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Low Level Radioactive Material - On The Move

Southern California Edison plans to transport low-level radioactive material through the region. What do you need to know? We talk to Edison's chief nuclear officer to talk about the safety of the transport and U.S. plant safety in light of the Fukushima incident.

A big move planned for equipment from the San Onofre Nuclear has some concerned — that's because the 700,000 pound steam generators contain low-level radioactive material. The four retired steam generators are the largest components at the power plant. They've been replaced by new generators and in the next week to ten days, they're beginning a move to Clive, Utah. Because of their size each generator will be moved individually and it will take until December to complete the transport of all four.

Citing security concerns, Southern California Edison says the route will not be made public. Each truck will move through San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties before heading through Nevada and finally arriving in Clive, Utah. But Gil Alexander, spokesman for Southern California Edison and San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station tells Midday Edition there is no need for public concern because the level of radioactive material from the material is very low.

"If a member of a public stood beside this truck for one hour, (not that they would stand next to it for that amount of time), they would have been exposed to radiation equivalent to one dental x-ray," Alexander said.

The route is not available to the public, Alexander says, that's because due to safety concerns.

"On advice of security officials outside and inside we are not publicizing the route or schedule," he tells Midday Edition. "One way to address that - is this is not a spectator activity. This is a very serious transfer process with a vehicle that is 400 feet long. We're not inviting the public to watch," he said.

Alexander says it's understandable members of the public are concerned.

"We certainly understand that when many members of the public hear the word radiation or nuclear they instantly have concerns, we get that, "he said. "The fact is that this is such low level radioactive material..there is no cause for public concern whatsoever," he told Midday Edition.

Gary Headrick, co-founder of San Clemente Green tells Midday, he's concerned about the transport. "We're hoping for the best, but we're very nervous about it," he said.


Gil Alexander, Spokesman, Southern California Edison, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Four massive steam generators have gotten too old and have to be replaced at insofar. That means they also have to be removed from the premises. Transporting the 700,000-pound generators would be a massive enough job in and of itself, but the structures also emit low level radiation. Southern California Edison will conduct the move this summer and is in the process of calming public concerns about this unusual long distance haul. Joining me now is gill Alexander, spokes machine for Southern California Edison, and the insofar nuclear generating station. Hi gill.

ALEXANDER: Hi, Maureen. Nice to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: We're opening up the phones if you have a question or two about the generator transport in San Diego. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Gill, can you explain to our listeners how these steam generators were used and why they need replacing?

ALEXANDER: Well, the story goes back ten years, if you can imagine. We could anticipate the day when the largest components in the power plant were each. These generators that you see beneath the 2 Domes Drive on the I5. We could anticipate the day when they would end their service life and need to be replaced. And we began planning ten years ago, during the fall of 2009 and again 2010, we successfully replaced the four and moved them to preparation areas. Now we begin the final step in that ten-year process. As you said, we'll be moving them one at a time across highways in San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino county, on up through Nevada and into Utah to a licensed disposal site.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of and level of radiation were these generators exposed to?

ALEXANDER: That's the single most important question about this unusual transportation project. We certainly understand that when many members of the public hear the word radiation or nuclear, they instantly have concerns. And we get that. The fact is this is such a low level radioactive material, I think a couple quick illustrations will explain why there is no cause for public concern whatsoever. One example would be the U.S. Department of Transportation as you would expect has limits to the radioactivity of anything that's put on the highways. And the limit is expressed as ten mille rem for hour. Our vehicle will be about half that. So half the allowable radiation on U.S. highways. Another way this may be easier to picture is if a member of the public stood beside this truck for one hour, and I can't imagine that that will ever happen throughout the entire 800-mile trip we're gonna take, but let's just say something stood there beside the truck for an hour, they would have been exposed to radiation equivalent to one X-ray.

CAVANAUGH: Can you -- however there are probably some people who would like it avoid this completely if they possibly could. Can you tell our listeners the route these generators will be traveling and when they're gonna be travel something.

