Diablo Nuclear Plant: Disaster Waiting to Happen?
April 7, 2011
Approximately 27,000 people are either dead or missing as a result of the earthquake off Japan on March 11 and the resulting tsunami and destruction of nuclear plants there. Does that figure sound familiar?
Baywood-Los Osos and Morro Bay combined have a population of about 25,000.
That’s the kind of connection people here may be starting to think about in the aftermath of the Japanese catastrophe—and the fact that the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant is so close by.
For sure, they are starting to wonder about living near a nuclear plant, and, more significantly, whether it has to be. Evidence shows it doesn’t, but who was pondering closing Diablo until now?
Dave Congalton, the local radio talk show host, may have been the first one to bring up the Diablo nightmare publicly. On his March 22 show, he took the initiative to say, “I live in Nipomo and as I was driving up 101 today, I was imagining, as I was hearing reports from Japan, what could happen on the Central Coast and when I did that, it was mind-numbing.”
Congalton then asked on the air, “If you think the risks are high (being close to the Diablo plant), why don’t you leave? Why do you stay?” At the time, he seemed to be asking his listening audience. But in reviewing the archived podcast of the show, it’s possible he may have been asking himself, too.
Apparently to provide some context for considering the kind of company that owns and operates Diablo, he listed the troubles that PG&E had been through over the past year:
(1) PG&E’s soundly defeated Prop. 16 on the June primary ballot last year that would have required local governments to win approval from two-thirds of voters in an election before they could set up any new public power network,
(2) the massive natural gas explosion last September in a PG&E line in San Bruno, just south of San Francisco, that destroyed a neighborhood and killed eight people, destroyed 38 homes, and left many more people injured and psychologically damaged and
(3) the mounting opposition in the county and statewide to PG&E’s Smart Meters because of their reported and otherwise potential health effects.
David Weisman, outreach consultant for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility (A4NR), has called the PG&E setbacks “three strikes and you’re out.” The Alliance and Mothers for Peace have been fighting PG&E’s attempt to have the operating licenses for its two nuclear units at Diablo extended another 20 years through 2044 and 2045 until thorough seismic studies on nearby earthquake faults—studies which PG&E wants to charge ratepayers $85 million for—are completed. In the aftermath of the Japanese disasters, support for blocking the extension of those licenses is mounting sharply, thanks in large part to the two organizations’ efforts.
The county Board of Supervisors last Tuesday agreed to consider opposing extension of the Diablo licenses until the seismic studies are completed. It will go on a Board agenda in the near future. Approximately 35 people packed the Board chambers to urge that supervisors oppose the license extension.
But what people like Congalton and others are starting to think about is not whether Diablo’s licenses for the two nuclear units should be allowed to expire in 2024 and 2025, rather than extend them for 20 years. It’s about now—whether they should operate any more at all. That is brand new, thanks to what has happened in Japan.
The Diablo plant sits almost on top of the Hosgri Fault, which reportedly has the same dangerous characteristics as the fault outside of Sendai, Japan. And geologists just discovered another fault running 300 yards from the Diablo plant gates.
“Any corporation can make a mistake,” Congalton added, “and the more people who work for them, the higher the likelihood there is going to be some kind of mistake.” This is reality, even though PG&E, the National Regulatory Commission (NRC) and California regulatory agencies may do everything within their powers to attain the highest degree of safety possible—theoretically, at least.
What many, if not most, of Diablo’s thousands of nearby neighbors don’t seem to understand is that there can be no assurance of safety from an earthquake, a tsunami (even though Diablo is 85 feet above sea level), a terrorist attack and now conceivably with climate change (as evidenced by rising sea levels), possible lightning strikes. The risks are almost endless.
The best available and emerging technology can significantly increase safety and minimize the risks of an accident, a fire, an explosion, a release of radioactivity, or an operational error—like the recently-discovered failure by operators at Diablo to realize that a system to pump water into one of the reactors during an emergency had not been working—for 18 months. The incident is being called a “near miss” by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
As experts outside the nuclear industry and government emphasize, there is no way to prevent what could mushroom into another Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Japanese disaster.
“A lot of little things happen (at nuclear plants) that can lead to big things happening,” said Stephanie Cooke, author of “In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age,” in a radio interview recently. “We don’t really know how that happens.” Ms. Cooke has covered the nuclear industry for thirty years.
