SOS on Canadian Radio – Spreading the Word

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SOS Directors Mary Beth Brangan, James Heddle & Morgan Peterson with their Awareness Film Festival Grand Jury Award for Feature Documentary – Photo: Moca Media

This is the transcript of an interview conducted by program host Sheila Ferrando and broadcast October 8, 2023 on CKUT Radio’s New Spin Library in Montreal, Quebec [At minute 16:00].

Participants are SOS filmmakers Mary Beth Brangan and James Heddle, together with Dr. Gordon Edwards, mathematician, physicist, nuclear consultant, and president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility ( ),

Crossposted on Substack

Host Sheila Ferrando:  San Clemente is a beautiful place in California in the United States with a beach, parks, hiking, and swimming. But San Clemente has a problem. It’s a situation that may take hundreds of thousands of years to resolve. Concerned citizens are gathering to discuss and change a deadly, dangerous future. That’s why some concerned humans have made the film SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome. San Onofre is a nuclear reactor site near to San Clemente. Today we have Dr. Gordon Edwards from Hampstead in Montreal, joined by Mary Beth Brangan and James Heddle, and these people are going to comment both on the film and on the state of nuclear energy in North America and the world today. First, please introduce yourselves and tell us how you came to be involved in SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome, the film, and how you have been contributing to the fight and activism for nuclear responsibility. Start with you, Mary Beth.

Mary Beth Brangan:  When Fukushima began its triple meltdown in 2011, we became totally concerned about the state of the nuclear situation once more. We had been nuclear safety proponents for 40 years by that time, and we realized that we needed to do whatever we could to prevent a Fukushima-like tragedy from happening here in California along the West Coast of America. And so we began documenting and working with others to shut down the nuclear reactors that operate along our coast here in California, because they, too, just like in Fukushima, are surrounded by earthquake faults and in tsunami zones.

Sheila Ferrando: And James Heddle, how did you become involved in SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome?

James Heddle:  Well, at the same time Mary Beth did, but I’ve been involved in documenting nuclear safety issues since the early eighties. The first film we made together was called Strategic Trust: The Making of a Nuclear-Free Palau. And we’ve been involved in various aspects of the issue ever since. So as Mary Beth says, when we learned of the Fukushima issue, we sprang into action and were very gratified to find a number of people up and down the coast who had the same concerns and were mobilizing to deal with it.

Sheila Ferrando: Now you, Mary Beth Brangan and you, James Heddle, were part of the crew that actually made the film SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome. Am I correct?

Mary Beth Brangan:  Actually, there’s only three of us who made the film. It’s Jim, myself, and our wonderful editor, Morgan Peterson.

Sheila Ferrando:  Dr. Gordon Edwards, what have you contributed to the activism for nuclear responsibility?

Dr. Gordon Edwards – EON Photo

Gordon Edwards:  I was approached by the filmmakers to add some illumination as to the nature of these poisons, these radioactive poisons. We call them wastes, and most people think of waste as being leftovers. These materials which are created inside the reactor were never there to begin with. They are actually created inside the reactor, hundreds of different radioactive elements that were never found in nature before 1939. What they are, they’re radioactive versions of non-radioactive materials, which we find in the environment. We have materials in the environment like iodine, which is not radioactive. Well, nuclear power plants create radioactive iodine. Similarly, with strontium and cesium, they’re non-radioactive minerals in the soil. You can find them anywhere, but the nuclear reactor produces radioactive varieties of these. So what is radioactivity? The radioactive materials have atoms that are unstable and that explode. They’re like little time bombs that will explode.

