June 18, 2013

The June 8 decision by Southern California Edison to shut down the crippled San Onofre nuclear power plant is a victory for public health, say California chapters of the Nobel-prize winning organization Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR).

“San Onofre was a Fukushima disaster waiting to happen. It was shut down in January 2012 after a leak of radioactive steam revealed damage to tubes in its reactors’ replacement steam generators. The plant is located near earthquake fault zones and has over 8 million people living within 50 miles of the site. Evacuation would be nearly impossible. The decision to permanently close the plant is a tremendous victory for the health and safety of Southern Californians,” said Denise Duffield, Associate Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles.

In April, Edison made a request to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it restart reactor Unit 2 at partial power and run it as a five-month test followed by two years of intermittent shutdowns and startups. Given the extent of damage of both reactors, PSR and environmental groups vehemently opposed this restart plan.

“We now know from the tragedy at Fukushima Daichii that a convergence of errors, poor planning and natural catastrophe can strike and leave a huge area covered in radioactive cesium requiring long-term evacuation from the surrounding land to protect public health, along with economic disaster due to closure of important fisheries and tourism. The economic impact of this accident is felt to be larger than the mortgage meltdown in the U.S.” said Harry Wang, MD, President of PSR Sacramento.

Radioactive cesium, which has a half-life of 30 years, has been found all over Japan, not just in the evacuation zones. This is significant because cesium is ingested or inhaled and is taken up into the body where it can concentrate in the heart and the endocrine tissues. Concerns about a major accident at San Onofre were serious given the earthquake prone region.

PSR remains concerned about the continuing threat posed by 1,400 tons of spent nuclear fuel that will remain at the San Onofre site. Only 25% of San Onofre’s highly toxic spent fuel is stored in dry casks, which provide greater safety than the spent fuel pools in which the remaining high-level waste is stored. Such pools are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes and power failure, and if exposed, the spent fuel can self-ignite and release vast amounts of lethal radiation.

“The problem of spent fuel storage does not go away when a plant shuts down,” said Robert Gould, MD, President of PSR San Francisco. “There is currently no safe way to permanently store spent fuel, which remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. This is one of the reasons why PSR advocates moving away from nuclear power and investing in clean, safe, and renewable energy sources.”