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Is San Diego Prepared For Nuclear Crisis?

With the dangers rising at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, many are wondering what would happen to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (above) if a large earthquake struck San Diego.
With the dangers rising at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, many are wondering what would happen to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (above) if a large earthquake struck San Diego.
Is San Diego Prepared For Nuclear Crisis?
As the world watches the nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan, many people are asking if San Diego is prepared if the same situation happened here. What safety procedures are in place if the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station experienced a meltdown? And, should the U.S. reexamine its nuclear energy policies in light of what's happening in Japan?

As the world watches the nuclear crisis unfolding in Japan, many people are asking if San Diego is prepared if the same situation happened here. What safety procedures are in place if the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station experienced a meltdown? And, should the U.S. reexamine its nuclear energy policies in light of what's happening in Japan?


Kent Davy, editor of the North County Times


Michael Smolens, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune

Andrew Donohue, editor of

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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.

The Tsunami turned out to be minor us last week, but the next question will we get out so lightly from the fallout from the power plant in Japan, and Kent you are our point person on this. Your paper, the North County Times has done a lot of reporting on San Onofre, but first let's ask what do we know about the risks to the people in Japan.

K. DAVY: Risks to them are substantially more serious because as if they do not get the the overheating in the spent fuel ponds under control, there will be a significant risk of very dangerous radioactive release at that point. There is a plume of radiation into the atmosphere that's being carried on the jet stream prevailing winds to the east, or this way. There are differing accounts of the warnings for evacuations in Japan. I think Japanese authorities are saying 50 miles

A. St. JOHN: The Japanese authorities are not saying 50 miles, the US authroties


K. DAVY: The US authorities are saying 50 miles. The Japanese said 20 and I kno the US is making some arrangements for people to leave. It's clearly had economic impacts a rippling through the world economy. Factories in this country are now starting to shut down because they are dependent on part supplies from Japan. It snowed in northern Japan, so on top of all the other misery they have the misery of being cold and not having enough to eat. So it is generally just a huge disaster.

A. St. JOHN: So looking at the affects closer to home in San Diego we have had calls from people this morning with concerns about the latest news. Pictures in the UT, for example, showing there is possibility of the plume reaching the West Coast. What is the lateist news about what we know about what's reached us?

K. DAVY: Well, there is a report out that the UN diplomat says that there is some evidence of very minor radiation having reached US shores now. I think the important thing is to remember that this is so miniscule that people out not to be alarmed. There were reports last several days people in panic buying iodine tablets, taking iodine and making themselves sick from taking iodine tablets. I think on a normal basis everyone is exposed to radiation just by being alive by having granite countertops, all sorts of things in the regular course of our world. This right now for us is not a significance threat

A. St. JOHN: I should read from the AP story that mentioned that there was a report this morning that a diplomat who had access to radiation tracking by the UN's Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization told the AP in Vienna that initial readings showed tiny amounts of radiation have reached California, but it's not dangerous in any way "about a billion times beneath levels that would be health threatening." So that is sort of what we know right now. Plus there are radiation stations set up by EPA officials and various different agencies who will be the California Department of Public Health, for example, monitoring everything very closely and letting the public know. Kent.

K. DAVY: I think the more interesting thing for us in this country, and the president has ordered a review of all our nuclear facilities and the safety. They have been subjected to intense regulation from the inception of this industry. That will certainly be redoubled. Both of our senators called for examination of both Diablo Canyon and San Onofre. Diablo Canyon has already put in its application for relicensing s in 2022 I believe. San Onofre has not yet done so but is excepted to sometime soon. There are interesting questions about those plants and whether they should be where they are, should they be relicensed. There are significant differences between what exists in Japan and what these, at least San Onofre has available. And how that plant is situated. All those things are worth sorting through calmly

A. St. JOHN: Michael is it your sense that we would be more concerned about the state of our nuclear plants in this country than about this radioactivity drifting across the Pacific right now?

M. SMOLENS: That is a good question. I think so. That is certainly a focus point in recent news coverage and one of the things we have learned is that the faults near these plants may capable of having stronger earthquakes than previously forecast. So that adds to the level of anxiety. We talked about miniscule levels radiation the term radiation scares people to death, literally. Also, I think they are always suspicious of government pronouncements that this is not as bad, especially when things are out of control over there right now, and there is a level of uncertainty. So I think you combine all those things. We have learned to live with nuclear power. I drive up I 5 and go past the San Onofre plant. I used to joke with friends I would roll up my window I have surfed out near there so forth. And then you start thinking about the what ifs. I think that all adds to the anxiety with the notion of seeing this graphic plumes coming from across the ocean, as dispersed as they may be, that gets people's attention.