ALEXANDER: Well, on the advice of security officials both outside of the company and inside, we are not publicizes the route or the schedule. I guess one way to explain that is this is not a spectator activity. This is a very serious transfer process. The vehicle is 400†feet long. So it requires a lot of skill in the process, and we're not inviting the public to watch. It's possible that some of the cities that we're working with for traffic control assistance may choose to release that information. But the best I can do, Maureen, is to say that we're going to be explain to journalists at the plant today the exact nature of the transport project. And they'll have a chance to photograph the vehicle. And some time within the next week to ten days, we'll start the first trip. We have four of these trips, four retired steam generators in route to Utah.

CAVANAUGH: So have a caller on the line. Elliot is calling from Escondido. Hi Elliot. Welcome to Midday Edition.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you very much, Maureen. And thanks for covering this very important subject which I've been following. I live in Escondido. My family's concerned, my grand kids are concerned. The credibility of the insofar generating plant is very low. The complaints by their employees about safety violations are ten times the average. The NRC nuclear regulatory commission is concerned. Just because gill says that it's low level, this whole issue would not even come to the public's attention had not the North County times done an article late last month. And I just want to quote from an editorial. This is my concern. The secrecy. On the one hand, Gill Says this is low level radiation, and it's harmless. On the other hand it says we have to keep the specifics from the public who were impacted. Which is it, Souther California Edison? And really briefly the North County times said why the intrigue? Or more to the point, why don't public officials and company execs explain the need for secrecy at literally every turn?

CAVANAUGH: Elliot, let me ask that question, and thank you so much for your call. What's your reaction, gill, and why, tell us again, why is there such need for secrecy?

ALEXANDER: Sure. First of all, I happen the person who called the North County times and told them about this story. That's hardly what I would call secrecy. And I have invited perhaps 30, 35 journalists today to come see, photograph, stand beside the vehicle, and let our chief nuclear officer explain in detail the safety of the project. That's hardly secrecy. I certainly read that editorial, and I believe what the editorial writer was referring to was what I just said. At the advice of numerous law enforcement and security officials inside and outside the company, including the California highway patrol, we're not publicizing the route. Perhaps the easiest way to explain that, Maureen, is to say regardless of whether the items that we're transporting were classified as low level radiation material or not, we would be taking the same provision. In other words, it's not the radiation that causes any need for withholding the exact route or scheduled information. It's the scope of the project. This is a 400-foot long trailer. There are a couple of points in the trip where we're going to have to navigate a 90-degree turn with this vehicle. It is not the kind of transportation project where you invite the public to watch.

CAVANAUGH: What rate of speed will these trucks be traveling at and when are they gonna be traveling? Is this something that's going to happen at night?

ALEXANDER: A great question. Thank you. We will be moving the vehicle only at night through California urban areas or populated areas. The average speed of the vehicle will be 15†miles an hour for safety reasons. It will take us three weeks to move from at this time power plant which as you know is just south of San Clemente, up to Clive Utah. So we're not in a rush, and safety comes first.

CAVANAUGH: We have another caller on the line. Mark is calling us from Oceanside. Welcome to Midday Edition.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just have a comment on this issue. It seems like this whole project, looking at it in total, makes the case for building smaller -- a lot more smaller nuclear generating plants. You wouldn't have engineering problems on the scope and transportation problems, maintenance problems, and 400-foot trailers to worry about if they were a lot smaller plants and a lot more of them. I'm all for nuclear energy in terms of protecting the the atmosphere.

CAVANAUGH: Well, mark, thank you for the call. And I think that not only mark, I think people in general are daunted by the size of this particular effort. How long do you say it's going to take? Between insofar and Clive Utah?

ALEXANDER: It'll take three weeks. That's moving at night time only at 15†miles an hour, through Southern California populated areas. Once we get out of the state and into unpopulated sections of Nevada, Utah, the speed will pick up a lot but not much.

