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The San Onofre Syndrome:
Nuclear Power Plant at Ground Zero
By Ed Rampell
October 8, 2023

In the ensuing interview Jim Heddle references a “nuclear revival,” a phenomenon which has also recently been occurring in different mediums. Christopher Nolan’s all-star epic Oppenheimer dramatizes the creation of the atomic bomb and the fallout from it. Steve James’  A Compassionate Spy chronicles espionage conducted by the Manhattan Project’s youngest physicist at Los Alamos. Oliver Stone’s documentary Nuclear Now argues in favor of nuclear energy as a supposed solution to the climate emergency. Janice Haaken’s new film Atomic Bamboozle: The False Promise of a Nuclear Renaissance  looks at the downside of this supposed nuclear energy revival. Irene Lusztig’s doc Richland, like Joshua Frank’s book Atomic Days, The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, both chronicle the U.S.’s largest plutonium production site, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state.

Now, co-directors Heddle and Morgan Peterson with executive producer Mary Beth Brangan have entered the fray and cinematic social discourse over nuclear energy and weapons with their new 97-minute documentary, SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome. The hard-hitting film shows the power local activists united with eco-organizations and international experts can have, despite alleged corporate and governmental stonewalling; investigates allegations about radioactive waste plus the most efficient ways to store waste that is hazardous to transport; and much more.

Brangan and Heddle are paragons of lifelong activists committed to using nonfiction film to raise awareness about nuclear and other environmental causes, as well as human rights and grassroots people’s power. Their productions include documentaries about N-Free zones, including 1984’s Strategic Trust: The Making of Nuclear Free Palau, narrated by Oscar-winner Joanne Woodward; 1989’s Free Zone: Democracy Meets the Nuclear Threat; plus 2005’s A Little Light’ll Do Ya: Defending Democracy in America.

According to https://www.eon3.org, Brangan and Heddle “co-direct EON, the Ecological Options Network, producing video reports and blogs on activists and organizations working – at local, national and international levels – for solutions to planetary challenges.” Now this venerable filmmaking team is joined by Peterson, who produced the 2018 Oscar-nominated short DeKalb Elementary, and in addition to co-helming it, edited SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome. Mary Beth Brangan and Jim Heddle were interviewed via Zoom at Bolinas, California, where they live. The film won the Awareness Film Festival’s Grand Jury Award for Documentary Feature in early October.

Please set the stage. Tell us about the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station?nbsp;

MARY BETH BRANGAN: The San Onofre plant is on land rented from a Marine base on a beautiful stretch of beach right in San Clemente in Southern California. It’s an internationally popular surfing beach and has been there since [1968].

The first reactor was shutdown in the 1980s… After Fukushima happened [in 2011] Jim and I realized, oh my god, both [then-] operating nuclear plants in California were also in tsunami zones surrounded by earthquake faults, and we wanted to make sure that a Fukushima didn’t happen here in California. So we started going down south [from Bolinas in Marin County] to both Diablo Canyon [Power Plant near Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County] and San Onofre and organizing with our graying friends we’d been active with decades ago in the anti-nuclear movement.

Lo and behold, the people in San Clemente had been contacted by whistleblowers from San Onofre who told them there are loads of problems going on. They started having meetings, speaking out and organizing. Then, in 2012 there was a very dramatic leak of radioactivity from steam generators that had recently been replaced and were defective. That began the whole saga.

We initially called this documentary “Shutdown” because we were documenting the process of shutting it down. And after it got shutdown in 2013 – which was miraculous – then the whole issue of what to do with the high-level waste piling up and being put into holes in the ground right on the beach became the real focus of everybody’s attention.

JIM HEDDLE: We found out that shutdown is just the beginning.

MBB: They had to shutdown the reactors after the leak but they kept trying to restart them. They thought, “Oh well, maybe one of them is the problem, but not the other one.” Even though they didn’t know why the leak occurred and they didn’t even try to repair it, so people were totally freaking out about the concept of Southern California Edison [which operates and owns a majority of the San Onofre nuclear facility] restarting broken reactors without fixing them and risking another meltdown. Everybody was very agitated down there and there was lots of organizing and people coming together. Finally, Friends of the Earth, which had some big donors in that area, were able to mount a legal [petition to require the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep the reactors at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station shut down until and unless their operator, Southern California Edison obtains a license amendment, which was very expensive, and also do a lot of helpful campaigning with the grassroots.

