San Onofre is an Environmental Hazard for San Diego and LA: It Is Time to Shut Down the Nukes

Any time we deal with an energy source that could eliminate life just by being unshielded, there are problems that are just not possible to deal with.

I really love machines. There is something about a 10-ton turbine that is balanced on tenths of a gram that is absolutely beautiful. Add to that the bearings that support that massive load and allow it to turn with the touch of a finger. Magnificent! This is what is at the heart of a nuclear power plant. These installations are nothing less than high art in engineering and manufacturing. They need to be eliminated.

The only difference between a gas fired plant and a nuclear plant is the heat source. Both plants generate steam which is used to spin turbines that then turn generators and produce electricity. Both types of plant have issues with exhaust streams.

Natural gas produces primarily carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that allegedly contributes to global warming. This gas stays in the atmosphere and warming the planet until a plant takes it up and breaks it down into carbon and oxygen, using the carbon to build its biology and releasing the oxygen to the atmosphere. This is a cycle that can take many years depending on the density of plant life and the percentage of CO2 in the air.

Nuclear plants produce no exhaust gasses. It sounds too good to be true – and it is. Nuclear waste is solid matter. It’s also radioactive. While we don’t necessarily know the time line of the carbon cycle, we do know the lifespan of the radioactivity that will kill us (painfully and disgustingly) with a very short exposure. The carbon cycle can be measured in decades. The half life of depleted uranium is measured in hundreds of millennia. This crap will still be lethal for 250,000 years. The earliest estimate I have seen for human life is 15,000 years. But that is only part of the problem.

In order to operate safely, nuclear plants require shielding of the nuclear fuel. There must be a material surrounding the fuel that is capable of absorbing the protons emitted. As I said, this stuff is lethal with a very small exposure. This shield is called a containment vessel. Inside the containment vessel is all of the radioactive fuel and everything exposed to the radioactive fuel. This includes a good deal of water used to both cool the fuel rods and to boil the water that is turned to steam to spin the turbines to generate the power. There is also machinery inside the containment vessel. Machines used to adjust the fuel rods, to pump the hot coolant through the heat exchanger and hundreds of other tasks relating to the safety and function of the plant. Like all machinery, it’s subject to failure. This presents a problem. Humans are not allowed into the containment vessel and the machines are not allowed out (they’re radioactive now). Also, every spare part will become radioactive waste eventually and robots can’t always repair what’s broken.

Failures like the one at the San Onofre plant are particularly unsettling because they are unexpected. Those steam pipes were never supposed to leak, but that one did. What might happen in the containment vessel that we can’t anticipate? And then there are natural disasters. Japan had an earthquake recently that you might remember. There also seems to be a fault line somewhere near San Onofre. It's called San Andres and its been know to be active on occasion. In short, there’s no way to operate these things safely, and when they break down, huge swaths of land become uninhabitable.

It's not if the next Chernobyl is going to happen, it's when. Some would argue that Fukushima Daiichi was it. Personally, I’d prefer not to have the next one in the U.S. It's time to shut down the nukes.