SHAKE ’N’ QUAKE: Everyone knows the old joke: A man goes to the doctor and says, “My wife’s crazy. She thinks she’s a chicken.” The doctor scratches his chin and asks, “How long has this been going on?” The man says “Two years,” prompting the doctor to ask why the man hasn’t come sooner. “Doc,” the man says, “we need the eggs!” For some reason this gag wouldn’t stop bouncing around my brain during the rainy drive back from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) meeting held in San Luis Obispo late last Wednesday night.
Whenever the NRC comes to town, it’s always to talk about the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant 100 miles up the road. In this case, it was to discuss the environmental consequences of declaring Diablo Canyon a de facto nuclear waste storage site for the indefinite future, something never contemplated when the plant was first licensed and approved many eons ago. It’s nothing personal. The NRC has been forced to do the same thing with every nuke in the nation ever since the Obama Administration pulled the plug on the national nuclear waste depository slated for Yucca Mountain four years ago.
In case you’re worrying, don’t bother. The punch line is that the NRC conducted a thorough and exhaustive one-size-fits-all “generic” environmental review and concluded the consequences of this major policy shift are so infinitesimally “small” they can’t even be measured. That’s true if the waste is stored at Diablo “indefinitely” after the plant shuts down, the report concluded, or merely 60 years.
While this seems certifiably crazy, it didn’t account for my chicken-and-egg perseverations. The passage of 25 years notwithstanding, I have never gotten over the fact that the NRC allowed PG&E to build its twin reactors at Diablo Canyon 90 miles up the coast after the Hosgri fault was discovered — to everyone’s surprise, shock, and horror — just a couple of miles off the coast. At the time, Hosgri was deemed capable of generating a 7.5-magnitude earthquake, but since then, the threat potential has been downsized to 6.5.
Even if Diablo Canyon qualifies as one whacked chicken, there’s no disputing its prodigious egg production. Diablo Canyon pumps $920 million a year into the San Luis Obispo economy, generating $25 million in annual tax revenues for local schools and local governments, and 1,500 jobs that pay real middle-class wages. It generates enough electricity to allow 3 million Californians to boil water and watch TV at the same time.
While the carbon footprint of any nuclear power is much broader than the electricity produced on-site, there’s no denying that nukes burn conspicuously cleaner when it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions. Diablo Canyon operators boast that if they cooked the same amount of juice using conventional means, they’d be spewing 7 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere a year.
Though you couldn’t tell from last week’s meeting, there are growing signs that Diablo Canyon’s days may be numbered. In recent months, the San Luis Obispo county supervisors expressed official concern they have too many eggs in Diablo Canyon’s basket and need to look seriously at diversifying their portfolio. About the same time, the Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a multibillion-dollar come-to-Jesus warning, notifying PG&E it will have to (eventually) cease and desist sucking in 2.5 million gallons of seawater every day to cool the plant. The problem is that 19 billion fish larvae also get sucked up and few survive the trip through Diablo Canyon’s intricate network of pipes. Adding insult to injury, the water is 20 degrees warmer when it gets dumped back into the ocean. Depending upon whom you ask, the fix will cost anywhere from $1.6-$4.5 billion, huge by any standard. Add to that intensifying concern over seismic risks posed by offshore faults recently discovered just 600 yards offshore from the plant, and the cost of doing business could get too high for even PG&E.
Last week’s NRC meeting was packed. More than 200 people braved the season’s first rain to deliver their two cents’ worth, despite a painful PA system with too much reverb, echo, and feedback. For nearly six hours, it went, ’til almost midnight. Twenty NRC employees — from Dallas, Texas, and Washington, D.C. — were on hand to take down every word. A healthy smattering of pro-nukers showed up. Diablo Canyon employees were conspicuous in their good manners, invariably thanking speakers from the other side — even those inclined to shout truth to power rather than speak it — for engaging in “a robust” discussion of the issues.
Several young eager beavers representing an obvious industry front group reminded us how nukes produce 60 percent of “clean-air” electricity. Yes, there could be an “incident” at a nuclear power plant, they allowed. But climate change absolutely will kill 4-5 billion people.
