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No nuclear leak at San Onofre isn't necessarily no problem

Steam rises between reactors 2 and 3 at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Clemente, Calif.
Steam rises between reactors 2 and 3 at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Clemente, Calif.
David McNew/Getty Images

Authorities say there is an ammonia leak at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California, and San Diego County's emergency operations center has been activated.

Officials quickly said the ammonia leak posed no threat to the public, and stressed that no radiation has leaked. An alert, under federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission designations, is the second lowest of 4 designations for unusual events at nuclear plants in the United States. 

But an ammonia leak that's being contained still could create respiratory problems for people in the area. That's likely why SoCal Edison workers in the vicinity of the spill evacuated the area. Among the acute health impacts: Dizziness, skin irritation, and nausea. 

The San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant is a "polluter" under federal and state law; it tells local regulators how it operates normally, and receives permission to do that. When something not normal happens, the power plant's operators must tell regulators. 

The San Diego Air Pollution Control District should receive those reports from San Onofre when they "spill" hazardous chemicals.That reporting is especially important when human health hazards are raised, as in this case. In an updated statement, Edison writes, "The alert was required because fumes could prevent access to the plant." 

I reached Alana Penn, a compliance officer at the SDAPCD. She told me that to her knowledge the district hadn't been told about the leak. So far neither Edison nor either of the county emergency operations centers (San Diego and Orange County are both activated for emergency) have said anything about how much anhydrous ammonia was spilled. 

[FINAL UPDATE, 7:15 pm: Edison reports the leak contained about 3 hours after it started. A total of 30 gallons of ammonia reported leaked, captured in a basin below the cooling equipment.]