A. St. JOHN: Andrews the plant just up about 60 miles from where we are sitting right now was built in the '70s. I believe it is about the same age as the plant in Japan. Do you feel the information you are getting leads you to feel confident about this plant?

A. DONOHUE: I think there are a couple different points. First of all there is a real risk far hysteria here. The first sentence in all these stories is there is radiation reaching California. And the second one is it's completely harmless to humans at this point. I think we need to take a calm and sober approach to this. Focus our efforts first of all on what is happening in Japan and what is happening to those people, and secondly understand that people die every year because of our carbon based energy because they die in coal mines and major oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.

Second of all, apart from what is happening in Japan we have to understand there is a problem with the culture of safety at San Onofre that we have seen be pretty well detailed in Kent's newspaper over the last couple of years, that we need to be worried and concerned about and talking about completely independent of what we are dealing with right now.

A. St. JOHN: Thank you for putting it in context there, Andrew.

Kent I just want to follow up because your paper has been doing a lot of coverage and not so long ago there were reports that the batteries for its backup system wasn't working for several years.

K. DAVY Yeah. This was cabling or wiring between back up system and the reactor. The failure of that would have been exactly the same kind of failure that has happened in Japan. Once the reactor is shut down, you have to be able to keep cooling both the reactor vessel itself as well as the spent storage fuel pools. That's what's failed in Japan. Here our regulator and inspection process discovered the faulty wiring and got it corrected. It's worth trying to put that in perspective. Japan's regulatory culture seems to have failed remarkably. There is a report in Bloomberg News this morning detailing a long history on Tokyo Electric of having been warned of some of the problems including the reactor plant would not withstand a likely tsunami. Its design flaws had been pointed out to it including the backup generators were in a basement so as soon as they get flooded they go out. That isn't the case at San Onofre where the generators are at a higher level up above, I think another 30 feet from where the reactor is. So there is a seawall, then the reactor, and above that the generators and above that is where the spent fuel pools are. There are some significant differences in the quality of what the engineering has been done there. Not to say they are not worth studying and reviewing because there has been a history of complaints from workers saying certain procedures have not b0een followed right. That's the safety issues that were alluded to earlier.

A. St. JOHN: Our number here at the Editor's Roundtable is (888)895 5727. We would love to hear from you if you have any comments or questions here for the editors.

Michael, do you think that the United States will be reviewing its nuclear policy as a result?

M. SMOLENS: One thing we talked about before going on air is yes clearly they are already doing that, they're looking at things. But there has been a resurgence in the push to create more nuclear power in this country. We had this unusual convergence of environmentalists because of the lack of emissions from them, and national security types that this would reduce our need for as much foreign oil. It will be interesting to see in a political and financial sense how this disaster affects that in the long run. We won't know for some time. We'll have to see what happens. It will be a huge tragedy, a catastrophy in Japan for some time, but how if affects the world, and then the sort of the psyche whether that moves ahead or does as some people are predicting now just kill the moment for new nuclear power. I think it's too early to tell in that regard.

A. St. JOHN: It's interesting because the map that was in your paper, the UT, showed there are nuclear power plants all up and down the coast of Japan and only one of them had problem. I guess the question arises is if you do it right, is this still a viable way of producing energy?

K. DAVY That is a good question to ask and it is worth remembering it was not the earthquake per se that caused the problem in Japan. It was the tsunami in combination with some really nutty engineering. The spent fuel pool, which is where a lot of the problem is with the Japan reactors, is in the same building as the reactor, above the reactor, so that it is up in the air. If that pool is breached somehow, and that was the assertion by our NRC commission chief yesterday, I think or the day before, he indicated that the rods were uncovered and that was afire. Japanese officials dispute it. So there is some confusion as to what exactly going on. But common sense would tell you maybe that is not a great place to put your spent fuel

A. St. JOHN: Did you think this raises questions about the whole debate of how to dispose of nuclear waste. Because we had all those debates in the '90s about whether to establhis dumps in various parts of the country, and in the end the spent fuel rods are all remaining on site.