“There have been many accidents (at nuclear plants),” she said. “but they are hard to find out about. We don’t hear about them. They are reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but it is hard to get access to information from it. I talked to a former NRC official who said he was very surprised how hard it is to find information on its site. A lot of this stuff is written in very complicated language that is hard to understand.
“Maybe it is the media’s fault for not following all this close enough, but basically people don’t know about accidents until there is an explosion or (radioactivity) release into the air.” (The Union of Concerned Scientists has a recent report on nuclear plant safety.) So people are uninformed about what goes on in nuclear plants here and abroad, which may go a long way in producing the willingness to accept industry and government contentions that they are safe. And that there are safe levels of exposure to radiation.
“But the National Academies’ National Research Council states that a preponderance of scientific evidence shows that even low doses of ionizing radiation are likely to pose some risk of adverse health effects. “
“The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial,” said the Council’s study committee chair Richard R. Monson, associate dean for professional education and professor of epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to assure that “environmental radiation” remains below any “level of concern” in California (although the Central Coast was not included in that monitoring report). Such reassurances also are being issued by other authorities.
But at least people are willing to admit that they are not ready for a nuclear incident—CNN reported on March 25 that a poll it conducted showed most Americans who live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant aren’t prepared for a nuclear emergency. But they don’t think that police, hospitals, and other emergency services in their communities are either. (See Political Ticker. The site contains a link to a map that can show how close your home or business is to a nuclear plant.)
The county says there are about 143,000 people living in what it calls Protective Action Zones covering areas for evacuation in case of a Diablo incident requiring flight. It says another estimated 30,000 to 35,000 come to those areas to work or visit regularly. Those areas roughly cover Cayucos to the north, east through Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo to Orcutt Road and south to the Willow Road area at Nipomo.
However, there are ways to be better prepared. The state has a site that lists “10 Ways YOU Can be Disaster Prepared” for disasters of all kinds. And more directly relevant to Diablo, the county has an Office of Emergency Services, as well as a map of Emergency Planning Zones that shows escape routes from all areas surrounding Diablo.
The map and other facts are contained in the “2011 Important Emergency Information” booklet, which also has information about potassium iodide for use in case radiation levels reach a point that its ingestion is advised by the county health officer. All of this is also in local phone books.
Given the endemic uncertainty over what could happen at any nuclear plant, the question becomes: should, would and could Diablo Canyon be closed? Should it be closed if it were practical—primarily, if the energy it produces could be replaced? Would the public and their elected representatives support closing it? And, finally, could it be closed—is there a regulatory, legal or political means to do so?
To address the “would, should, could” question set, it seems the only way would be for area residents to get some answers on their own. Therefore, an effort is underway to organize one or more workshops for the purpose of developing the information needed to answer those questions—and enable people to decide on their own, independently and with self-interest as the guide. And determine whether there is urgency that needs to be recognized and faced based on the judgment of the stakeholders—the residents.
Although rarely reported by the media, renewable energy, such as solar and wind, represent viable alternatives to nuclear plants, especially here in California, which is leading the nation in the development of renewables. And then there is conservation, which means everyone using less electricity, but a topic that is almost never discussed as an alternative means to reduce reliance of fossil fuels and nuclear.
There are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States that produce about 20 percent of the nation’s energy and five new ones are under consideration. The Diablo and San Onofre plants generate about 15 percent of California’s electricity. How did all these plants get built if their risks and dangers are now recognized? Mothers for Peace and many others saw those risks and fought the construction of the Diablo plant, the first unit of which opened in 1985.
Cooke believes nuclear energy has become part of American culture over the past half century due to this overriding equation: technology = progress=prosperity. The tendency was to “ignore the pitfalls. How to survive and where to put the (nuclear) waste? We’ll figure that out as we go along.”
All nuclear waste—the media often call it “spent fuel” as a more benign term—must be stored on each plant’s site. Diablo has on its site 2642 assemblies (bundles) of spent fuel and 1136 metric tons of uranium, the A4NR says based on state data obtained from PG&E. If the plant operates through 2025, 1168 more assemblies and 717 more metric tons of uranium will be added, and if its license is renewed through 2045, another 2112 assemblies and 908 metric tons of uranium will be added.
Such waste is probably the least acknowledged dangerous aspect of a nuclear plant. “U.S. nuclear power plants that store thousands of metric tons of spent atomic fuel pose risks of a crisis like the one unfolding in Japan, where crews are battling to prevent a meltdown of stored fuel, nuclear safety experts said,” Bloomberg News reported.
