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Split Over Atoms

Living near a nuclear reactor, Al Tschaeche wants you to know, is not as scary as it seems. A resident of Encinitas, 30 miles south of the aging nuclear-power plant at San Onofre, Tschaeche suspects he may be subject to a persistent dose of low-level ionizing radiation. This, however, he considers a good thing. “I have never seen any good human data that demonstrates low doses are harmful,” he told a small audience gathered at the Oceanside Civic Center to discuss the continued operation of the 2,150-megawatt San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, also known as SONGS. “But I have seen demonstrations that show that it’s beneficial. A little bit of radiation is called ‘hormesis,’ ” the chipper retired nuclear physicist explained, “and it mobilizes your body to withstand higher doses.” He hopes all of his 17 great-grandchildren will enjoy a nuclear-powered world, not just because he considers nuclear power clean, but because “low doses are good for you.”

A few speakers later came Russell D. Hoffman, a Carlsbad resident who brought with him a small library devoted to nuclear issues — including, for texture, the souvenir edition of “Atoms for Peace,” the document of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s plan to channel atomic energy for the good of humanity. “Hormesis has been thoroughly debunked,” Hoffman declared. And anyway, low-level exposure to nuclear isotopes is the least of local residents’ worries. “If the plant were to melt down, there would be 68,000 casualties,” said Hoffman. “And that is a government figure.”

That didn’t scare Tschaeche. “Frankly, I’m more concerned about being hit by a tanker full of gas than I am by San Onofre failing,” he concluded.

And so went the two town-hall forums the California Public Utilities Commission held in Oceanside and San Clemente on May 17 to determine whether San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) should be released from its ownership interest in SONGS, whose two 20-something steam generators need to be replaced in the next five years to the tune of $680 million. Southern California Edison (SCE) owns most of the plant, but SDG&E’s 20 percent share means it would have to pony up roughly $135 million to keep the plant running. But even if the CPUC grants the San Diego utility’s request, it doesn’t mean the reactor shuts down – instead, Edison will likely foot the whole bill, pass the cost on to ratepayers, and SDG&E could then simply buy the 430 megawatts of nuclear-generated electricity – nearly a half-million homes worth – outright from Edison.

The particulars didn’t matter much at the meetings, however, which quickly devolved into community brawls over the continued operation of SONGS and atomic energy in general.

At the Oceanside meeting, held midafternoon in a library community room, one speaker insisted that SDG&E take its money and invest it in solar panels, because “100 square miles of solar panels can power all of North America.” At the San Clemente meeting, where the California Highway Patrol, tipped off by a nervous local, had come to police the “activists” — mostly neatly dressed, gray-haired retirees — a pro-nuclear advocate claimed that nuclear waste wasn’t such a big deal. “All the spent fuel in the world could fit on a basketball court two stories high,” he said. (Close: The Department of Energy’s waste-storage metaphor, for power-plant-generated waste only, is a football field 10 feet high.)

Hardly anyone seemed to realize that SDG&E, while bound by state law to draw 20 percent of its energy from renewables by 2010, has no explicit plan to redirect its nuclear investment into wind and solar. (SCE already gets 16 percent of its power from renewables – “more,” said spokesman Ray Golden, “than any other public utility in the country.”)

“I was a little bit frustrated, to tell you the truth, admitted CPUC Commissioner Geoffrey Brown, who presided over the meetings. “A lot of people were under the assumption that SDG&E is going green if it pulls out of San Onofre, or that San Onofre is going to shut down if SDG&E pulls out. But that doesn’t necessarily follow.” For one thing, SDG&E’s parent company, Sempra, “bases a good portion of its portfolio on the importation of liquefied natural gas from Long Beach or Baja California.” And the future of liquefied natural gas storage is by no means certain.

The misinformation on both sides “is terribly frustrating,” said Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, who has 30 years of experience fighting nuclear power. “We’ve always been so careful to make sure that what we’re presenting is both on point and accurate, because all we have is credibility. When person after person stands up and means very well but doesn’t address the issue before the agency we’re speaking to, we’re not doing anybody any good.”

