Updated: Southern California Edison Must Warn of “Routine” Radioactive Releases – Why Don’t Other U.S. Utilities?

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San Onofre Now Required to Give Public Warnings Before Radioactive Discharges

Guest Blog by Roger Johnson
[ An update from Roger Johnson is at the end of this article]

There is an important new development at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).  Southern California Edison (SCE) is now required to provide advance public warnings of their regular radioactive discharges into the Pacific Ocean off of San Onofre State Beach.   A 48 hour warning notice is quietly posted on their website:   https://www.songscommunity.com/stewardship/environmental-monitoring-around-san-onofre/liquid-batch-releases   There have been 6 such releases between late May and late July. The warning notices are not well publicized and unfortunately few people see them.  When they are discovered, concerned residents have gone down to the beach to post warnings for swimmers and surfers.

Unfortunately, SCE only announces liquid batch releases into the ocean but does not disclose their atmospheric releases blasted from air ejectors into the prevailing winds.

All nuclear power plants during routine operation regularly pump radioactive effluents into waterways and blast out atmospheric releases through air ejectors. In the case of SONGS, liquid releases are diluted with seawater and pumped through giant 18 ft. diameter pipes into the ocean off one of the most popular state beaches in California.  The practice relies on the theory that the solution to pollution is dilution.  About 2.5 million swimmers, surfers, campers, and hikers visit San Onofre State Beach each year.  Until now, few had any idea that nuclear waste was being dumped into the ocean nearby. 

A warning to surfers. photo – R. Johnson


While the San Onofre releases are a concern for ocean lovers, the seafood industry, and those who value marine ecology, the atmospheric releases are worrisome for all the densely populated cities and towns down wind.  For more than a half century, these discharges have been conducted in secret.  The exact dates, times, and contents of the are never disclosed.  In the past, some discharges have gone on continuously for over 24 hours.  Annual reports are made which are buried in the NRC website the following year. These reports are only quarterly averages which conceal data on individual releases.  There is no way to know if very large discharges were averaged with much smaller discharges to produce an innocent sounding disclosure about the levels of radioactivity dumped into the environment.

The health effects of regular discharges of low-level radiation into the environment are unknown.  While each release may sound harmless, the health effects of ionizing radiation are cumulative over years and decades.  This is especially true for women and children who are more vulnerable to radiation. (Radiation safety standards are based on the average young adult male.)  The NRC labels the releases as “allowable” but is careful not to claim that they are harmless.  The local operators are more reckless and often say that they are safe even though there is no evidence to support that claim. Excess radiation is a major concern for everyone now that cancer is the number one killer in California and much of the nation.

The only major American study of cancer clusters around nuclear power plants was done in 1990 by the National Cancer Institute.  It failed to find cancer clusters but the study was heavily flawed and the results are now considered invalid. It never proved there is no increased cancer near nuclear power plants as the nuclear industry sometimes claims.  It merely failed to find a cancer effect, probably because the research was poorly designed.  It studied only where people died, not where they lived or worked.  It went by political boundaries rather than by distance from the discharges.  It measured only deaths, not incidence.  

More recently, the National Academy of Sciences spent 5 years and millions of dollars on two reports which examined how to study the problem should actual research ever be carried out.  The final report, titled Analysis of Cancer Effect in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities proposed a pilot study which would look for cancer clusters in the 50 km radius around these 7 nuclear facilities:

·  Dresden Nuclear Power Station, Morris, Illinois

·  Millstone Power Station, Waterford, Connecticut

·  Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, Forked River, New Jersey

·  Haddam Neck Plant, Haddam Neck, Connecticut

·  Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant, Charlevoix, Michigan

·  San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, San Clemente, California; and

·  Nuclear Fuel Services, Erwin, Tennessee.

Unfortunately, the NRC terminated the funding so no actual research was ever conducted.  While there has been little research in the United States, better and more recent studies in Europe have reported cancer effects.  In early 2020, a petition by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation asked for congressional funding of new research regarding cancer clusters near nuclear power plants.  “Near” is defined as living within 50 km of a nuclear power plant.  Millions live “near” the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants. Over 1,100 signed the petition.   

SONGS appears to be the only nuclear power plant in the world where discharges are announced in advance. This all came about when Southern California Edison went to the California State Lands Commission for a permit to dismantle their cooling intake system.  The Surfrider Foundation in San Clemente objected to Edison’s environmental impact statement and requested that SCE provide advance public warnings of liquid discharges.  The State Lands Commission agreed and required that advance public warnings of discharges would be a condition for the permit.

It remains to be seen if others elsewhere wish to bring pressure on their own nuclear power plant operators to do the same.  If the nuclear industry claims that these discharges are harmless, why do they fiercely resist making public disclosures in advance?   Could it be that they do not want the public to know about these routine regular radioactive discharges into the local environment?  If they are harmless, then why do they conduct discharges in secret with no advance warning?

Update from Roger Johnson –
Many have asked how those living near San Onofre got Southern California Edison to agree to provide a 48 hour advance warning before they conduct a liquid radioactive batch release.  (They did not agree to provide an advance warning for atmospheric releases.) Below is a link to an article which discusses what happened should others want their NPP to do the same.  It turns out they are doing releases almost weekly with 6 discharges in the last 2 months.  The next one is tomorrow July 31!  It appears that few people realized that they have been doing both liquid and atmospheric releases in secret for over a half-century.  It also appears that San Onofre is the only NPP in the world where the public is given advance notice.  These notices have brought new public attention to what goes on at a NPP.  The locals are up in arms about these discharges off our beaches.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, maybe activists all over the country should pressure their own NPP to demand the same. If they claim it is safe, then why do they insist on doing it in secret?  Could this be one of the reasons why cancer is now the number one killer in the country?  Our petition to demand funding to restart the National Academy of Sciences study of cancer clusters near NPP now has over 1100 signatures.  We will soon present it to the four members of Congress representing the 50 km area around San Onofre and Diablo Canyon.  These releases illustrate how nuclear power plants are the most environmentally damaging form of energy production.  Lets work toward radiation-free energy! 

May we encourage others across the country (a) pressure your local NPP to provide advance notice of radioactive releases, and (b) contact your representatives in Congress and ask them to support the NAS cancer research project.

Here is a link to our petition:   https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfiIy9OhlIE7jixTEAKkKIEBb4rQd6nwkOj3NAazyiJh-H_eA/viewform

Roger Johnson, PhD is a retired Professor Emeritus, Fulbright Scholar and Guggenheim Fellow, formerly living near the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant near Manhattan and now living in San Clemente near the San Onofre nuclear power plant. As a child, he lived in Japan and visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki in ruins shortly after World War II. 
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