“It is useless. If we are in hell now, all we can do is crawl toward heaven.”—Heroic Japanese worker.
It was a disaster waiting to happen. This is what many Japanese environmentalists insisted, long before the Fukushima tragedy. Environmentalists such as Aileen Mioki Smith of Green Action were trying their best to warn the public. But then the quake and tsunami struck, and it was too late.
The Fukushima nuclear energy site, with nine reactors and six spent fuel holding ponds, had a history of several near-misses. And the plant was built between several fault systems, with a seismic potential plant designers thought they had prepared for, but mother nature proved them wrong. No one had predicted the 9.0 earthquake, ten times greater than geological estimates. The tsunami as well exceeded estimates.
Could East meet West? Could we in California be looking in the mirror at a Japanese disaster serving as a premonition for what awaits our state? The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is also built near three fault systems. Right now, it is calm. Before the storm, Fukushima was also calm.
Will mother nature surprise us? What will happen if a major earthquake hits? Can California afford to wait and see, or do nothing, considering that hundreds of miles could be affected, thousands of lives lost, and crops, grazing lands, and water supplies contaminated for generations?
Since there is no safe level of radiation, and doses are cumulative, every dose has the potential to cause health effects such as cancer. It is why nuclear power must work perfectly. In the face of nature’s unbridled power, it must work against the odds that mistakes will be made.
At Least One Partial Melt-Down in Japan For nearly 40 years, the public was told there were only minor problems at the Fukushima plant. It was going better than expected, considering how nuclear engineers had resigned from GE because of the Mark I reactor design flaws, the design used by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TOPEC) in six of the nine reactors on site.
Ken Bridenbaugh, one of the engineers that quit GE, put it this way: “The Fukushima situation is a direct result of Mark I containment. It’s a direct result of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the fact the Mark I containment is less forgiving than some other reactors.” At this writing, five out of six of those GE reactors are unstable. Two show fissures in the exterior containment, indicating ruptures. Authorities have finally admitted to a partial meltdown at reactors one, two, and three, with workers in a race to prevent a complete meltdown. Radiation levels are at their highest level since the accident of two weeks ago, and are 1850 times the norm in the ocean water up to 1,000 yards offshore. Two hundred square miles have been affected. The water supply in Tokyo, 180 miles from the plant, has been contaminated and is unfit for children. Twelve different crops are contaminated, and fresh food is considered unsafe to eat. The fishing industry, too, is contaminated, if not devasted.
And since the plant contained MOX (mixed oxide) fuel, a fuel source from breeder reactors, very high in plutonium, pockets of plutonium have been found close to Tokyo, indicating there will be health problems for generations to come, and for hundreds of miles around the plant.
The Chernobyl disaster has caused 6,000 deaths, with thousands more estimated. Dr. Helen Caldicott, physician and nuclear expert, states that the release at Fukushima “will be 30 times more toxic, because of the numbers of reactors and the spent fuel on site.” As workers trickled hoses on tons of nuclear waste, concrete, and toxic radioactive releases at Fukushima, nuclear analyst Harvey Wasserman called these efforts “a last resort, a prayer more than a plan.”
In light of now three plants melting down, European Union energy chief Guenther Oettinger declared, “We are in uncharted territory. The situation is out of control and facing an apocalypse.”
Nuclear Power at Diablo: One hundred and four miles north of Santa Barbara, along the pristine coastline just past San Luis Obispo, at Avila Beach, lie two nuclear reactors above the cliffs of Devil’s Canyon. This is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, adjacent to a Chumash burial site. In a Faustian tale, local Indians were the first to put up a fight against the plant, declaring that the spirits of their ancestors had been violated by the nuclear industry’s decision to build reactors there. Recognizing health, safety, and waste issues, other environmentalists joined them. In 1976, the Abalone Alliance was created, following the defeat of Proposition 15, which had appealed to the voters to pass a law that nuclear plants could not be built on fault lines, among other restrictions.
The Abalone Alliance orchestrated the first civil disobedience at Diablo in 1976. Thousands gathered at Avila Beach, and 46 of its founders were arrested. A year later, thousands more were back at Avila, with thousands more marching in formal demonstrations, tallying 487 arrests.