To be fair, Brown didn’t get everything right either. When one speaker brought up Amory Lovins’ Boulder, Colorado–based Rocky Mountain Institute and its proposed cost-benefit experiment with public utilities and renewable energy, Brown confused the group with the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation.

“As I understand it, the Rocky Mountain Institute is going to promote clean coal,” he said. “Isn’t that Gale Norton’s group?”

Amid a rumble of protests, Brown’s legal counsel, Peter Hanson, piped in, “No, that’s Lovins, right?”

Lovins, by the way, once likened nuclear power to “trying to cut butter with a chain saw.”



The May 17 forums mirrored many a nuclear-energy debate — alternately long on fear and on can-do optimism, with few agreed-upon scientific facts to bolster either side. With environmentalists such as James Lovelock, the man behind the Gaia hypothesis, coming out in support of nuclear energy as the only solution to global warming, and Bush’s energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, promising to streamline the regulatory process, the nuclear industry is enjoying a public-relations heyday the likes of which it hasn’t seen since the meltdown at Three Mile Island scared the U.S. public off the technology for decades. But arguments for and against still spill over with fantastical claims and suspect data.

Part of the problem is that much useful information just isn’t available — even the health effects of living near a nuclear reactor have yet to be adequately studied. “When they built the Diablo Canyon reactor [near San Luis Obispo], we begged and begged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to do a baseline study of cancer risks in the area,” Becker said at the Oceanside meeting. “But they refused.” Without those baseline studies, it’s hard to prove that a childhood cancer rate in the vicinity of Three Mile Island 7 percent higher than the national average has anything to do with the reactor there. (Had the cancer rate been lower than average before the plant was built, however, that statistic might be alarming — near other reactors, the cancer rate has soared to as much as 45 percent above average.)

“Without a baseline, we don’t have any credibility on that issue,” Becker told me later over the phone. “So we stay away from it.”

Which is unfortunate, because Brown asked repeatedly during the meetings about the health risks, and that data would have meant something to him — the possibility still exists for the CPUC to deny SCE’s request and shut the plant down before its NRC license expires in 2022. “If there were severe cancer rates around San Luis Obispo or Three Mile Island, I sure would be concerned,” he said. “That would be startling evidence.”

But you don’t have to wade into the murky depths of health risks to object to rehabbing San Onofre, said Becker. All you have to do is look at what’s been happening with Unit 1, which started up in 1968, shut down permanently in 1992 and was slated to be shipped to South Carolina after decommissioning. The still-radioactive reactor debris, encased in concrete, at 700 tons proved too heavy to ship by highway or by barge through the Panama Canal, and the Burlington-Northern & Santa Fe railroad would only transport the unit if it could be absolved of all liability in the event of an accident. “And if you can’t get rid of the Unit 1 generator,” says Becker, “how are you going to replace the other two?” Already the transport of the two 620-ton generators, ordered from Mitsubishi in Japan, has presented a new point of conflict — Southern California Edison wants to truck them along one of three overland routes, but an environmental study on the project recommends a journey by sea to avoid disturbing the recreating public at the state beach.

People have until May 31 to forward written comments to the CPUC on the initial draft of SCE’s proposed steam-generator replacement project, which is available online at www.cpuc.ca.gov/environment/info/aspen/sanonofre/sanonofre.htm. But first, recommends Brown, study the issues and hone your pitch. “If you’re going to make an assertion, back it up.”

Hormesis, incidentally, has not been debunked. The theory that small doses of toxic substances, including radiation, may mobilize the body’s defenses has been demonstrated in perfectly respectable research by University of Massachusetts–Amherst professor Edward Calabrese. For the purpose of determining SONGS’ immediate future, however, that’s probably not important. “This is an economic proposal based on whether the replacement of the steam generators is cost-effective,” Brown said. “I doubt we’re going to solve the issue of low-level radiation this year.”


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