Consider the risks of operating an old nuclear power plant in SLO County

August 15, 2022

OPINION by TERRY LAMPHIER

Our national government and several prominent figures have recently declared support for extending the operating license of Diablo Canyon in Avila Beach, and other aging nuclear power plants. Because of the grave threats posed by climate change, it may make sense to buy time to wean ourselves off fossil fuels by extending existing nuclear plant operations and possibly even building new ones with current ‘state-of-art’ technology.

Before that determination can be made, however, there are hard questions that need answers, especially as a bad accident could have dramatically severe and multi-generational consequences. For California, a major Diablo failure could have catastrophic effects on the Central Valley’s “bread basket to the world” agriculture. Nearby densely populated areas would be at risk of becoming permanent habitat “exclusion zones.”

How high is the risk? Most plants were engineered and licensed for an assumed life of 20 years. When plants approached the end of their operating licenses, policymakers revisited that standard and agreed to extend most plants’ lives for another 20 years, arguing that engineers “over-engineered” designs.

Up until the first license extension, nuclear accidents were fairly common and regularly reported in the press. Several were very serious, contaminating workers, nearby residents, farmlands, fisheries and even a city (now abandoned).

There are at least five melted nuclear power cores worldwide that are still radioactive and can’t be cleaned up, only contained (Fukushima was a planning failure, not a component failure). Other plants have come within hours of meltdown and are still operating. Associated industries, such as nuclear fuel processing plants and waste storage facilities have also exposed workers and the general public to unintended radiation releases.

Since the last extension, public reporting of accidents has largely disappeared. It may be because new practices and upgrades have made metal fatigue and corrosion a thing of the past or, more likely, problem-reporting protocols were changed (in the United States, regulators are appointed by the president, thus subject to political influence).

It strains credibility to believe there have been no more accidents at any of the 70 plus plants nationwide or the hundreds of others around the world. At the least, the public is owed an explanation.

Have all operational and maintenance bugs been eliminated since a mid-west plant came within hours of a severe containment breach several years ago? California closed its other two other reactors, Rancho Seco, near Sacramento, and San Onofre, near San Diego, due to major safety concerns. Diablo’s two reactors are of the same design – the second was built using ‘mirror image’ blueprints that required contractors to recopy information by hand – and both are located near two earthquake faults, one of which was discovered years after the plants started operations.

Extensions to the extensions should face strong, professional scrutiny, with decisions based on science, not politics, and each plant should be evaluated independently and rigorously. Extensions should also address recent requirements to have closed water-cooling systems – this includes Diablo – intended to mitigate environmental impacts. The advisability of relying on centralized energy facilities needs consideration, as Ukraine’s war-threatened nuclear plants have illustrated.

A transparent analysis of past safety issues and a professional and rigorous evaluation of Diablo and other’s current mechanical status must be a basic – critical – requirement before making a decision that could have multi-generational consequences.

It is essential that policymakers make informed decisions based on rigorous independent analysis, lest we buy a decade of “clean energy” at the cost of centuries of regret.

Terry Lamphier was among the 1800 plus arrests for protesting the original licensing of Diablo Canyon, later joining three volunteer attorneys and 11 other defendants in representing over 500 arrestees to protest the charges. After two years of preparation and two weeks of testimony by defendants and expert witnesses covering design, safety, security and other issues, the judge ruled in favor of defendants and the state dropped all charges.


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Adam Trask

With all due respect, Mr. Lamphier, and I was also on the front lines protesting Diablo in the late 70’s and early 80’s, your argument is quite weak. With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and actions taken by the Newsom administration, Diablo WILL receive the over $4 billion that PG&E has calculated it will need to be repurposed. This retrofitting should begin later this year. With this tune-up, so to speak, Diablo will no longer be old technology. Officials deem the plant as essential in helping the state achieve its zero-emissions goals.


