Chilling article on SFPs in the North County (California) Times, Nov. 23rd, 2001 (comments by Russell Hoffman)

To: Katie Burns, reporter, North County Times
"Editor, NC Times" <>
From: Russell Hoffman, Concerned Citizen
Cc: California Senators, governor of California
Date: November 23rd, 2001
Re: Chilling article on SFPs --

Dear Ms Burns,

I found your article [shown below] on nuclear reactor spent fuel pools in today's North County (California) Times to be chilling, but it still minimized the potential dangers of a spent fuel pool accident at San Onofre, and it's really too bad that you sullied an otherwise-fairly-good-article with Ray Golden's and Breck Henderson's ridiculous assumptions that SFP accidents will necessarily be slow-moving, stoppable events.

One jumbo jet could easily smash through the walls of the spent fuel pool, splash out the water, crack open some of the pellets with the physical force of the crash (a rifle bullet, likewise, could crack open the fuel assemblies), and then burn the whole mess at temperatures that are highly likely to rupture additional fuel pellets.  This would be a real inferno.  It would ONLY stop when all the fuel had been burned and spread into the environment.  The WTC is still burning more than two months after 9-11 and temperatures must have reached thousands of degrees in order to melt the steel support beams so quickly.

You might have wanted to mention that if you deform the pellets enough to crack them open, once they start burning you can't get near them, I mean not even close, so the water would eventually dry up and you've a situation at least as bad as Chernobyl.

You might have mentioned that at least 10,000 people are believed to have died already because of Chernobyl, and the accident burned far less fuel than what is stored in any of San Onofre's three spent fuel pools.

It takes an incredibly small amount of spent fuel to cause cancer, although the exact particle size is a matter of great debate.

You might have mentioned that each day we leave San Onofre open, another 500 pounds of High Level Radioactive Waste, mostly spent fuel, is created (that figure is according to San Onofre's own literature).

Nevada, quite logically, is refusing to take any of the waste.  What will we do with it?  If just one day's fuel was consumed in a spent fuel pool fire, all of Southern California would probably have to be ABANDONED -- and thousands would be killed.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's "worst case scenarios" involve the burning of tiny fractions -- perhaps .001% or even less -- of the total fuel load.  This is unrealistic.

You might also have mentioned that when Mr Henderson says,  "It's hard to get precise numbers for this because we take safety precautions for the worst situation," what he's saying is, just like with airplane strikes, the nuclear industry doesn't really want to admit how dangerous a spent fuel pool accident could be.  They don't admit that true "worst case scenarios" are possible, but they are.

Ray Golden suffers from corporate wishful thinking.  This is, after all, the same man who assured the public, on September 11th, 2001, that San Onofre is safe against jumbo jet strikes, when we now all know it isn't.  I think you would have done the community a much greater service if you had used some of your column inches which you wasted on his placating falsities to talk about the cancers, leukemias, and birth defects that a spent fuel pool accident could cause throughout the community for thousands of years to come.  Also, you might have talked about how far the radiation would spread.  Bomb tests in the Pacific and in Nevada spread their lethal poisons in easily detectable amounts for hundreds of miles; Chernobyl quickly resulted in detectable increases in radiation levels thousands of miles away.

Ray Golden claims we could all just evacuate.  He ignores the reality of how difficult that would be, he ignores the fact that not all accident scenarios in the spent fuel pool will be slow, he ignores the reality that even with an evacuation, releasing radioactive poisons into the environment is a crime of mass murder because it will spread all around the world, and lastly, he ignores that fact that the evacuation would be permanent or at least last for thousands of years.

If you don't think it would last that long, I've got some prime real estate I can sell you around Chernobyl.  That dead zone, hundreds of square miles already, continues to grow and grow and grow.

Shutting San Onofre down is the only logical solution.  It's vital that we do this before a major tragedy ruins our coast.


Russell Hoffman
Concerned Citizen
Carlsbad, CA



Disaster would be unhurried with nuclear waste


Staff Writer

The pools where nuclear waste is stored at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station are calm places in comparison to the reactor core, where a meltdown is more likely to occur because the fuel already is running a chain reaction.

The nuclear waste comes in the form of spent fuel, or fuel that is too old to run the reactor. While a meltdown of spent fuel is improbable, it is not impossible, experts say. And the results could be ugly, though no one can predict exactly what they would be ---- much as the engineers who design for earthquakes cannot predict exactly how a given quake will affect a given structure.

Several experts say that in the worst-case scenario, nuclear waste in a leaking storage pool at San Onofre would take hours, even days, to melt down ---- if the radioactive material overheated at all. So plant workers would have some time to remedy the situation, unlike in the case of a severely damaged reactor core.

Spent fuel is highly radioactive because it contains the byproducts of fission in the reactor. Uranium breaks apart into many other radioactive elements in a chain reaction that gives off heat. Fuel becomes less capable of sustaining the chain reaction over time, so older spent fuel is less likely to overheat than newer spent fuel.

