Dry cask storage at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station
Dry canister storage of radioactive spent fuel at the defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Courtesy Southern California Edison

Just before the Memorial Day weekend, Southern California Edison discharged low-level radioactive waste into the ocean off San Onofre State Beach. A week later they did it again.

Unknown to most people, these radioactive discharges have been going on regularly — and secretly — for over a half century. Limited information about a release is disclosed the following year buried deep in Nuclear Regulatory Commission files.

The sad truth for public health is that nuclear power plant radiation is a protected pollutant. Here in San Diego County, radioactive pollutants are diluted with sea water following the theory that the solution to pollution is dilution. The radioactive water is pumped into the ocean through giant pipes 18 feet in diameter with some releases going on for over 24 hours.

In addition to the ocean releases, they also blast radioactivity into the atmosphere which is then carried over populated areas by prevailing winds. The NRC does not claim that the releases are safe, only that they are “permissible.” They use a motivational guideline called “ALARA,” which means “as low as reasonably achievable.”

Now that COVID-19 has sensitized the public to deadly and poorly understood medical threats, closer attention needs to be paid to cancer, the number one killer in California. Cancer deaths this year are expected to exceed 60,000 in California and 600,000 nationwide.

It is no secret that ionizing radiation from nuclear power plants can damage cell DNA and lead to a host of medical issues, including cancer. In 2006, a National Research Council report concluded that even small doses of ionizing radiation increase risks to humans, especially since the effects of radiation exposure are cumulative.

Do the regular releases of radiation into the ocean and atmosphere here increase our cancer risks? Sadly, no one knows for sure because of the lack of research.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission likes to cite a 30-year-old study which failed find an answer. It examined cancer deaths but ignored cancer incidence. It studied where people died, not where they lived or worked. It did not take into account distance from a nuclear power plant, and it failed to study cancer in the most vulnerable groups — women and children. More recent scientific studies in Europe are worrisome: they report that living near a nuclear power plant increases cancer risks, especially in children.

To address this important issue, the NRC in 2010 charged the National Academy of Sciences with studying whether to study the question. One lengthy report concluded that cancer effects indeed should be studied. A second report proposed a pilot study around San Onofre and five other nuclear power plants. The research would involve cancer incidence for those living within 50 kilometers of San Onofre, an area which includes a large part of San Diego and Orange Counties.

Just as the research was ready to start, the NRC decided to terminate the entire project. After spending millions of dollars over five years, the NRC said actual research would take too long (39 months) and cost too much (about 1% of its budget).

But if the radioactive materials pumped into our environment are harmless as they claim, then why do they block research? Why do they conduct discharges in secret? It is clear that the nuclear industry does not want the public to know about these releases or whether they are safe. The NRC has lived up to its well-deserved reputation as the poster boy for a captured regulatory agency.  It is funded by and operates for the benefit of the very industry it is supposed to regulate.

A petition is now being circulated requesting that Congress fund this important research.  You can join the petition if you wish and find out about the National Academy of Sciences report titled “Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities.”

The country failed to put science first when the COVID-19 pandemic arose and look what happened. It is important not to make the same mistake again. Over 100 million Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant so scientific research should be supported rather than suppressed.

Yes, San Onofre is now closed, but its 1,773 tons of highly radioactive spent fuel will remain in our backyard for the indefinite future. It is being stored 108 feet from the beach in thin canisters which may or may not be able to withstand decades of internal temperatures greater than the hottest setting in your oven.

The lethal uranium and plutonium inside is called “spent” only because its profitability is spent. Some of the radioactivity will remain lethal for millions of years. If you don’t like living in a pandemic, how do you feel about having a nuclear waste dump in your backyard for the indefinite future?

Roger Johnson, Ph.D., is a retired professor of neuroscience living in San Clemente.