Thomas Elias: Some California disasters that may be waiting to happen
Virtually all adult Californians know the kinds of disasters that commonly befall this state by the time they decide to stay here or move to the Golden State from someplace else.
The usual list most folks consider is fairly short, but can have long-lasting impacts: fires, floods and earthquakes. Those who lack complete faith in technology and human efforts to prevent tragedy see some other potential dangers lurking.
One is the nuclear waste dump that has taken shape beside the defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near the border between San Diego and Orange counties.
About 15 months ago, the Southern California Edison Co., operator and majority owner of the onetime atomic power plant, saw a 50-ton (100,000-pound) canister with a five-eighths-inch-thick shell twist almost completely out of control while being loaded into a niche in the newly-constructed beachfront nuclear waste dump Edison has built because there is no room in existing federal atomic dumps and no immediate prospect of opening a new one.
Like other nuclear plant operators, Edison must fend for itself both in building and filling its dump. The near-mishap, which could have seen the giant, thin-walled canister fall dozens of feet to a hard concrete floor, was neither reported nor acknowledged publicly by Edison until months later, when a worker mentioned it during a public meeting nearby.
Because this almost-accident took time to clear and workers plainly needed more instruction and practice in handling the canisters, no more radioactive waste was loaded into the dump – just yards from a popular state beach – until slightly over a year had passed.
Edison maintains everything there is now hunky-dory, even though a major leak from the dump could theoretically irradiate everything within 50 miles, including most of Orange and San Diego counties, plus one of America’s two largest Marine Corps bases, Camp Pendleton.
The near-accident “will not repeat itself,” Edison has said. A spokesman told a reporter, “What issues we did see were captured as part of our lessons-learned, continuous education program. That will help us be successful going forward.”
No one is panicking in surrounding areas. But some consumer activists still worry, especially after a webinar in which the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission admitted it has no backup plan for repairing or safely storing any damaged nuclear waste container. The best way to remove leaking containers is via “hot cells,” portable nuclear containment chambers. But there are no hot cells within 1,000 miles large enough to cope with San Onofre’s storage units and federal law forbids moving high-level nuclear waste across state lines – or even across freeways like the adjacent I-5.
Said Charles Langley, executive director of the San Diego-based advocacy group Public Watchdogs, “The admission by the NRC that it has no backup plan for handling leaks in these thin containers at San Onofre is terrifying.” He also worries about what a significant earthquake on the known fault offshore from San Onofre might do to the canisters and their storage facility.
Only about 45 miles northwest along the coast, other folks worry about another fault and another kind of potential disaster.
A homeowner group in San Pedro, beside the Los Angeles Harbor, which is America’s busiest, worries about the effects of a possible earthquake on the previously unpublicized, blind-thrust Wilmington fault which seismologists only recently rated as active. The fault runs near several oil refineries, but the homeowners group worries it might set off an explosion from a 25-million-gallon liquified petroleum gas storage tank federally authorized under then-President Richard Nixon during the early 1970s.
The group says this large tank was built without Los Angeles permits and sits on soils which the U.S. Geological Survey defines as prone to “landslides and liquefaction.” A quake under this alleged geological feature could be disastrous, the homeowners fear.
And yet … life proceeds quite normally for residents who could be affected by either of the potential disasters at the doorsteps of San Diego, Los Angeles and their suburbs. Real estate prices have risen exponentially over the last four decades in both areas, while no one has seriously discussed possible effects on schools and other public facilities.
Is much of California living in a fool’s paradise?
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit http://www.californiafocus.net
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