“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 among several fault systems, all having the seismic potential that plant designers thought they had prepared for, but hadn’t.
Mother Nature proved it. No one had predicted the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, 10 times greater than geological estimates. The tsunami exceeded estimates as well.
Could East meet West? Could we in California be looking in the mirror at a Japanese disaster serving as a premonition for what awaits us?
Diablo (Devil’s) Canyon is also built near three fault systems. And like Fukushima, there is a calm before the storm.
But what will happen if a major earthquake hits? Will Mother Nature prevail? Is Diablo, too, a disaster waiting to happen?
And if this is a possibility, can California afford to wait and see, or do nothing, considering that hundreds of miles could be affected, thousands of lives lost, and crops 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. That is why nuclear power must work perfectly. In other words, it must work against the odds of man’s inherent mistakes in the midst of nature’s unbridled power.
At least one partial meltdown in Japan: An update
For nearly 40 years, the public was told there were only minor problems at the Fukushima plant. It was going better than expected, considering that nuclear engineers had resigned from GE because of the Mark I reactor design flaws, the same design used by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TOPEC) in six of the nine reactors on site.
Ken Bridenbaugh, one of the engineers who quit GE, put it this way: “The Fukushima situation is a direct result of Mark I containment (GE). 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 of six of those GE reactors are unstable. Two show fissures in the exterior containment, indicating ruptures.
Authorities did finally admit to a partial meltdown at reactor No. 3, putting workers in a race to prevent a complete meltdown.
Radiation levels are at their highest level since the accident, and are 1,850 times the norm in the ocean water up to 1,000 yards off shore.
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 lost.
And since the plant contained MOX fuel, a fuel source from breeder reactors, much higher in plutonium, pockets of plutonium have been found close to Tokyo, indicating there will be health problems for generations to come, and for miles around the plant.
Nuclear power at Diablo
Just 130 miles from Ventura, along the pristine coastline near San Luis Obispo at Avila Beach, lie two reactors above the cliffs of Devil’s Canyon, an old Indian burial site. It is now PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
In a devil’s tale, the local Indian tribes were the first to put up a fight against the plant, declaring that the spirits of their ancestors were being violated.
Recognizing health, safety and waste issues, environmentalists joined in. In 1976, the Abalone Alliance was created, following the defeat of Proposition 15, which had appealed to the voters for nuclear safety.
In 1976, the Abalone Alliance orchestrated the first civil disobedience at Diablo. 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 percent of those living in San Luis Obispo County were opposed to the licensing of Diablo.
At the end of the 10-day civil disobedience, an engineer discovered a mirror image reversal in the seismic blueprints. PG&E had built 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 the history at Fukushima, there have been only minor problems mentioned at Diablo, with the utility claiming there are no safety or health risks. And thus far, things have gone well, and catastrophes averted — Or have near misses been swept under the rug, just as they were in Japan?
In 2007, a new fault system was discovered, the Shoreline Fault, just a mile off shore from the Diablo plant, making a tsunami a greater possibility.
During the licensing process, PG&E bought up Shell’s geological survey, perhaps to keep the public from knowing about the Hosgri faultline.
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 showed that the Hosgri is connected to the San Andreas fault, and some geologists have estimated the Hosgri is now 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 “seismic accounting,” as the three nearby faults have shattered bedrock around the Diablo facility.
Photographs taken 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, although, four years earlier, the waste had been 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 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 equivalent of 60 Hiroshima bombs.
In a recent report to the L.A. 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, along with $59 billion in property damage.
Alvarez points out that spent-fuel waste is more 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.” 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 $1.2 billion. The state of California could stand to lose most of that $59 billion (property damage) in a catastrophic accident, if the spent fuel catches fire.
And because the fuel is open to air, it is also the target of terrorists. Planes flying along the coast could cause damage to the spent-fuel storage ponds and cause a major disaster.
A history of safety violations
There have been 14 serious safety violations at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant since its licensing.
One such violation is considered by the NRC to have been a “near miss.”
A New York Times investigation revealed that many of the plant’s backup cooling systems, intended to save Diablo Canyon from a nuclear catastrophe in the face of an earthquake, have had safety standards violations.
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 the failure of its engineering staff to notify plant operators of these problems.
Just as the Fukushima reactors had problems with containment vessels, so Diablo Canyon has had past issues with the failure of its backup cooling systems, beginning years ago.
The cost of nuclear power and the practicality of alternatives
In light of all that can go wrong with nuclear power, would it still be worth the risk if it were cost effective?
The only reason that nuclear power is cost-effective, compared to other fossil fuels is that 80 percent of the nuclear industry is financed by the U.S. taxpayer. Because of the dangers, the potential for terrorism and the need for top security, from the uranium ore to the waste that cannot be stored, PG&E has essentially been placed in a nuclear welfare program.
The nuclear waste must be stored for 10,000 years. After a lengthy search for stable ground, Yucca Mountain was chosen as the nation’s permanent waste storage site. Two fault lines have recently been discovered at Yucca, and waste storage there has been scrapped. That is why nuclear reactors must continue to store waste on site or, as Diablo programmer Jearl Strickland 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 task has proven elusive.
Nuclear power plants used to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. (Diablo Canyon was $5.3 billion.)
And future prices have been projected to be $10 billion.
Yet, the life of the plant is only 40 years.
The plant must go through dismantling and encasement, adding another billion dollars to its price tag. And 10 miles of land around the plant must then be rendered permanently uninhabitable once the facility has been encased in concrete.
This is terribly inefficient. Indian lands are forever ruined by the mining of uranium ore. Acres of land must be mined to make just one fuel rod of the 50 to 200 in a reactor’s core. Enrichment of uranium alone requires 25 percent of all the energy that nuclear power produces. And with each step of the fuel cycle, 10-15 percent of the energy can no longer be used for its original task.
With nuclear energy, there aren’t just mining and enrichment, but milling, conversion, fabrication, hazardous transportation to centralized sources, tons of concrete for containment vessels and for containment vessels within containment vessels, backup cooling systems, backup electrical systems, turbines and generators, reprocessing, breeding, encasement, security, not to mention the nuclear waste that must be stored for thousands of years. And all these steps of the fuel cycle require energy, water, land and transportation, and there is the risk of terrorism and contamination each step of the way.
And for what? To boil water and turn it into steam.
Using nuclear power to boil water is like using a jackhammer or chainsaw to pick the food from your teeth. Or, in the words of John Gofman, an opponent of nuclear power, “It’s like using a cannon to kill a fly in the room.” It is an unnecessary, wasteful and dangerous way to create, if not waste, energy.
Grant Marcus has been a registered nurse for 26 years. He was co-founder of the Abalone Alliance, a group that opposed the licensing of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, and was a spokesperson for the Abalone Alliance From 1973-1986. He was arrested at Diablo Canyon several times, protesting the use of nuclear power near a faultline. This piece has been reprinted in other local media.