That doesn’t happen with non-radioactive materials. And when those little explosions occur, submicroscopic, they damage the DNA molecules in the human body or animal bodies, and that causes a host of illnesses, including cancers and including genetic damage. So my job in the film is simply to provide a little bit of illumination as to the nature of these wastes and why it’s reasonable to be afraid of them. Just like it’s reasonable to be afraid of fire, it’s reasonable to be afraid of earthquakes, it’s reasonable to be afraid of war. Well, it’s reasonable to be afraid of these things, too. And in fact, we’ve seen in the Ukraine War where Russia is invading Ukraine, we’ve seen the Atomic Energy Commission chairman announcing to the world that there is reason to be afraid of a nuclear catastrophe as a result of military actions that might release these materials into the environment. That’s basically my role.

Sheila Ferrando:  Let’s delve further into the story at San Onofre what is the story at San Onofre and why was the film SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome made?

Mary Beth Brangan:  Well, the situation at San Onofre, people were becoming concerned because whistle-blowers were contacting the residents around the plant and alerting them that things were not right there, that they were having a lot of safety violations that were not being addressed by the management. And so they were very brave and contacted people that they hoped would help them. And then sure enough, there was a leak of radioactivity from the reactors and they had to close it down. So then people really began educating themselves even more deeply and discovered that the management wanted to restart the broken reactor without fixing it first. They just wanted to protect their investment. So there was a huge outcry and effort by people on many, many levels. There were legal challenges, there were backroom negotiations with the governor and the utility company, and then there was a huge amount of grassroots organizing and it all miraculously came together. The people were able to have it shut down.

James Heddle:  Those are the two focal points of San Onofre the film. One is the power of informed citizen action to influence policy and practice, and the other is the fact that San Onofre with its stranded waste there is a microcosm of a situation that exists all over the country and in fact all over the world. And that was our intention, to start the discussion of this really under-discussed, off the radar screen issue. And the reason we wanted to involve an expert like Dr. Edwards is that we had read his opinion that the age of nuclear waste is just beginning and we really need to get ahold of what scant solutions or at least safety approaches there are at this date. We’re already in great danger all around the country.

Mary Beth Brangan:  And the world.

James Heddle:   And the world. I’d appreciate it, Gordon, if you’d expand on your idea that the age of nuclear waste is just beginning.

Sheila Ferrando:  What was being done in San Onofre to change the situation into safety for the populace?

Mary Beth Brangan:  Well, not enough, and that’s why we’re sounding the alarm. What we wanted to highlight in our film was that there is something that we could do immediately, well, on the scale of nuclear facilities, that means like within the next 10 years. So when we heard Dr. Edwards speak in Chicago way back in 2015 about Rolling Stewardship, it really resonated with us because we had already been appreciating the concept of guardianship that Joanna Macy, who’s a Buddhist scholar and anti-nuclear activist, among other things, had been promoting. And we really appreciated that and wanted people to have a sense that there was something that could be done. And Dr. Edwards had a really brilliant articulation of that, which is the Rolling Stewardship concept.

Sheila Ferrando:

Dr. Edwards, could you please explain the Rolling Stewardship concept?

Gordon Edwards:  Yes. The Rolling Stewardship concept was actually evolved decades ago by the National Academy of Sciences. They were dealing with materials which are highly toxic and which have an infinite lifetime, heavy metals like mercury and lead and arsenic and so on. We have waste which must be safely guarded, kept out of the human environment because of their harmful effects. And their idea was instead of just dumping it somewhere and hoping for the best, to have a Rolling Stewardship program which is intergenerational in nature, where each generation passes on the knowledge and responsibility for looking after these wastes, packaging them, and making sure that any leakage that occurs is immediately addressed and corrected, and that repackaging takes place regularly in sturdier and sturdier packages, hopefully, so that the risk is being managed, not eliminated because we don’t know how to eliminate these materials, but we can manage the risk and safeguard our children and our grandchildren.

Well, the same thing can be done with radioactive waste if we accept the fact that we don’t really have a solution. We can’t wish these things out of existence. We have created them. We have hundreds of radioactive materials which never existed before 1939. I was born in 1940, so that means these wastes are no older than I am, and it’s quite possible in the next hundred or 200 years that we may find a way of actually solving the problem by destroying these wastes, truly destroying them, or rendering them harmless. And there are various things you can think about. For example, if we had a magical way of putting these wastes in the center of the sun, that would destroy them. That would actually destroy them. But we don’t know how to do that safely. Meanwhile, we should not abandon the waste as the industry wants to do.

