country as well. Indeed, major news from the two troubled plants, half a world apart from each other, raise serious questions about the ability of humans to safely harness the power of the atom.

Indeed, in the days after the April 2011 earthquake and tsunami crippled the Japanese facility and caused a series of deadly and destructive releases of radiation, Americans cast a wary eye to San Onofre; just like Fukushima, the plant that’s visible to motorists on the busy I-5 between Los Angeles and San Diego stands perilously close to an earthquake fault, and hard against the Pacific coastline.

Since then, San Onofre has indeed fallen on hard times — not because of Mother Nature but because of Father Time. Its two functioning units (the original unit has long been shut down) date to the early 1980s, around the time that nuclear-plant commissioning in the U.S. came to a standstill, and efforts to keep them in peak operating condition have faltered. In January, during a routine shutdown for refueling and some restoration work, engineers discovered extensive wear in the tubing of the steam generators; around that same time there was a small release of radiation from San Onofre.

As a result, California has been working to get through the peak summer season without its best known nuclear power plant online. So far, there have been no major problems — and activists are pressing hard to make sure that San Onofre never reopens:

The leak has galvanized opposition to the nuclear plant among local residents, who are calling for San Onofre to remain shuttered for good.

Antinuclear activists from across the country have seized on problems at San Onofre as an opportunity to push California toward a future without nuclear power.

“A lot of people have gotten involved since Fukushima, and now especially since San Onofre has been closed,” said Gary Headrick, the founder of San Clemente Green, a local environmental organization. “It’s really not worth living with this risk. We should shut it down.”

The plant will remain shut through at least the end of the summer while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Southern California Edison, the utility company that operates it, investigate the cause of the leak from the steam tubes. Officials have said repeatedly that the generators will restart only if they are deemed safe.

It makes you realize what a game changer Fukushima really was. As recently as a couple of years ago, some environmentally minded folks were looking at the issue of global warming and thinking that nuclear power might be a viable alternative; after all, it had been a quarter-century since the last deadly accident at Chernobyl, which suggested that nuclear was now a safe alternative.

What happened at Fukushima was like lifting up to proverbial rock to see what was really crawling underneath, and it was a lot uglier than anyone imagined. Just this week, more of the truth came out about the Japanese nuclear catastrophe, and the human failures — not the awesome power of a natural disaster — that made it inevitable:

The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan was a “man-made disaster” that unfolded as a result of collusion between the facility’s operator, regulators and the government, an independent panel said in an unusually frank report Thursday.

The report by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission outlines errors and willful negligence at the plant before the earthquake and tsunami that devastated swaths of northeastern Japan on March 11 last year, and a flawed response in the hours, days and weeks that followed. It also offers recommendations and encourages the nation’s parliament to “thoroughly debate and deliberate” the suggestions.

This is the most alarming part:

As well as detailing the specific failings related to the accident, the report describes a Japan in which nuclear power became “an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society.”

“Its regulation was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion,” the commission said.

What Americans are starting to realize is that our own government bureaucracy offers us no protection, as well. We’ve seen the failures — from the BP disaster in the Gulf, to the unregulated rise of fracking from coast to coast. The last thing that we need in America is another Fukushima. Shutting down San Onofre could also be the catalyst for this nation to get more serious about alternative forms of energy like wind and solar (two things that California has a lot of) and safely-procured natural gas. Both Japan and Germany are taking steps to end their dependence on nuclear energy, and there’s no reason why we can’t join them. The shores of the Pacific Ocean are the perfect place to start.

To read the New York Times report on the movement to shut down San Onofre, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/us/san-onofre-could-hint-at-a-non-nuclear-future.html

Learn more about the Japanese legislative report on Fukushima at: http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/05/world/asia/japan-fukushima-report/index.html

© Smith Stag, LLC 2012 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • Here is a quote from the Kemeny Commission Report on the Accident at Three Mile Island, Oct. 1978, page 9, paragraph 1:

    “After many years of operation of nuclear plants, with no evidence that any member of the general public has been hurt, the belief that nuclear plants are sufficiently safe grew into a conviction. One must recognize this to understand why many key steps that could have prevented the accident at Three Mile Island werre not taken. The commission is convinced that this attitude must be changed to one that says nuclear power is by its very nature potentially dangerous, and therefore, one must continually question whether the safeguards already in place are sufficient to prevent major accidents.”

    We can not afford a serious nuclear event at the San Onofre Generating Station.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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