The real problem, as I have stated ad nauseam, is that the plant lies under one of the most potentially destructive earthquake faults in the world. The Shoreline fault, part of the San Andreas, lies directly under Diablo. Why, in the name of god, we would have built a nuclear power plant in this place obviously defies logic. Of course, in 2012, the NRC said we should not mind the Shoreline fault. Diablo could withstand it. I’m not so sure.


https://www.reuters.com/article/us-utilities-nuclear-pge/nrc-report-says-diablo-canyon-able-to-withstand-shoreline-fault-idUSBRE89B1CU20121012


The Shoreline fault could cause a quake of as much as 6.5 magnitude. If that happens, I fear the worst.


The Japanese government, in its approval of the Fukushima-Daichi power plant were also informed that an earthquake fault lie near the plant and there were no worries. We all know how that turned out. The Japanese government is set to dump millions of gallons of nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean in the coming months. Fish and Chips, anyone?


Scientists believe that major earthquakes in California have been relatively dormant since 1918 and that the next century could be quite different. Do we really want the risk?


https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/californias-major-faults-took-100-year-break-180971898/


Oh well, happy outage to my SLO county neighbors.


kevin rise

Aside from it being old with only a small life.span, SLO county benefits zilch outside of the initial front door Cuesta College, the energy goes to LA and elsewhere, almost 100 percent, at least I learned at Cuesta, and many other facts about Diablo I learned at the school that it funded. There are isotopes from Diablo canyon in babies teeth locally, a d cancer rates associated with such increased after the plant opened. Plants can discharge amounts of radiation legally. Hm


nunsense

you get much more radiation from just going outside, flying and going to the dentist for x-rays than you get from Diablo.

as far as lifespan, many plants have licenses to go at least 60 years now.


GreatGuy

The nuclear plant at Diablo Canyon is outmoded technology. Contemporary design nuclear power plants generate considerably less toxic radio active waste. That is significant, considering that nuclear waste needs to be monitored and stored at serious annual cost for at least 10,000 years. There are currently millions of pounds of radioactive waste being stored in temporary facilities at Diablo Canyon. Nobody really knows what the heck is going to be done with it. It is so incredibly expensive to deal with.

Is also troubling that Diablo canyons ocean water cooling system sits below sea level and is vulnerable to tsunamis.

It is also foreseeable that there will be an earthquake that exceeds the magnitude that Diablo Canon is designed to withstand

There are literally billions of dollars of federal money currently earmarked for the decommissioning of nuclear power plants such as Diablo Canyon. Decommissioning will bring a lot of money and jobs to the community. Let’s do it right


LeroyMoo

The author has spent the last 40 years fearing something, when she clearly doesn’t understand the difference between Boiling Water Reactors that have been shutdown and the DCPP and San Onofre Pressurized Water Reactor. Humboldt was a natural circulation BWR and Rancho Seco with forced cooling BWR were decommissioned. Just like Chernobyl those BWR had more risk with only two water systems, no steam generators and the reactor tubes creating possible steam void boiling. Diablo and San Onofre are PWR’s with three coolant systems. PWR operation requires nucleate boiling under higher pressure in the primary coolant loop. Operators at Three Mile Island weren’t aware of the steam generator swelling phenomenon that distorted the steam generator level indicators and acted incorrectly to uncover the core. Nuke plant operators were trained and new instrumentation systems like RVLIS were installed as an intervention.


Fear mongering of the unknown is xenophobia. Per HealthLine: ” If you’re prone to worrying about the unknown, you may have developed a habit of catastrophizing, or imagining worst-case scenarios. Catastrophizing is known as a cognitive distortion. This is a way of thinking that creates an inaccurate view of reality.”


Here’s how all this affects the Los Padres electric transmission system. A still licensed DCPP will always be the #1 priority in the state to restore power after a total system blackout. That coupled with the needed reliable base load, political and safety concerns means PG&E spends more money on maintaining their Los Padres Area substations and transmission lines than counties with similar populations. Essentially, a utility will spend more capital improvement and more maintenance dollars on the electric system supporting and connected to a nuke. So, what happens when DCPP shutdown for good? PG&E prioritizes capital money to the next loudest squeaky wheel outside our area giving hardly a thought to the central coast’s evening peak residential load curve. Quite frankly we deserve that for not finding a reason to keep Morro Bay Powerplant Units 3 & 4 going for summer A/C loads and allowing bureaucrats to demonize once-through cooling. If you think the same priority for electric system $ improvements is given to Monterey County versus Santa Clara County or Alameda County your are delusional.