But mostly, the overwhelming sentiment was anti-nuke and anti–Diablo Canyon. At times, the theatrics got a little thick. One Native American claimed his family lived continuously on the site for 20,000 years — a claim I suspect defies archeological verification — and they had yet to give PG&E permission to turn their land into a permanent nuclear dump. Several banged the doom ’n’ gloom gong, predicting Fukushima can still turn Japan into a wasteland and force mass evacuations along the West Coast.
An unreconstructed hippie named Walking Turtle who carried an ornately feathered talking stick took to the podium. Her father, she said, died of cancer at age 51 after cleaning up the A-bombed remains of Nagasaki at the end of World War II. There was the goofy guy representing the Order of the Nukes Templar — wearing a paper bag on his head, painted to look like a knight’s helmet. But there was nothing silly about his point. “No one has the right to light matches they can’t put out for 250,000 years,” he said, referring to one of the estimated life spans attributed to “spent” nuclear fuel.
The NRC staff listened politely. But it was clear 10 months from now the “no problem” environmental analysis will be ratified and codified. Ironically, the only issue on which there was general consensus from both sides was that the NRC should require PG&E to accelerate the speed at which it removes spent fuel rods from the two fuel pools at Diablo Canyon and load them into the 135-ton concrete and steel dry-storage casks that have been approved for the site. Fuel pool fires have the potential to be globally catastrophic events, and ever since one of Fukushima’s fuel pools caught fire — if only for a few hours — people have grown increasingly impatient and anxious.
The fact that Diablo Canyon’s fuel pools now store four times the number of spent fuel assemblies than the NRC initially licensed them to hold has only added fuel to the critics’ ire. The NRC has insisted that Diablo’s steel-reinforced fuel pools — nestled snugly 40 feet into the bedrock — are just as safe as dry casks and can safely accommodate the increase in volume by reconfiguring how the assemblies are racked. As far as the 13 earthquake faults in the area, the NRC is confident the plant can handle the worst they can dish out.
It’s worth noting that the California Energy Commission has been pushing PG&E to speed up the transfer to dry-cask storage every year for the past five years without result. For the past two years, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has done the same, also with no effect. It’s worth noting that one day after last week’s NRC hearing, Senator Barbara Boxer blistered both Diablo Canyon and the NRC while addressing the Committee on Environment and Public Works. Boxer was pissed that the NRC just adopted new regulations all but making its records off limits even to members of Congress who represent states with nuclear power plants. When Boxer’s staff went to search the NRC files, they were told they could be searched to make sure they weren’t stealing anything. As for Diablo Canyon, she said, “Serious questions have been raised regarding whether this facility meets the NRC license requirements.”
That comment stems from a red-flag report issued last January by Dr. Michael Peck, who for the previous five years had served as the NRC’s resident inspector assigned to Diablo Canyon to ensure plant safety. Peck issued what’s called a “non-concurrence report” expressing his doubts that Diablo Canyon could safely shut down in response to increased ground shaking caused by the fault discovered five years ago a few hundred yards off the coast from the plant. It’s worth noting that Peck’s superiors have emphatically disagreed and insist that Diablo Canyon is engineered to withstand quakes 10 times stronger than any of the nearby fault lines could inflict. In fact, last October, they issued an edict to just that effect. Peck, however, remains unpersuaded. In his 30-year career as a nuclear inspector, he pointed out, he’s written only two such reports. Lest he be dismissed as another sky-is-falling crackpot experiencing a midlife crisis, the NRC saw fit to reassign Peck to the college where new NRC inspectors are taught how to inspect nuclear power plants.
Disagreements among highly trained professionals are, of course, inevitable, and this could be one of those. But on the crucial issue of seismic safety, I’d say the NRC and PG&E are sending out discordantly mixed messages. On one hand, every time I call either agency, I am told extensive, multimillion-dollar studies are currently underway to determine just how much ground shaking the newly discovered fault line can actually inflict. But that information is not assembled, and no decision is possible until some time in 2015. Okay, but if that’s the case, how is it that the NRC can justify issuing a fatwa, as it did last fall, saying don’t worry, be happy?
In the meantime, one speaker at the NRC hearing suggested that it will take about 50,000 generations before the nuclear waste stored at Diablo Canyon is rendered safe. That’s kind of extreme, he said, to boil water for 50 years. I don’t know if that’s precisely true. But I do know you can boil a lot of eggs in 50 years. But only if you have a few crazy chickens running around.