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Surfrider Foundation to Begin Testing Local Waters for Radiation Pollution from SONGS

By Jake Howard

On Thanksgiving morning, there was a long line to get into San Onofre State Beach, and the wait was at least an hour. As Sprinter vans, Audi wagons, beat-up old work trucks and all other sorts of surf vehicles idled on the bluff, waiting their turn to get in, the giant concrete domes of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) coldly stared them down.

Enjoying a warm cup of coffee in the car and anticipating a pre-holiday surf session, I doubt if anyone gave the nuclear plant much thought. We’ve all grown accustomed to it blending into the scenery. But just a couple of days prior to Thanksgiving, Surfrider Foundation announced that it was joining a campaign called “Our Radioactive Ocean,” which will “test liquid radioactive effluent at San Onofre State Beach.”

Collaborating with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the mission to monitor nuclear radiation in the world’s oceans was inspired largely by the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan after it was badly damaged during a historic earthquake and tsunami event.

There has been concern from scientists and environmentalists about the impact of radiation in the Pacific ever since.

Recently, SONGS has been performing a number of Radioactive Batch Releases, which release radioactive material into the atmosphere or ocean, based on guidelines established from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The latest of these took place on Nov. 19 and released 84,000 gallons of wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. SONGS is currently the only nuclear plant in the U.S. to give liquid batch release notifications and post details on the volume, radiation dose and time of release 48 hours in advance—something for which Surfrider actively campaigned.

By coincidence, also on Nov. 19, Dr. Ian Fairlie, an expert on radiation biology, gave an online Zoom seminar entitled “Is it Safe to Live Near San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant?” Sponsored by the Samuel Lawrence Foundation and Coalition for Nuclear Safety and speaking to an audience of about 150 people, he explained the risks of living within a 3-mile radius of SONGS.

“All I can say is that there is a large number of studies showing that people who live within 5 kilometers—which is about 3 miles—of the nuclear power stations in many countries around the world get cancer,” Fairlie explained.

“In particular, the kids get leukemia. So, if you’re within 3 miles, it’s serious,” he continued. “That’s why I recommended that pregnant women, lactating women, children, and women who expect to have a family should not live within 3 miles of the plant.”

This makes the new partnership between Surfrider and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution all the more vital to our public health, as well as the health and safety of the thousands and thousands of visiting surfers who use San Onofre every year.

“This project will give community scientists and organizations the rare opportunity to test the waterways before, during, and after a wastewater release to measure how nuclear effluent alters the local water quality,” reads a statement released by Surfrider.

“While the levels released by SONGS are reportedly very low as measured by Southern California Edison, the plant majority owner and operator, the new testing will provide an additional layer of public transparency into water quality levels for nearby local communities,” Surfrider adds.

As part of the program, Surfrider will be working directly with volunteers to collect water samples both in the surf, as well as at the outfall site a mile offshore. The samples will then be tested and processed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The main radioactive isotope they will be watching for is Cesium-137.

SONGS was closed in 2013 and continues to go through the decommissioning process. The eventual goal will be to remove the concrete domes that house the plant’s reactors. And while the site will look considerably different in a few years, the U.S. federal government still has not developed a long-term storage solution of the spent fuel.

Until that problem is solved, we will have 3.6 million pounds of radioactive waste stored on-site in stainless steel canisters about 100 feet from the waterline.

“Surfrider Foundation will continue to advocate for the removal of the nuclear material away from the bluffs of San Onofre as soon as feasibly possible,” continues the Surfrider statement. “There is no question that there are better and safer locations for this material than along the densely populated coastline of earthquake-riddled Southern California.”

For more on the findings about nuclear radiation in our oceans, go to

Jake Howard is local surfer and freelance writer who lives in San Clemente. A former editor at Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and ESPN, today he writes for a number of publications, including the San Clemente Times, Dana Point Times, Surfline and the World Surf League. He also works with philanthropic organizations such as the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center and the Positive Vibe Warriors Foundation.

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