Robert1

When one radio station commercial comes on the air and says don’t use your electricity, cut your usage, and the next commercial says, buy a electric car, save the plant.


Diablo needs to stay open until the actual usage of the plant becomes unusable, don’t shut it down because of political whims.


ddc1983

While the author of this article certainly has well-developed writing background, there is a clear lack of technical knowledge and regulatory background here. “Public reporting of accidents has largely disappeared.” Public reporting of accidents has disappeared because the entire industry shares operating experience so that operating plants don’t repeat any of the same known issues as others. (This is similar to the airline industry, which also has far fewer incidents now than ever before.) At the same time, by regulatory requirements (which are well-established and based on technical areas encountered across the entire industry, and NOT subject to the whims of political pressures), ANY issue or problem that a plant encounters that MAY affect the health and safety of the public IS required to be reported to the NRC.

As to the snide comment about corrosion and fatigue being a “thing of the past”, a few courses in chemistry and mechanical engineering would tell you how to minimize corrosion in various environments with various materials and coatings, and how fatigue life is evaluated by material and loading conditions, but I don’t think the author has the technical background to understand any of that (because otherwise, those two “examples” wouldn’t have been mentioned at all).

There are literally hundreds of other people in this community who could also chime in with dozens of technical facts to “fact check” this article, but fortunately there doesn’t seem to be any need for that. My point is that this article was written largely due to a “vocational objection” to Diablo Canyon, rather than an “intellectual objection.”

My source: 2 master’s degrees, and as a former Diablo Canyon employee (10 years experience; moved to another industry because the plant was not going to relicense).


aye-caramba

As long as the Diablo Canyon engineers, staff and professionals who live here are involved, I am confident the safety issues will be constantly on their minds. Sure , the age of the facility is a factor, but ultimately the nuclear plant has been a significant “positive” for SLO County. The “anti” folks will NEVER see that, it’s a “belief system” for them. SLO County will be worse off without the plant.


justadad

Dear Terrible, Diablo Canyon provided the power to post your message and mine. Thanks for supporting them!! Now unplug everything and enjoy the darkness. Nuclear is some of the safest power we generate and provides a large portion of power to all of California. Next you’ll want to stop our Hydro power to save more frogs and fish. No thanks, Terrible.


unusualsuspect

The point is that Diablo was not designed to be used continuously for so long. It’s past it useful lifespan and dangerous to continue running further.


ddc1983

What components at Diablo Canyon are past their useful lifespan, and by what metrics? Is it the steam generators? Or maybe the residual heat removal pumps? Perhaps the fuel handling building ventilation fans? Or the left phalange?


unusualsuspect

Likely many of the components you listed and more. Some of this is attributed to design, construction, or materials etc. A vehicle with 250,000 miles from 2002 would not be considered safe, reliable, or worth maintaining/repairing to most people. Same thing with the power plant, but on a much grander, more dangerous to the entire population, kind of way.


wordstoliveby

For most inept vehicle owners yes. In our fleet we have some diesels that have 270k , 320k, 380k and 465k miles – all pass emissions tests and drive well. You know why? Correct maintenance –

I imagine Diablo has similar regimen


Messkit

It would be significantly less expensive to exchange the reactors, and remodel/modernize the cooling and pumping system, and once again upgrade the operation system.


The facility is in place, so there is no need to build that again. Security is already in place, no need to hire more. The logistics have been in operation since the early 70’s, so no need to create a new supply/logistics chain.


unusualsuspect

Let’s say all that is true; California’s energy regulations give renewable energy, priority over nuclear, so the plant would likely only run half-time, making it uneconomical. So, what is the solution here? Push the costs onto the public? Isn’t that a big part of the reason the “renewable energy” push came around? To prevent the rising costs of energy? We’re going in circles…