Monday, Nov. 24, 1997
E. Bay plant quietly handles nuke waste
Safety is still in question at nearly forgotten Vallecitos
Examiner Staff Writer Jane Kay contributed to this story.
PLEASANTON - Twenty years after its most powerful nuclear reactor was shut down because of earthquake danger, an East Bay facility once billed as the "world's largest privately financed nuclear research center" continues to experiment with highly-radioactive materials in a shroud of proprietary secrecy.
In a remote Alameda County canyon that geologists believe sits on top of an active earthquake fault, the General Electric Vallecitos Center runs a quiet research operation that includes a small nuclear reactor, remote-controlled "hot-cell" rooms for examining super-radioactive materials and outdoor storage bunkers for high-level nuclear waste.
The facility, which sparked a storm of controversy in the late seventies, has been all but forgotten by residents of neighboring communities, many of whom believe it was shut down long ago.
But an Examiner investigation shows Vallecitos is still very much in the forefront of the nation's nuclear industry and its operations continue to raise questions about the safety of nuclear materials in an earthquake zone.
At a time when local residents are protesting a federal plan to ship spent nuclear fuel rods through the Bay Area, the Pleasanton facility quietly reigns as one of the biggest shippers of the highly-radioactive rods west of the Mississippi.
"There's a widespread perception that this facility is in mothballs," said Jackie Cabasso of the Bay Area anti-nuclear group, Western States Legal Foundation, who was surprised to learn Vallecitos was still operating. "To find out that there's, not only spent fuel shipments going in and out of there, but storage of highly-radioactive waste as well, is shocking. For me, it raises a lot of questions as to what are the safety and security measures there."
Tucked in a sparsely-populated valley of rolling grassland and oak trees, near where Highway 84 meets I-680, Vallecitos is just five miles from Pleasanton and Sunol, 35 miles from San Francisco.
The site is licensed by the federal and state governments to handle, transport, and act as a waste repository for a host of potentially-deadly products ranging from nuclear reactor waste and bomb-grade Plutonium to fast-radiating Cobalt 60, and to run a small nuclear reactor.
A larger reactor that once was one of its most productive pieces of equipment was shut down by the federal government in 1977, after geologists discovered an active earthquake fault running through the middle of the facility - within 200 feet of the reactor's containment structure.
That fault, dubbed the Verona faultline, is believed related to the Calaveras Fault, which runs less than two miles northwest of Vallecitos and is estimated to be capable of a quake measuring 7.5 on the Richter Scale. Geologists have estimated the Verona fault is capable of a 6.5 earthquake.
In the 1970's, when the safety of its reactor came into question, G.E. brought in its own geologists, who disputed the existence of the fault. They said the signs of shifting earth under the nuclear facility were merely evidence of an ancient landslide, but the U.S. Geological Survey still considers the Verona an active fault.
Risk "negligible to nil'
While, at various times, four different nuclear reactors have operated at the Pleasanton site, only the smallest remains: a 100 kilowatt research reactor similar to those housed in universities around the nation.
It is one of only two nuclear reactors remaining in the Bay Area. The other is at the plant of the former military contractor, Aerotest, in San Ramon and is used to examine the composition of highly sensitive metals in airplanes.
G.E. officials and Nuclear Regulatory Commission representatives say the downsized Vallecitos Nuclear Center poses no danger.
"The risk to the public is negligible to nil," said Mark Hammond, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which requires General Electric to prepare detailed predictions of what would happen if the site were hit by various catastrophes.
"An earthquake is one of the scenarios with the worst consequences," according to Hammond, who said the facility could suffer destruction of buildings and an atmospheric release of radiation but added that "the greatest dose to the nearest neighbors would be about one-tenth of a chest x-ray."
Others say this downplays the danger of working with such deadly materials atop an earthquake fault.
"The standard party line is "nothing bad can ever happen,' but I wouldn't believe anyone who told me tooth-fairy stories.," said Dr. John Gofman, a UC Berkeley health physics professor emeritus and prominent critic of government radiation safety standards. "Any of these facilities are subject to accidents. It doesn't make good sense to have nuclear facilities in highly populated areas."