What is the “San Onofre Syndrome”?

JH: It’s basically stranded nuclear waste on-site. And not only in San Onofre, but in every reactor site across the country, whether it’s operating or not. Since there’s no federal repository for it to go to, this syndrome affects all of the nuclear reactor sites in the U.S.

MBB: And the syndrome is that very intensely radioactive spent fuel, which is called “high level,” is in thin containers, half-inch to five-eighths of an inch thick stainless steel cannisters. And they are in – except for two sites, in San Onofre and one in Missouri – they’re all above ground, just sitting on like parking lots. It’s extremely, extremely dangerous. They’re welded shut. That means you can’t just open them up and transfer the contents after these thin, obviously corroding stainless steel containers, which are not going to last the life of the radioactivity inside. They can’t do anything with them – they’re welded shut.

JH: Stainless steel is subject to what’s called “stress corrosion cracking.” That condition is especially aggravated and accelerated in the salt air of San Onofre. But it happens whether there’s salt air or not; all these stainless steel containers are subject to eventual stress corrosion cracking, which would allow either radiation out, or oxygen in. And if oxygen gets in contact with the Zirconium cladding of the fuel rods inside, there’s basically a meltdown.

MBB: Zirconium is combustible in the presence of oxygen. And if water – which is H2O – or air gets in it, it will combust. And then if it combusts, you’re going to have a big problem. [Laughs.]

JH: …And also the corporate capture, the cozy relationship between so-called regulatory agencies and every level from state up to federal, with the nuclear industry. They are all to a large measure captured by the corporate interest. And they protect corporate interests over public safety. That’s another key part of the San Onofre Syndrome.

MBB: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is the federal agency supposedly in charge of nuclear safety, is underwritten by the nuclear industry itself. They get their funding distributed through Congress but they are dependent on the industry for providing the vast majority of it.

Is the title of SOS – The San Onofre Syndromea reference to the 1979 anti-nuclear movie The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas? 

JH: It was a conscious relationship or allusion because we thought the general public would have some resonance with the fact that this is a widespread problem.

Tell us about what happened at Fukushima and the concerns that something similar could happen at San Onofre? Why?

MBB: Fukushima had an offshore, underwater earthquake and then a tsunami, as a result of that earthquake, hit the shore. The Fukushima Daiichi plant had three reactors running at the time. All of its power was cut off by the earthquake and tsunami. Then all three of those reactors went into meltdown because they couldn’t be kept cooled… Their backup diesel generators were in the basement, very close, very low down to the ocean level.

And you don’t do it that way; you’ve got to keep things protected in a tsunami zone. You’ve got to keep them high up. In San Onofre, it’s only 108 feet from the edge of the ocean, and inches above the ground water… That’s why we were so concerned because the land where San Onofre is now used to be called “Earthquake Bay” until 1853.

…I’ve been reading many accounts recently that referred to Fukushima as having a partial meltdown. Which is outrageous, because there were three full-on meltdowns and four or five explosions on three different days…

JH: There are more similarities. They had to cut down the land closer to the sea level at San Onofre, and that happened, as well, at Fukushima. Also, they were U.S.-designed GE reactors at Fukushima, and the safety culture there was much the same as it is in the U.S. They had been warned of tsunami dangers, and flooding possibilities and ricketiness because of earthquakes, and they just chose to ignore or deny that that was an issue.

…San Onofre has a very poor safety culture going back many years. At one point it was discovered that the backup generators had not been plugged in properly for four years and nobody had noticed. Every nuclear power plant puts out nuclear energy, but it’s also dependent on incoming electricity to cool the fuel in the reactors. It’s a kind of co-dependent situation. That indicated that the safety culture at San Onofre was very poor. In fact, it turned out that one of our characters did some research and found out that not only did San Onofre have the highest level of complaints, safety violation allegations from employees, but it also had the highest retaliation record against employees that were reporting safety problems. So, it was a bad situation.

