Reason for health concerns? – Orange County Register


For more than 50 years, wastewater with traces of radioactivity has been regularly released into the ocean a mile offshore from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

These “liquid batch releases” are regulated by, and reported to, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and details are available in NRC records. But those records are a bit inscrutable to folks without engineering degrees.

Construction on an expansion of Wheeler North man-made reef about a mile offshore from San Clemente on Thursday, June 11, 2020. The reef is part of Southern California Edison’s ongoing efforts to mitigate environmental damage cause by 1970s expansion of the now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Recently, however, operator Southern California Edison — after requests from the Surfrider Foundation and others seeking greater transparency as the shuttered plant is torn down — began publishing advance notice of batch releases on its website. And while releases are significantly less frequent now than when the plant was splitting atoms, the details have prompted concern among people who aren’t convinced there’s any “safe” release of man-made radiation into the environment.

The latest liquid batch release from San Onofre happened on Thursday, Aug. 6, a historic day: the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, and the day Edison was placing its last canister of nuclear waste into dry storage. It released about 20,000 gallons of water into the ocean at a depth of 50 feet. It took about four hours and had a total dose of 0.000722 millirem.

If someone drank the entire 20,000 gallons, they’d get just a fraction of the annual whole body radiation dose limit set by federal officials, Edison says. And once that wastewater mixes with millions of gallons of ocean water, it becomes so diluted that radiation is undetectable.

Critics skeptical

That’s not much comfort to critics.

Southern California Edison

“One low-level discharge of radiation may not have an obvious immediate impact. But ionizing radiation damages cell DNA and the effects on health are cumulative,” said Roger Johnson, a retired neuroscience professor in San Clemente, by email.

“After thousands of exposures over decades it would not be surprising to find cancer clusters for those living near nuclear power plants, especially for children. … Over 100 million Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. Perhaps this contributes to making cancer the number one killer in the country.”

Is there a relationship? After spending five years and $1.5 million planning a nationwide probe into whether living near a nuclear power plant is truly hazardous to your health, the NRC pulled the plug in 2015, saying the study would take too long and be too expensive. Internal emails obtained by the Southern California News Group found that officials were convinced the study couldn’t link reactors to disease.

More recent studies in Europe, using far more sophisticated techniques, have found that young children living within 3 miles of nuclear power plants had twice the risk of developing acute leukemia as those living farther away.

San Onofre, however, is not an operating plant. It has not split atoms for more than eight years, and all its spent fuel is now out of cooling pools and in dry storage.


Following are answers to some basic questions on the issue:

Q. So what’s exactly in these releases, anyway?

A. Edison says that, like any industrial site, San Onofre has permits to discharge “operational wastewater” into the ocean. That includes nonradiological releases such as sewage as well as radiological releases from plant systems. The recent releases contained HVAC condensation, collected rainwater, drained water from plant systems and the like. None of it was spent fuel pool water, though; that’s slated for next year.

Q. Surely, they’re not pumping raw sewage offshore. How is the wastewater treated?

A. Water to be released accumulates in a tank, is circulated through ion exchangers and filters to remove radionuclides and impurities, sampled to ensure it meets regulatory requirements and then is diluted and released, Edison says.

Q. So this is a regular thing?

A graphic showing San Onofre’s offshore conduits. (Courtesy Southern California Edison)

A. Yes, but not as regular as it used to be. From 2000 to 2011 — when the plant was operating — San Onofre averaged 171 releases a year. There were only nine releases from 2014 to 2018. Since December, there have been 11. Two of the recent releases were just 250 gallons or so — less than a typical hot tub — while the rest were about 20,000 gallons each, a bit more than an average backyard swimming pool.

Q. How much radiation are we talking about?

A. San Onofre can’t release more than 6 millirem per year. The total liquid dose for 2011, the last full year the plant was splitting atoms, was 0.00202 millirem. In 2008, it was 0.0436 millirem. The Aug. 6 release had a total dose of 0.000722 millirem.

Q. But what does that mean?

A. The federal occupational dose limit for nuclear workers is 5,000 millirem. San Onofre’s worker dose limit is lower, at 1,500 millirem. And the NRC and San Onofre dose limit for the public is 100 millirem. The NRC says people get about 620 millirem of radiation exposure each year from natural and man-made sources, including things like X-rays, air travel and just sitting on the beach in the sun.

Q. Is anyone tracking what happens over time?

A. Edison must do environmental monitoring, including periodic samples of ocean water, fish and crustaceans, kelp, ocean bottom and shoreline sand. Those are are analyzed for radioactivity. Readings have consistently been less than the lower limits of detection. That doesn’t mean they’re zero, but they’re so low they could be zero, Edison says. Recent reports are on the SONGS Community website.

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Photo courtesy of Edison International)

Q. So how could this impact me?

A. The primary pathway for liquid releases to affect humans would be eating seafood that might accumulate radioactive material, but, again, Edison says the data suggests that’s not happening to any measurable degree.

Still, folks are cautious. Surfrider noted that the Aug. 6 release was the fifth since early July, and that, while the releases are well within the legal limits set by the NRC, “it’s important for the community to be able to make informed decisions about their potential exposure” before heading into the waves.

www.ocregister.com2020-08-09 13:00:00

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