The debate over whether facilities like Vallecitos pose any danger mirrors a decades-old, nationwide nuclear dispute. It is easy to find scientists to testify that nuclear technology is extremely safe or that it poses deadly pitfalls, but there is little middle ground. Even federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission don't agree on what the standards for safety should be.
"The difficulty with this issue is you almost have to be a nuclear scientist to figure it out," said Will Travis, director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which is opposing the federal plan to ship nuclear waste through The Bay.
Benefits of plant's work
Vallecitos is a grandfather of the nuclear industry. It was on this 1,600 acre site that General Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric tested the world's first privately-owned nuclear power reactor. That reactor, built in 1956 and shut down 1963, was the model for the General Electric boiling water reactors that now operate all over the world.
In the 1970's, the facility worked with the Department of Energy to become the nation's second largest fabricator of plutonium fuels for experimental government reactors. During the time its large test reactor was operating, Vallecitos is estimated to have produced half the radioactive medical isotopes used in the Western world.
Then America's enthusiasm for nuclear power waned. Vallecitos saw the safety shutdown of its big reactor, then suffered from federal cutbacks that eliminated billions of dollars in nuclear research, nationally. Since 1977, its workforce has shrunk from more than 500 to a little over 100.
Yet the facility remains one of a handful in the world where public utilities can send specimens of super-radioactive fuel to get scientific evaluations of what's happening inside their reactor cores.
G.E. spokesman Lynn Wallis said the nuclear facility has been used to analyze the metal integrity of bolts for the space shuttle and has been instrumental in building the "Gamma Knife," which uses laser-like beams of radiation to cut out brain tumors that can't be reached with standard surgical equipment.
High security shipments
Since 1979, at least 64 shipments of irradiated nuclear fuel have been trucked in and out of Pleasanton, including deliveries from such reactors as Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island, Connecticut's Millstone Power Plant, and even sites in Norway and Sweden.
Compared to the thousands of pounds of fuel inside a commercial nuclear reactor, shipments to Vallecitos are small - 2 to 54 pounds per load. Yet the cargo is so deadly it has to be carried in 28,000-pound lead casks and escorted by the California Highway Patrol.
"We handle irradiated fuel. We also take irradiated hardware from nuclear reactors," said Chuck Bassett, manager of regulatory compliance for Vallecitos. "The research could lead to improving the hardware in commercial reactors."
Transporting spent nuclear fuel is so dangerous that it is rarely done in the United States. The two or three loads a year coming in and out of Vallecitos are enough to make the nuclear center a major national player in the shipment of such waste. The facility has been the origin or destination for five percent of all U.S. shipments recorded by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission since 1979.
But while federal government plans to ship five loads of foreign nuclear fuel rods through the Bay Area in the next 13 years have been subjected to environmental impact reports, public hearings and a storm of local controversy, loads coming in and out of Vallecitos have received no fanfare.
The shipments have been made so quietly that even next-door neighbors of the facility say they had no idea high-level waste was being handled there. Equally surprised were many government officials who have opposed the plan to ship foreign nuclear waste through The Bay, starting next year.
"This terrifies me. There should be public notification at least," said Contra Costa County Supervisor Gail Uilkema, who wants shipments of high-level nuclear waste kept out of the area. "Transporting this stuff creates an uncontrolled situation that could expose the public to accidents caused by drivers or traffic jams. There can be a whole panoply of disasters."
G.E.'s Wallis said that for security reasons, Vallecitos tries not to publicize such shipments. He said the company follows prescribed federal procedure, informing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a representative of the governor's office for every shipment.
Storing the waste on site
Once spent nuclear fuel rods arrive in Pleasanton, they present another problem - lack of a site to send them for final disposal.
Despite years of trying, the United States has been unable to find a suitable dump for high-level nuclear waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of years, emiting deadly Plutonium, Strontium-90 and Cesium-137.
Since there is no repository for some of the highly-radioactive waste examined in Pleasanton, Vallecitos has had to store more than 200 pounds of spent fuel rods in a hillside storage bunker there.
Vallecitos stores spent nuclear fuel rods in two rows of bunkers on the valley hillside, according to descriptions provided state regulators. The records say they are kept in massive tubes of concrete and steel, built into the hillside and surrounded with dirt to protect the super-radioactive material.