CAVANAUGH: We have recently had the impact of the Fukushima incident over in Japan. And they were overwhelmed by a very unlikely event. What are you doing to insure that this transport doesn't encounter an unlikely event? What kind of safety precautions are being taken in case of a road accident or a major delay? That might expose the public to this transport for a longer time in one place.

ALEXANDER: Let me again emphasize the fact that while we recognize that just the word radiation causes concern, there is absolutely no basis for concern about public health and safety in this case. Those of us who work at the nuclear plant in the core area of the plant wear a badge that's clipped onto our shirt. It's called a dose meter. And it measures the rate of radiation you're exposed to. Over the course of a year, there are limits to the amount of radiation that a nuclear worker can be exposed to. If we issue dose meters to residents along this route, they would measure 0. In other words, as the vehicle comes through your town, you will experience no measurable radiation. That's how low level this is. As to over all security in light of enhanced -- increased public concern in general nuclear hour, we're working with 20 different local, county, state, and federal agencies to insure that everything about this project is safe and secure. As a matter of fact I'm speaking to you from the road out in front of our nuclear plant where the vehicle is parked right now and I'm watching members of the California highway patrol inspect the vehicle. These are professionals as are those from Caltrans and the U.S. Department of Transportation, and 17 or 18 other agencies whose primary concern is the question you're asking: How is it that this project can be done absolutely true to public health and safety? That's their job as well as Edison's job.

CAVANAUGH: I mean an extreme event, an accident, like the generator tips over or there's some road accident. Do you have plans about how to address that kind of an incident?

ALEXANDER: Yeah, there are multiple contingency plans for this applicant. It started two years ago when the contractor that Edison has hire to do this type of work. When they first came on board and began on multiple occasions surveying the entire route. The routes that this vehicle will travel has been travelled multiple times by Edison personnel and by our vendor, literally every foot of the trip has been measured. Every corner that we have to turn. There are no choked roadways or heavy inclines on the route we've chosen that would put the vehicle at risk. It will be literally in terms of physics, it would be impossible on this particular route for this vehicle to turn over. Now, of course it is always possible that you would have a mechanical breakdown, and one way of addressing that is there's going to be a truck cab pulling in front of the vehicle, and a truck cab cab pushing in the back, and then there will be three more truck cabs following along for redid you understand anti, for but systems, as well as pickup trucks full of maintenance gear that can quickly address any mechanical issues that arise.

CAVANAUGH: How many other transports have been done like this in the past?

ALEXANDER: Well, as you no doubt note, Maureen, are the U.S. power industry has been in operation for roughly 40†years, and this type of transportation project where you take materials once used in a nuclear plant that had become mildly radioactive, and you take them to a disposal location. This type of thing happens all the time. It happens on hundreds of occasions. And Southern California Edison and our plant have had to move low level radio active material to Utah before. It is a proven, safe process. This one will be larger than normal. Again, the trailer is a sight to behold. It's 400†feet long. But all of the principles of safe transport are in play here.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you. I know you're going to go to that press conference. And of course we'll have a report on that later today on KPBS. Gill Alexander, spokes machine for Southern California Edison, and the insofar nuclear generating station. Thank you very much.

ALEXANDER: Thank you Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Gill Hedrick is online, and we are over time. But I'm gonna take a quick reaction from him. He is cofounder of San Clemente green. A grass-roots organization for citizens for a sustainable future. Can you summarize for us quickly what you're concerned about?

HEDRICK: Right. I'm glad to have a chance to weigh in on this because regardless of the safety that they chose to, I'm sure a lot of care that they put into this. But it's the same organization that has falsified records, they have the worst safety record in the industry, they have employees that fear retaliation. They're afraid to report safety violations. So I have all this information first hand from our experience, and obviously that would raise our concerns when they're moving any kind of radioactive materials. We're hoping they do the best, but we're very nervous about it. And it's just one of those things we're not really in control of.

CAVANAUGH: Gary, we're out of time. I'm sorry you couldn't call us earlier. That is Gary Hedrick from San Clemente Green. A very concerning issue for many people, I think. Thank you very much.

HEDRICK: You're welcome. Thank you.

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