A very important aspect of your film is the role played by local and other activists regarding the San Onofre facility. Tell us about some of the essential organizers seen in your documentary? 

MBB: Donna Gilmore is a retired system analyst, IT specialist. She has become probably the most knowledgeable person… into the problems of dry storage of waste… She recently discovered that the courses nuclear engineers take to become nuclear engineers, the study of what to do with the waste, is just an elective. No one knows what’s going on with this. Donna has a wonderful website, https://sanonofresafety.org/, known all over the world and used by experts.

JH: Donna’s website has become the go-to site for many people around the world. And she’s testified with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by invitation… Other key activists are Gary and Laurie Headrick, San [Clemente] Green, the local organizing group that has been key in this whole operation. Gary was publishing a regular column in the local paper. So, whistleblowers starting coming to him and he told them he’d protect their identity, but he wanted to know and get their information to the NRC, and they agreed. That was their motivation.

…Torgen Johnson is a highly trained architect and planner, devoted father of four children, and his children have been present in the whole film and have grown up participating in their parents’ activism. He organized a key meeting, and invited experts, including the former prime minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, who was prime minister during Fukushima. That was a key step, along with all of the other organizing that was done, bringing public awareness to the problem and eventually causing the plant to be shutdown.

…Another key person in the film is Dan Hirsch, a longtime consultant and considered an expert on nuclear policy. He’s the president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap and also a retired professor of nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz.

MBB: Gordon Edwards is a Canadian professor and director and founder of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility [https://www.ccnr.org/]. He is a wonderful expert [who] had the concept of “rolling stewardship” – you don’t just leave the waste moldering and decomposing in containers. You do it properly.

People in Europe, for instance, are already doing it properly, while they’re trying to figure out a longer-term solution. That’s what we’re pointing out, we need to emulate the Swiss or German approach, which is for interim storage – you put [nuclear waste] into very thick casks that are poured, rather than fabricated with welds that can be problems with corrosion or cracking.

JH: Bolted shut so they can be opened and inspected.

MBB: And repackaged. Because, of course, this stuff lasts thousands and millions of years and the containers last maybe 20, 30, 40 years.

JH: An important part of our story was to demonstrate what Eisenhower famously called “the actions of an informed public” – that is demonstrated in spades throughout this whole narrative.

How has SoCal Edison reacted to residents’ and activists’ concerns?

JH: I would say with denials and attempted coverups, half-truths and outright lies.

MBB: They want to placate the people and manipulate them.

JH: They setup an organization or entity called “the Citizens Engagement Panel,” which is made up of a whole bunch of handpicked, cherrypicked public officials from around the region to give the impression that the public is being listened to and taken seriously. But basically, they’re “yes” people; a couple of them started speaking up –

MBB: – asking really hard questions –

JH: And got removed delicately from the body.

MBB: The local people, after they saw what was going on, called it instead of the Citizens Engagement Panel, “the Citizens Enragement Panel.”

How about government entities? How have the Nuclear Energy Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the city councils, the California Coastal Commission, etc., reacted to residents’ and activists’ concerns?

MBB: I really feel sorry for people on the Coastal Commission. We knew people on the Commission. They were forced into going along with the whole crazy plan to put the radioactive waste on the beach. Even though they are in other parts of the state objecting to rosebushes being planted… or septic tanks in the wrong place along the coast. That’s what just really blew my mind. But they are OK, they voted for to go ahead with putting the radioactive waste on the beach.

JH: The NRC, it’s important to remember, is the inheritor of a previous agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, which got deep-sixed because of its clear corporate capture and they represented corporate interests. Another agency is the California Public Utilities Commission, which is also dubiously connected with the official position.

MBB: All of them get their instructions from the governor. And they just have to be “yes men.” We even in the film show them, the final Coastal Commission vote that just devastated the activists –

JH: They said they had to hold their nose and vote for this very unpopular, unsafe proposal to bury the stuff on the beach.