Both the industry and the regulatory agency wants to put these wastes somewhere deep underground and simply walk away from it. That’s abandonment. We believe that’s irresponsible because these wastes are going to remain dangerous far longer than human civilization, in fact, far longer than the human species. So we’re talking about hundreds of thousands and millions of years, in fact. In the meantime, we believe that we should accept the fact that we don’t have a final solution to this problem, therefore, we should adopt a policy of intergenerational Rolling Stewardship, packaging and repackaging this waste, and having people on guard, on duty all the time to ensure that whatever leakage occurs is immediately corrected and the spilled material is retrieved and put back into proper containers. That’s the idea of Rolling Stewardship. But one thing that you mustn’t do is leave them in highly vulnerable positions right beside the ocean in a high earthquake zone where at any moment, these wastes could simply be taken by nature, by some natural disaster out of our control.

Also, there’s a problem of human activity. For example, military conflicts. The concept has developed, it’s called the HOSS, hardened onsite storage. Hardened onsite storage means that we keep these waste in bunkers in very heavy containers, not thin-walled containers as we now have, but thick-walled containers which are able to resist a great deal of abuse and which can then be corrected and repackaged later on as well. That’s the idea of Rolling Stewardship. It’s not a solution, but it is a countervailing current to just blind fear where you just say, we’re helpless. We can’t do anything about this. Of course we can do things about this, but it becomes a societal problem and not merely an industry problem.

Sheila Ferrando:  During the making of the film SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome, what roadblocks did you encounter?

James Heddle:  I don’t know that we encountered any roadblock, aside from trying to get funding and a few technical problems. There is an interest in this issue. We found since we released the film that there’s a great deal of enthusiasm among reactor communities, organizations, for using the film. One of the early comments from a group in the east of the United States, the Stop Hole Tech Coalition, was that this film is made for organizers, and that’s largely due to the perspectives of Mary Beth, but we’re very pleased that activist organizations and individuals around the country are eagerly adapting it to their own purposes.

What it ties into, too, is the current push for a new generation of small nuclear reactors and also the resuscitation of old rickety over-aged and embrittled reactors. And we were curious initially why this is happening, why the big push now? And it turns out that it’s the joined at the hip nature of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons that is the motivation for this. They are codependent industries. They share infrastructure and educational institutions. One can’t exist without the other. They demand each other’s presence. And this is something we didn’t go into depth with in the film, but the process of making the film made this very clear to us, and hopefully in future films, we will explore and develop that insight.

Mary Beth Brangan:  Now, about a third of the population of the United States lives in close proximity to a nuclear reactor or radioactive waste from weapons facilities, probably closer to half when you count in the weapons waste and weapons making horrible messes all over the country. And in Canada as well, I would say. Absolutely. So there are a lot of people who need to be aware of this, a growing number are, and do want to use the information in the film.

Sheila Ferrando:  Where is the film SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome currently being shown, and is anyone trying to stop this and why?

Mary Beth Brangan:  You mean stop the showing of the film?

Sheila Ferrando:  Have you been prevented anywhere from distributing information about nuclear consciousness?

Mary Beth Brangan:  No, we haven’t, thank goodness. And actually, though the purpose, well, we’re encouraging people to understand the risk of transportation so that they know that you can’t just ship it away and contaminate another site, which would normally be somewhere by people who were so poor that are politically disempowered that they couldn’t refuse to accept the waste.

James Heddle:   There’s a movement now for informed consent citing. That means they’re going to approach various communities and regions and say, wouldn’t you like to have this waste? We can pay you a lot of money, or we can do this or that for you. But it’s almost guaranteed to make targets out of the minority communities with much less political clout than other communities.