In 1981, the National Council of Churches, local professors, politicians, ranchers, and the organization Green Peace became involved. Protesters were allowed onto adjacent lands, and as 30,000 marched along the coastal highway, 1,960 people, surrounding the plant by land and sea, were arrested, some within yards of the plant. Included in the arrests were celebrities Ed Asner, Daniel Ellsberg, and Jackson Browne. Forty professors and the entire San Luis Obispo City Council were also arrested. Days before Diablo went on line, a poll was taken and showed that 80% of San Luis Obispo County residents were opposed to the licensing of Diablo.
Fault Lines: At the end of the ten-day civil disobedience, an engineer discovered a mirror image reversal in the seismic blueprints. PG&E had designed one of its Diablo reactors backwards. The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) approved the plant anyway.
Yet in spite of past errors, for 26 years, similar to Fukushima, there have been only minor problems mentioned at Diablo, with the utility claiming there are no safety or health risks. Thus far, things have gone well—or have near misses been swept under the rug, just like they were in Japan?
In 2007, a new fault system was discovered, the Shoreline Fault, just a mile offshore from the Diablo Plant, making a tsunami a greater possibility. And earlier, during the licensing process, PG&E had purchased Shell’s geological survey, allegedly to keep the public from knowing about the Hosgri fault line. The Hosgri fault system had already produced an earthquake of 7.1 magnitude, more than Diablo Canyon was designed to withstand. It was only after a geologist exposed the danger of the Hosgri that the utility agreed to reinforce the plant.
Another geological study was made, showing that the Hosgri is connected to the San Andreas fault, and some geologists have now estimated the Hosgri is capable of an 8.7 jolt, about 12 times more powerful than the current strength of the rebuilt reactors. The Hosgri fault is just two-and-a-half miles from the Diablo plant.
In February, 2010, legislators asked PG&E for a “seismic accounting,” as the three nearby faults have shattered bedrock around the Diablo facility. Photographs show irrefutable damage. Complete seismic studies have yet to be done.
Diablo’s Hazardous Spent Fuel Pools: At Fukushima, the spent fuel pools lit the snowy sky like firestorms in the night. All six pools held radioactive waste. However, four years earlier, the waste was transported to the breeder facility to be used for making MOX fuel. Fortunately, the pools were not full when the earthquake and tsunami hit.
At Diablo, spent fuel pools may pose more of a threat than earthquake uncertainties. Spent fuel has been stored at the two reactors since 1985. It has been accumulating at the rate of 2,000 tons per year. And the waste continues to mount, never having been removed from the Diablo site. The amount of spent fuel, or nuclear waste, at Diablo is nearly 10 times the amount that was at the Fukushima site, or the equivalence of 60 Hiroshima bombs.
In a recent report to the Los Angeles Times, Robert Alvarez, past Secretary and Deputy Assistant to the Department of Energy, cites Brookhaven findings done for the NRC. They demonstrate that if spent fuel pools catch fire, 188 square miles will be rendered uninhabitable and cancer fatalities will number 28,000. Not to mention $59 billion in property damage.
Alvarez points out that spent fuel waste is particularly vulnerable because it is stored in open air, away from the facility, and is without the same safety backup systems and monitoring available on site. “And instrumentation is lacking to keep the water levels in pools,” he states. The nuclear waste must be submerged in water, if it is to continue to be cooled.
By law, nuclear power plants have only limited liability insurance, limited to only $1.2 billion. The State of California stands to lose most of that $59 billion in a catastrophic accident, if the spent fuel catches fire. And because the fuel is open to air, it could also become a target for terrorism. Planes flying along the coast could damage the spent fuel storage ponds and cause a major disaster.
A History of Hidden Safety Violations: There have been 14 serious safety violations at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant since its licensing. One of these is considered by the NRC to have been a “near miss.” A New York Times investigation revealed many of the plant’s backup cooling systems, which would save Diablo Canyon from a nuclear catastrophe in the face of an earthquake, have violated safety standards. And the NRC also cited PG&E for operating the plant for 19 months while some emergency systems were inoperable. Secondary backup diesel generators were also cited for “performance deficiency.” PG&E was further cited for its engineering staff’s failure to notify plant operators of these problems. As the Fukushima reactors had problems with containment vessels, Diablo Canyon has had past issues, from its early licensure, with the failure of its backup cooling systems.
There is also the mounting accumulation of nuclear waste.
The Cost of Nuclear Power and the Practicality of Alternatives: Surprisingly, nuclear power is not even cost-effective. The only reason that the price of nuclear power is competitive with that of fossil fuels is that 80% of the nuclear industry is subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer. Because of the hazards, including the terrorism potential, and the need for top security—from the uraniam ore to the waste it cannot store—PG&E has been placed on a nuclear welfare program.