MBB: It was called a “shitty situation” from the chair of the Coastal Commission at that point, and also that it was a “no-win,” “lose-lose.”

What role has California Governor Gavin Newsom played?

MBB: He’s pulling the strings behind the insistence that Diablo Canyon, which was scheduled to be closed next year – then another one of the reactors in 2025, he had agreed to, years ago. He has pushed for that to remain open. And he is – we hope – going to be responsive to people’s concerns about the waste. But I’m not holding my breath.

Tell us about the role played by a former Japanese Prime Minister at San Onofre?

JH: Torgen Johnson organized a public meeting which involved Naoto Kan… He related his experience on a timeline of the Fukushima disaster. He said he’d always been a supporter of safe nuclear energy policy in Japan, but this experience has led him now to the realization and conviction that in order to have a safe society, it has to be a society without nuclear power. Now, that is a majorly impactful statement he made in a speech… at the San Diego City Council chambers [on June 4, 2013]. And in a couple of days – the Edison people can say it didn’t influence them at all – it certainly had a substantial impact, from observers’ point of view.

…[Also speaking at the same event entitled, “Fukushima Daiichi Accident: Lessons for California” were:] Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer that had helped design 40 nuclear plants, has turned into an ace whistleblower and testifier. And Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner [during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979]. And most interesting of perhaps all, Greg Jaczko was the chair of the NRC, and it’s fair to say he was ousted because of his honest positions.

MBB: After Fukushima, Jaczko wanted to implement safety changes to prevent the same thing from happening here.

Jim and Mary Beth, you’re long time committed anti-nuclear activists and filmmakers. I first interviewed you in 1984 when you filmed Strategic Trust: The Making of Nuclear Free Palau. Now, almost 40 years later, you’re still on the case. What makes you tick like a Geiger counter?

JH: [Laughs.] That’s a good simile. This is an issue that’s undiscussed. The enthusiasm that is being created for what you might call a “nuclear revival” – the excuse is climate change. But we know that the entire nuclear enterprise – power, weapons and waste – is an integrated entity. Just recently, the former U.S. Energy Secretary, [Ernest] Moniz, has come out of the closet, kind of. Ever since [President Eisenhower’s] “atoms for peace,” they’ve been denying there’s any connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Now, they’re using the obvious connection as a boastful cover story and reason we have to maintain commercial nuclear power, because of the resources in terms of labor and the technological infrastructure that they provide. That helps to support the nuclear weapons industry, as well as the nuclear Navy. Which is both nuclear propelled and a nuclear delivery system for nuclear weapons.

You can’t talk about either one of those aspects without talking about nuclear waste, which they both generate in spades. There’s no solution – everybody always wants the solution to be a happy ending. At the moment, there is no defensible, rational way of disposing or abandoning nuclear waste for eternity, which is how long it lasts.

MBB: I’ve prided myself on being able to look at what I thought was the most frightening and horrific threat to the ongoing health of the planet and human species, which is the nuclear threat. Because it damages DNA, can destroy and mutate and cause illness and disease in all creatures, soil microbes on up. I’ve prided myself on wonderful work, I’m honored to work on something that’s so awful.

The world premiere of SOS – The San Onofre Syndrome takes place as the closing film of the Awareness Film Festival at 7:30 p.m., October 8, 2023 at Regal L.A. Live Theater, 1000 W. Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90015, with the filmmakers doing an in-person post-screening Q&A. The virtual premiere of SOS is 5:00 p.m., PST, October 15, 2023, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.

For tickets see: https://app.entertainmentoxygen.com/feed/e42963ea-7477-4952-a073-31b60e4e280d

For more info: https://sanonofresyndrome.com/

For more info about the Awareness Film Festival: https://awarenessfestival.org/

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Senator Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College and is an L.A.-based film historian/critic who co-organized the 2017 70th anniversary Blacklist remembrance at the Writers Guild theater in Beverly Hills and was a moderator at 2019’s “Blacklist Exiles in Mexico” filmfest and conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. Rampell co-presented “The Hollywood Ten at 75” film series at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.


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