"The consequences can be comparable to that of a meltdown of a reactor ---- or worse because you don't have real containment," said James Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst with Greenpeace in Washingon, D.C. "The structure wouldn't prevent a meltdown from releasing radiation into the environment."

The specifics of storage

Steel and concrete surround the storage pools, but the containment dome over the reactor core is even stronger.

Water leaking from the storage pool probably would not be too radioactive. But the lofting of radioactive particles out of a damaged building and into the air on steam or smoke due to boiling water or a fire poses a problem. If a disaster cracked open a building around a storage pool, the only solution might be to drop sand or other materials on the site ---- a tactic used at the meltdown at Chernobyl.

"San Onofre's been operating for over 20 years, so you've got a lot of waste in those pools ---- not all of it can melt down because some of it's really old," Riccio said. "But you have one core in the reactor. You have as many as 10 to 15 cores in the spent-fuel pool."

San Onofre has about 10 cores ---- a core being the amount of fuel in the reactor ---- in its three storage pools. The power plant will also use another form of storage in the future. Dry casks are small containers with no water, and they are somewhat safer than storage pools, which were originally temporary holding tanks. Each cask is sturdy and contains less spent fuel than a pool, though fuel less than five years old is too radioactive to put in casks.

For now, the chance of a major accident in the reactor core or the storage pools remains very slim. If a disaster does strike, the consequences would probably unfold over time.

"In the unlikely event ---- whether it's an operating reactor or a spent-fuel pool ---- that you had an accident, there would be time for notification, there would be time for evacuation," said Ray Golden, a spokesman for Southern California Edison, which owns San Onofre. The power plant is about 20 miles up the coast from Oceanside.

The details of disaster

Critics say an unexpectedly large earthquake or unprecedented act of sabotage might breach one of the pools. Then a crack could allow for the draining of the water that cools the fuel and absorbs the radiation. Without water, the fuel might overheat and potentially escape.

"If a manmade or natural disaster occurred, we would have enough response time to put measures in place to assure that the fuel would remain covered," Golden said.

The storage pools have redundant, remote systems to restore the water level in the storage pool. But if the hypothetical disaster took out these systems, plant workers would not be able to stop the escape of water from a distance. And venturing near the spent fuel as the water level drops would be dangerous.

"As the water level drops, the radiation level in the building goes up because the water not only cools the fuel, but also acts as shielding," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. "That may impede the plant workers in their efforts to get the water back into the pool.

"At some point, the radiation level gets so high that it becomes a suicide mission to enter that room."

The scenario worsens if plant workers can't restore the water level in the storage pool.

"Once the water level drops below the top of the fuel, you get heat-up of the fuel and the possibility of a fire or a meltdown," Lochbaum said. "In the reactor, you have seconds or minutes before you face meltdown. For the stuff in the spent-fuel pool, you'll have hours ---- or days for the stuff that was taken out a long time ago."

The makings of a meltdown

Assemblies of spent fuel remain in the reactor for hours to days to cool. Each assembly is 8 inches square and 13 feet long. It holds 236 metal rods, each containing 382 fuel pellets. A fuel assembly fresh from the reactor could overheat in minutes without water for insulation, but older fuel would take hours or days to melt, if it melted at all.

"Without water, you'd have very high radiation levels," Golden said. "If you took a brand-new, just-discharged fuel assembly, it would heat up in minutes."

The fuel pellets inside the metal rods begin to heat up because of the lack of water for cooling. The fuel pellets might even grow hot enough to melt out of the metal rods. If the spent fuel fell together in a pile, a chain reaction could increase the temperature. Radiation might then escape on steam or smoke via any breach in the building.

The water temperature in a storage pool is in the 80s. The fuel pellets can melt the metal rods around them at about 2,500 degrees to release radiation. The pellets melt at 5,000 degrees, a temperature difficult to reach.

But for a widespread release of radiation, the pellets must partially liquefy or vaporize to get into the air, said Breck Henderson, a Texas-based spokesperson for the western region of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"It's hard to get precise numbers for this because we take safety precautions for the worst situation," said Henderson. "That's why nobody can give you exact numbers."

Golden said the water in a pool would probably take a while to drain, though, so the time frame for a meltdown would be at least hours. Most of the spent fuel in the storage pools is years old and would take days to overheat, while fuel fresh from the reactor is not much different than the fuel in the reactor.

The details of a disaster also help determine if spent fuel of any age will overheat. The bundles of nuclear waste rest on racks under water at normal pressure during regular operations.

The reactor is more likely to melt down because the fuel is already set up for a chain reaction. The core also heats water under pressure to boil a second supply of water to turn turbines to make electricity. The pressure increases the danger of radiation escaping on steam or smoke.

Contact staff writer Katie Burns at (760) 740-5442 or


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First posted November 23rd, 2001.

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