Sheila Ferrando:  Where is the film SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome currently being shown?

James Heddle:  Well, it received its world premier in Los Angeles at the Awareness Film Festival where it was awarded the Grand Jury Award for documentary features. That got us off to a great start and that stimulated a lot of interest. Just last night, we had a Zoom showing by an organization in Topanga Canyon, which was well received, and the fact the film was introduced by Dan Hirsch, one of the experts in the film, and also commented on by Harvey Wasserman, who is a longtime friend and lifetime nuclear safety advocate. So we have a wonderful team of impact producers. That’s the new designation for the enterprise of promoting the showing and awareness of films on social issues. So there’s a whole long list of future showings that is being developed in communities across the country, and it’s already been accepted into the Uranium Film Festival. It will be shown in Rio de Janeiro and Berlin, and at least 18 other cities across the United States in the coming year. So we’re very pleased with the reception, and so far we haven’t been attacked or prevented from disseminating our message, and we hope that it continues.

Mary Beth Brangan:  The politician who is in the area of San Clemente, [Democrat Mike Levin] he represents them in national Congress. He’s a proponent of moving it to other places, promising the local communities, oh, we’ll just get it out of here and we’ll put you on the top of the list to move it. He made a video to go with our documentary so he could put out his perspective, which is let’s move it out of here. Also, to promote building of small nuclear reactors. Everybody’s being polite and trying to coexist, but there’s a lot of differing opinions here that we’re encountering.

And even in the movement. Some people think it’s too dangerous to keep this waste on the surface of the planet and that it should be in holes in the ground, which it’s a real dilemma. Those in the Nuclear Safety Movement who hold that position think, well, it won’t be able to be repackaged after a while, and it will inevitably go critical because it’ll fall to the bottom of the canisters, cause another fission and maybe explosion. So that’s what we’re encountering now is that deep discussion. What would be the best way to handle this?

James Heddle:  And that is very gratifying for us because as I said, our main motivation is to trigger or catalyze a discussion of this very under-discussed issue.

Mary Beth Brangan:  But discuss from the point of a moral point of view, an ethical point of view, so that you’re considering if you move it, what are you doing? You’re risking people all along the transportation route and then the ultimate destination, of course, and you are increasing the contamination that way.

James Heddle:  We were really hoping that we will collectively discover the most ecologically, technologically, and morally or ethically effective way of dealing with this very serious ecological and really an existential problem.

Gordon Edwards:  Well, that’s fine. I just wanted to say that one of the positive things is that ethics and practicality sometimes are in conflict, but in the case of energy, renewable energy doesn’t create any new toxic materials. It’s already four times cheaper than nuclear and four times faster to deploy. And in fact, the International Energy Agency says that 90% of new electricity worldwide over the next five years will all be wind or solar. So this is a very positive outlook in the fact that we had transitioned to a truly renewable future which will not pose these dangers. Meanwhile, we just have to look after the problems that the industry has left us with. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole again.

Sheila Ferrando:  If our listeners wish to see the film SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome, where should they be?

Mary Beth Brangan:  They should send an inquiry to, and we would love to have more people showing it all over the world.

James Heddle:  That is our website. They can go there for much more information.

Mary Beth Brangan:

Sheila Ferrando:  Thank you for your interview today. You have been listening to Mary Beth Brangan, James Heddle, and Dr. Gordon Edwards speaking about nuclear energy, the nuclear problem, and SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome. I’m your host, Sheila Ferrando.PMocaMeccia

James Heddle and Mary Beth Brangan are co-founders of EON – the Ecological Options  Network.  The EON production SOS – The San Onofry Syndrome: Nuclear Power’s Legacy received it’s World Premier at the Awareness Film Festival in Los Angeles, CA October 10, 2023, where it won the Grand Jury Award for feature documentary.  SOS was directed by Heddle, Brangan and Morgan Peterson, who also served as editor.