The nuclear waste must be stored for 10,000 years. After years of searching for stable ground, Yucca Mountain was chosen as the nation’s permanent waste storage site. But two fault lines were recently discovered at Yucca, and waste storage there has been scrapped. This is why nuclear reactors must continue to store waste on site.
As Jearl Strickland, Diablo’s spent-fuel program manager, put it: “The federal government, hopefully within the next 200 years, will be in a position to assume ownership.”
The government has already spent $3.5 billion to develop plans at Yucca, and tens of billions of dollars more over the years to find appropriate containment and stable ground for nuclear waste storage. The goal has proven elusive. Nuclear power plants used to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Diablo Canyon’s initial estimated cost was $1.3 billion. The final tab was $5.3 billion. And the cost to build future nuclear power plants was projected, before Fukushima, at $10 billion.
Yet the plant’s life span is only 40 years. The plant must be dismantled and encased, adding another billion dollars to its price tag. And 10 miles of land around the plant must then be declared permanently unhabitable, once it has been encased in concrete.
A acre of land is mined to make just one nuclear pellet. Thirty-six pellets go into a single fuel rod. And 30,000 to 40,000 fuel rods make up the 200 fuel-rod-assemblies in the reactor’s core. Indian lands are forever ruined by the mining of uranium ore.
Enrichment of uranium alone requires 25% of all the energy nuclear power produces. With nuclear energy, there isn’t just mining and enrichment, but milling, conversion, fabrication, hazardous transportation to centralized locations, the tons of concrete for containment vessels, and containment vessels within containment vessels; the backup cooling systems, the backup electrical systems, the turbines and generators, the reprocessing, the breeding, the encasement, the security, not to mention the nuclear waste which must be stored for thousands of years. And the risk of terrorism and contamination each step of the way. It is terribly inefficient.
And for what? To boil water and turn it into steam.
Using nuclear power to boil water is like using a chainsaw to pick the food from your teeth, or, in the words of John Goffman, a nuclear power pioneer, “It’s like using a cannon to kill a fly in the room.”
There Are More Benign Alternatives: There are benign energy alternatives available, such as energy efficiency, which could save us twice as much energy as the combined production of all104 nuclear power plants operating today. There is solar, wind, and geothermal, and there is cogeneration, which captures existing heat from operating plants, transferring it to electrical energy and returning it to the grid, saving energy.
The Smith Solar Voltaic System is a case for solar. It uses the 500-foot easement directly under the existing transmission grid, capturing the sun’s heat, and transferring it by electric cable directly back into the grid. This system would require no additional land space or transmission lines, only the solar collectors themselves at minimal cost. The Smith technology has existed since the 1980s.
Utility companies together with the uranium mining industry make a powerful Washington lobby. When they get money from legislators, it means money for research and development into renewable energy is unavailable, and that the wasteful fossil fuel cycle is allowed to continue.
To protect its investments, the nuclear industry will not come clean about the technology’s inherent dangers. The NRC has stated there is a 50/50 chance of a major nuclear accident occurring. Yet those who work for the NRC come from the nuclear industry, and will return to it when they leave the NRC, making it hard for them to regulate their own self interests.
With the possibility of other nuclear accidents in our lifetime—accidents which could affect half the land mass of California, costing thousands of lives, contaminating hundreds of square miles, and causing permanent devastation to crops and grazing lands, while risking our water supply—one has to ask: Is nuclear power worth the risk for what it provides? Considering the paradox that nuclear power must be managed perfectly by imperfect humans—can these imperfections withstand the mutable powers of mother nature and our fault systems in California? It is so important to ask these questions while we still have time to avert a major catastrophe in our own back yard.
The time to act is now. That old devil, Diablo, should be shut down.
Sources of information for this article: Union of Concerned Scientists, daily updates, March 14-March 19, 2011; Interview with Helen Caldecott, Physicians for Social Responsibility; Friends of the Earth; Los Angeles Times; CNN; Democracy Now! (reports/interviews with environmentalists, physicists, and nuclear engineers); Nuclear Regulatory Commission; International Nuclear Energy Agency; Nuclear Free World; National Geographic; ERDA (Energy Research & Development Administration); The San Francisco Chronicle; Sierra Club; Reuters News Service; and “Unsafe at Any Reactor,” a Los Angeles Times editorial by Robert Alvarez.