It just keeps piling up at plants. There is no prospect for storing it at some central site within the U.S. because no state would take it. So the risk just builds and builds with no end in sight. And it is vulnerable to dangers from loss of cooling water and terrorist attacks.
Another aspect of radiation that is virtually never mentioned is the radioactive waste left behind when uranium in mined. Little, if any, uranium is mined in or near California, but it doesn’t have to be in order to feel the effects. When uranium is extracted from the ground, great amounts of rock come with it, and then it is crushed, and finely-pulverized material is left behind, much like flour, according to Dr. Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. A great deal of uranium is mined in Canada.
“These tailings are left on the surface of the earth, they are blown by the wind, they are washed by the rain into the water systems, and they inevitably spread,” he said in a 1992 speech, for undetermined distances, polluting water, exposing people to radiation and resulting in “mental retardation in children who were irradiated while still in the womb.” And “the effective half-life of this radioactivity is 80,000 years,” he added.
Renewables are a clean, viable alternative to all this and already on the horizon. The question is: how close? Or could they be brought closer with accelerated prioritizing by the state? The utilities, like PG&E, themselves are developing significant renewable portfolios.
California has a goal of achieving 20 percent energy generation in the state from renewables by 2012 and 33% by 2020. Some 653 megawatts (MW) of new renewables came on line in 2010, almost double the amount of new renewables in 2009, a California Public Utilities report in December said most of it was produced from hydroelectric and wind from a big new wind farm in Tehachapi.
“To date, 1,702 MW of new renewable capacity has achieved commercial operation” since 2003. The new renewable capacity consisted of solar panels, biomass, small hydroelectric, biogas and wind. The report focused on renewables being developed by the state’s three utilities, PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric.
It said the renewables program has contracts that would meet the 33 percent goal by 2020 but cautioned that some contracts could fail to produce their commitments.
The state also is three years into its 10-year California Solar Initiative (CSI) with 79,128 solar projects underway, which it says leads the nation. A joint effort of the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission, the goal is to encourage the installation of 3,000 MW of solar energy systems on homes and businesses by the end of 2016. Another goal is to install 585 million therms of gas-displacing solar hot water systems by the end of 2017.
In the first three years of the CSI’s Go Solar program, the state is 42% of the way towards its general market program goal in the territories of the investor-owned utilities. This figure includes both projects already installed and those currently holding reservations for incentives and in the process of being installed.
California has over 600 MW of solar connected to the electric grid at nearly 65,000 customer sites. Of the 598 MW of capacity installed in investor-owned utility territories, 342 MW were installed under the CSI Program at 31,000 sites, as well as 256 MW installed through other programs.
However, it is not clear from state reports the extent to which such programs can be relied upon to replace nuclear and fossil-fuel energy or whether renewables are seen as sources to meet the growing energy needs of California. A reassessment of the overall purpose and potential would seem to be in order in light of the questions being raised about the wisdom of continuing to rely on nuclear energy.
The state has a Department of Conservation under the Natural Resources Agency, whose new director is John Laird, the Democratic candidate for state Senate from this area in last August’s special election. But its mission is to provide service and information that promote environmental health, economic vitality, informed land-use decisions and sound management of our state’s natural resources. It makes no mention of encouraging or suggesting ways for the public to conserve energy through their own actions and in their own dwellings.
But there are private efforts being made. EcoMall, the website of Ecology America, Inc., advocates reducing your footprint on the planet by purchasing products and services that don’t harm the environment and lists a wide array of products and the businesses that sell them. But it also recommends “20 Things You Can Do To Conserve Energy,” including using energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, “reduce, reuse, recycle” and even “keep track of the environmental voting records of candidates for office. Stay abreast of environmental issues on both local and national levels, and write or call your elected officials to express your concerns about energy efficiency and global warming.”
Another one lists many ways to use less electricity and also warns about “Energy Vampires,” the electrical products that keep using electricity even when turned off.
Whether state legislators are aware of the extent to which conservation as a policy initiative is being ignored by the state is not known. One amateur conservationist, who has his energy bills down to miniscule levels, speculated that conservation practiced by a large number of Californians could put Diablo out of business in no time. Perhaps someone ought to find out if he is right.
Jack McCurdy is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times who now lives in Morro Bay and reports for the Slo Coast Journal.