Some nuclear critics find it alarming that such material is stored in the Bay Area.
"High-level nuclear waste is among the most extraordinarily dangerous stuff on earth," said Dan Hirsh, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a group advising communities on nuclear issues. "The consequences of even a tiny fraction of it getting into the environment could be very serious ..."
But G.E.'s Wallis said the waste storage poses no risks because it's kept in a solid form that prevents its radioactivity from traveling off site. Even if the containers that hold it were to split open, he said, it would be dangerous only to people who stood beside it.
"If an earthquake hit nothing would happen," he said.
But critics say there are catastrophic possibilities - from earthquakes that cause super-hot fires to terrorist attacks.
Critics also ask about possible long-term contamination. Vallecitos is listed as a potential hazardous waste cleanup site by both state and federal environmental agencies because of non-radioactive pollutants discovered in a well bordering the facility, and the Department of Energy is conducting an estimated $23 million cleanup inside some of the hot cell facilities contaminated by radioactivity.
While there are only about dozen houses neighboring Vallecitos, critics say there are too many people in nearby communities to justify any nuclear risk. In 1956, when Vallecitos was built, Pleasanton had 4,000 residents. Since then, Pleasanton's population has grown tenfold, creating a bustling suburban center with rows of tract homes and daily traffic jams. In 1976, there were 221,000 residents within 10 miles of Vallecitos.
Wallis said the best proof of Vallecitos' safety is in its record: 41 years without a serious breach of security or a major release of radiation. "To my knowledge there have never been any impacts to the environment or the community," he said.
Vallecitos is allowed to emit low-levels of radioactive pollutants through its smoke stacks and through water discharges into a creek bed that runs through the site. But the facility is required to keep the concentrations of such pollutants as Cobalt 60, Plutonium 239, Tritium, and Strontium 90 below standards set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
However, some of the NRC's standards have been criticized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as not stringent enough to protect human health.
Most recently, the EPA challenged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's standards for decommissioning former nuclear sites. The standards allow nuclear facilities to turn land over to the public with enough radioactive contamination to cause 3.8 cancer deaths in every 10,000 people exposed over a 30-year period. EPA standards have recommended no more than one cancer case per million people.
The agencies' standards conflict in the case of pollution discovered in 1992, when Vallecitos turned over a corner of its property to the state for widening of Highway 84. Tests found one spot containing trace amounts of Plutonium and Cobalt 60 far higher than what would normally be expected in the environment. The Cobalt 60 contamination was below NRC standards, but twice the EPA's health alert level for commercial areas, an amount predicted to cause one cancer per million people over a lifetime.
"It would raise a flag for us," said Steve Dean, radiation expert with the EPA, which has no authority to oversee nuclear sites like Vallecitos. "If this were a superfund site, we'd be doing more investigation to find the source of contamination." Yet the site was deemed clean enough for public use by the NRC and the state and was turned over to Caltrans.
Considered a good neighbor
Vallecitos' closest neighbors, residents of a dozen or so ranch houses overlooking the white domes of now-closed reactors, say the facility is an excellent neighbor.
"We've always had a really good relationship with them," said 15-year neighbor Beverly Trutner, who said the facility keeps a phone list of nearby residents in case of emergencies. "I think their safety record over there is impeccable. And I'd much rather live next to G.E., than 4,000 tract homes."
Yet none of the nearby neighbors interviewed knew the facility handles and stores the same type of high-level radioactive waste that has caused controversy in other parts of the Bay Area.
The safety of the site got only a few sentences in a recently approved re-zoning plan that will allow more houses next to Vallecitos.
While the Department of Energy prepared an Environment Impact Statement two-feet thick for its proposed shipments of spent nuclear fuel rods through Concord, the section of Alameda County's EIR on hazards of developing the area contained only six paragraphs on Vallecitos and didn't mention spent fuel rods or the storage of high-level nuclear waste.
Health physicist Gofman said members of public need to get "one hell of an education" about nuclear work going on around them.
"People in the Bay Area should know we have these facilities," he said. "If we're going to ship plutonium and spent fuel rods, people should know that too. It could be the things we don't know or the things they don't tell us that can hurt us the most."