REST IN PEACE: I’d never even heard of Thomas Pigford until two days after he’d already died. In some ways, Pigford — who died last week at age 87 — was the intellectual granddaddy of the nuclear energy industry as we know it. The son of Zula and Lamar, Pigford grew up in rural Mississippi, a pea-patch genius who went on to start the nuclear engineering programs at MIT and UC Berkeley. He wrote what remains the essential text on nuclear engineering and taught the government how to extract weapons-grade plutonium from the nuclear waste generated by commercial nuclear power plants. When the feds needed reliable, honest answers about the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island or the actual meltdown at Chernobyl, it was always Pigford they called first. Given the convergence of high-powered, high-profile, glow-in-the-dark events taking place around here last week, the timing of Pigford’s death was weirdly and eerily appropriate. On Thursday, for example, Energy Secretary Steven Chu — speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics summit at the Bacara — discussed how the feds finally pulled the plug on the nuclear waste burial grounds slated for Yucca Mountain, just outside Las Vegas. Pigford’s fingerprints, it turns out, were all over that decision, which will prove fatal to renewed efforts to kick-start the nation’s nuclear power industry. Likewise, last Wednesday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission heard public comments about plans to relicense Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, about 100 miles up the road, despite the discovery of a new offshore seismic fault line less than half a mile away. About 40 years earlier, Pigford, then a member of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, became embroiled in an almost identical controversy about the seismic safety of Diablo Canyon, only to be shut down — but never shut up — by the federal regulators then working in cahoots with the plant’s owner, PG&E.
Pigford got dragged into Diablo Canyon when PG&E first sought approval for the ill-fated plant in the late ’60s. He was part of a panel of experts charged with ensuring that all seismic precautions had been taken. During a public hearing in San Luis Obispo, a geology professor from Cal Poly claimed he had discovered evidence of seismic activity in some of the trenches dug by — and overlooked by — PG&E’s own geologic consultants. The professor wanted a few hours to present his case. The phalanx of attorneys representing PG&E objected mightily. Pigford argued he should be heard. What were a few extra hours when the public safety was at stake? Pigford’s two fellow commissioners, however, agreed with PG&E and the professor was not heard. Who knows what difference it might have made if he had been? We do know about that same time, a couple of geologists working for Shell Oil had just published their discovery of a monster earthquake fault just three miles offshore from the proposed nuclear plant — dubbed the Hosgri Fault — capable of delivering a 7.5 earthquake. Even though this information was prominently published in prestigious scientific journals, it managed to elude both PG&E and the federal nuclear regulators for another three years. At least that’s their story. Some skeptics point out how in 1981 they unearthed documents showing PG&E withheld evidence in 1967 that there was an offshore fault within 500 feet of the proposed plant. The fault had been long dormant, and company official acknowledged they wanted to avoid “additional speculation and possibly delay the project.” But with the discovery of Hoisgri, PG&E was forced to rebuild the plant almost from scratch, one of the reasons why Diablo Canyon cost $4.4 billion more than it should have.
What does this have to do with anything? Only everything. About a year ago, a new fault line — dubbed Shoreline — was discovered even closer to Diablo Canyon than Hosgri. Now PG&E is hurrying to get its license renewed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. PG&E contends Diablo Canyon is built to withstand quakes 10 times bigger than anything Shoreline might deliver. But the geologist who actually discovered the new fault — Thomas Brocher — says much remains unknown about the Shoreline Fault. Like, for example, its exact location and actual distance from Diablo Canyon. Within the range of uncertainty, Brocher said it’s both possible and plausible that the Shoreline fault might extend underneath the plant itself. We don’t know. With this kind of question looming, it seems like a sensible idea to finish all seismic evaluations before talking about relicensing. Thus far, PG&E and the NRC have not seen it that way.
On Yucca Mountain, Pigford had served on the National Academy of Sciences panel appointed to study six sites as a possible resting place for all spent nuclear fuel accumulating throughout the country. The most compelling argument for Yucca Mountain was the relatively small size of Nevada’s congressional delegation. It was never Pigford’s first choice. As a panelist, however, Pigford proved tireless in arguing that Yucca Mountain — or any site — needed to be kept safe for no less than 1 million years. Anything less would not do. The nuclear industry and most federal agencies insisted 10,000 years was good enough. Pigford countered with scientific data showing that spent fuel actually got much more dangerous after about 200,000 years in captivity. Who knew? As a result, the million-year threshold was eventually written into federal law. Under George W. Bush, however, the Environmental Protection Agency unilaterally sought to replace the million-year threshold with the 10,000-year mark favored by the industry. Pigford squawked long and loud. The matter was eventually heard by the Supreme Court, which ruled the Bush administration was guilty of bad science and breaking the law. In an oral history, Pigford suggested the loss of public confidence inflicted by such end-run maneuvers would kill the project outright. He was right. It didn’t it help matters that geologists also discovered water migrates much faster throughout the Yucca site than anticipated. Shortly before coming to Santa Barbara, Energy Secretary Chu pulled the plug on what had kept Yucca Mountain — 30 years and $10 billion in the making — on life support.
Thomas Pigford, rest in peace.