K. DAVY Yes I think it will affect it. It has also raised the issue of the house committee on Space Science and Technology has demanded from the chairman of the NRC that he explain why he unilaterally stopped any work on the safety evaluation for Yucca Mountain. The administration attempted to have I think they asked for an application to shut down the Yucca Mountain. I think it was rejected if I understood that so that whole project remains somewhat in limbo although there is no money in this year's budget or next year's budget to move forward. This will go back into the political arena.

A. St. JOHN: Andrew do you have any feelings about whether this should change the way we think about nuclear power?

A. DONOHUE: I think we need to be very careful. Like Michael said there was a Renaissance happening in this country and there are some really intelligent smart conversations we were starting to have politically that were politically unpalatable 10 or 20 years ago. We live in basically a carbon based energy world that is slowly changing the entire climate of our world and killing people regularly. We need to keep this in perspective. Yes there is a possible of one big dramatic event, but we have to understand the consequences of all of our energy sources slowly over time. I think it would be a great injustice if this event stopped us from going evening being able to have conversation about nuclear power in the future.

A. St. JOHN: Great. We would like to hear from you so (888)895 5727 is the number. We are going to take a quick break and come back with our editors Kent Davy of the North County Times, Michael Smolens of the San Diego UT, and Andrew Donohue of Voice of San Diego. Stay with us here on Editor's Roundtable.

A. St. JOHN: You are at the Editor's Roundtable on KPBS. We have been talking a little bit about the news from Japan and the news about whether there is any kind of radioactive threats to this side of the coast pretty much concluding so far no threats to human health.

I want to do one last round with the editors before we move to the next topic which is do you think that the media has been covering this in a responsible fashion and hitting the story in the right way? Kent, what do you think?

K. DAVY I'm not terribly concerned about the amount of coverage, particularly here. After all we have our very own nuclear power plant. We in this region ought to be as concerned as anybody. It sits on the beach. It has a sea wall to protect itself from tsunamis. It's the same age. There are all sorts of reasons why we here ought to try we in the media ought to be trying to give our readers and limpers as much information as they can in part so they understand what the risks are both from Japan, which are minimal as well as what we have here which has been much discussed and thought about. I'm pretty comfortable. It's pretty much on everybody's mind. You hear conversations all over town

A. St. JOHN: Yeah. Michael what is your sense about how it's been covered?

M. SMOLENS: I tend to agree with Kent. You can get the saturation coverage. The thing I wonder are people starting to get a little weary and turning out the misery over there. It's such a compelling story. It's sort of human nature. We've had days of that. It's not really affecting us here, but as far as the information I think it's been pretty good. In this 24/7 news cycle that we are in and also the quick hits. You know if people see a headline on TV without the sound and headline in the newspaper and don't get to the second or third paragraph, that can be troublesome. There is not a lot you can do about that. But I think that we have all been trying to lay it out pretty carefully. One final thought. We are talking about putting things in perspective. There was a very interesting nuclear expert talking about the fallout coming over here. He said, look don't buy iodine pills, don't go out and buy a Geiger counter. Use that money to help Japan don't waste your money on stuff that is just panic stuff. That is something to keep in mind in the coming days.

NEW SPEAKER: The donations to help Japan are far under previous natural disasters

M. SMOLENS: But it's if viewed as a wealthy country unlike Haiti perhaps wrongly in the way their needs are but that is also human nature, I think.

A. St. JOHN: We have a call from Gena from Kearney Mesa who has a point to make.

CALLER: I'm surprised that I got on. I just want to say with a little humor that this question that the media is facing is about difficult as today's New York Times puzzle. I think they are between a rock and a hard place. How can anybody really know and if anyone has a brain in their head they will know it's impossible to answer these questions now. How do you feel about that?

A. St. JOHN: Andrew. Thank you for that.

A. DONOHUE: It's a great points. It's one of our jobs to bring up the worst case senarios. We are often criticized if we don't raise warnings to people beforehand of what can happen. Two important points we need to keep in mind. Framing. Like Michael said sometimes we can write a headline and put the nuance in the third paragraph and think that's good enough when the nuance doesn't really resonate with people.

The other one is hysteria itself among people is not always a valid viewpoint to put in a story. I have read stories that all the experts say you have nothing to worry were and there is a lot of perspective from people who perhaps have not studied up on this that are just kind of freaked out. I think that can sometimes add to the hysterical as well

A. St. JOHN: Thank you for that, Gena. We are going move to the next subject which might affect our quality of life in California more than anything else and that is the state budget

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.