By ISAAC HERNANDEZ, based on story first published in El Mundo in Spanish under the title “Fiarse del Diablo.”
Energy companies, like good politicians, like to keep us reassured, saying that everything’s just fine and under control. After the catastrophe of Fukushima Dai-ichi, we were told once again that everything’s okay with US nuclear power plants. The US government’s 2012 budget included $36 billion in loan guarantees to energy companies to build new nuclear plants. The Japanese accident may be changing the minds of politicians, though. The US nuclear industry has been quick to explain that their plants are not like those in Japan, but much safer, even though 23 of the 104 reactors on U.S. soil are the same design as those at Fukushima.
In the case of the two nuclear plants built near tectonic faults in California, experts say the plants are designed to withstand earthquakes ten times stronger than those ever possible there. San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are designed to withstand earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 and 7.5, respectively. According to experts, the Cristianitos fault, five miles (8km) away from the San Onofre nuclear power plant, could only muster a 6.9 earthquake on the Richter scale; and San Gregorio-Hosgri fault, 3,700 meters from the Diablo Canyon plant, won’t cause earthquakes of a magnitude greater than 7.4. The Hosgri fault wasn’t “officially” discovered until October 1972 (once the building permit for the second reactor had been approved), even though the seismologists for the oil companies had already found it in February, 1969.
But there’s still a tiny problem. A couple of years ago a new fault, named Shoreline, was discovered 275 meters from the Diablo Canyon plant. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the energy company that built and operates the plant, will invest $17 million in a 3D tectonic study to attempt to predict what would be the worst earthquake that could result from this fault. Without waiting for the results, PG&E was quick to request the renewal of their operating licenses for twenty more years, even though the current permits do not expire until 2024 and 2025. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) almost renewed the licenses, even without the new seismic survey; apparently they didn’t deem them necessary. Is it coincidence that the NRC agrees with PG&E? It must be. It couldn’t be that a utility company would bribe the NRC. Bribery only happens with oil, not with the “peaceful energy.” Some will say I’m wrong; that there was a case of bribery to the president and directors of the Sierra Club, the environmental NGO, who sold their souls to the Diablo. What if it was so? That was long ago, back in 1963.
Do we believe the utility company’s reassurances about the safety of its nuclear power plants? Why not? If they say they’re safe, they must be. Just as we should trust Transocean, the company that operated the BP rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, when they said that 2010 was “the safest year in company history” for the same year of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. It didn’t matter that of the eleven workers killed, nine of them worked for Transocean. That didn’t stop the company from giving $898,282 in bonuses to its top five executives. Following criticism of the press, those good executives “voluntarily” donated 25% of the bonus to a fund established to helping the families of the victims. Those poor executives reduced “their 2010 pay from a respectable $19.6 million to an unthinkable, wage-slaving, poverty-inducing $19.3 million,” according to Colin Barr, a reporter for Fortune magazine. What if eleven lives are lost and millions of barrels of oil are poured into the ocean? Don’t pay attention. If Transocean says it was “the safest year”, then it was. If a “power company” says it, it must be true. That’s why they’re called “power” companies.
According to these standards, PG&E has a very reliable history when it comes to ensuring safety. In fact, they invested $5.8 billion in the construction of the Diablo Canyon plant, instead of the $300 million originally budgeted, to correct the many mistakes made by engineers and contractors. They were so careful that they built the reactors three times. And so what if one of the reactors had its seismic structural supports installed backwards, leaving many parts needlessly reinforced while other necessary supports went missing? Anybody can make a mistake. Don’t worry, the domes were later reinforced to compensate for the error that was never corrected.
It’s true that Diablo Canyon is not Fukushima Da-ichi, and that it has many security systems, including emergency generators powered by diesel, “far” from the sea, and two pools filled with water for emergency cooling. But throughout its history, different things have occurred to dissolve trust. In 1975, for example, up to 13,000 abalone died due to copper waste that was poured into the sea when the plant was first put into operation. Never mind that Southern California’s white abalone is near extinction, with only 1,600 animals left in California and Mexico as of the year 2000. I’m sure it won’t happen again, because PG&E was admonished with a fine of $14 million. I’m sure they’ve learned the lesson, even if they didn’t have to pay the fine (thanks to their lawyers) . May this serve as a warning.
According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, as reported in the Christian Science Monitor, “operators found themselves unable to open the valves that provide emergency cooling water to the reactor core and containment vessel, during a test on October 22, 2009.” Apparently, the problem had been there for a year and a half. In the words of an NRC Special Inspection Team (SIT), “A misguided repair to valves that would not open fast enough prevented other key valves from opening. Tests after the valve repairs failed to detect the problem. The reactor operated for nearly 18 months with vital emergency systems disabled.” The report, which lists 16 near-misses in US nuclear power plants during 2009-2010, explains that the “SIT found that a misguided fix of an earlier problem had caused this even larger problem. When the valves failed to open and close within specified time limits, workers shortened their ‘travel distance.’ The workers didn’t realize that this meant that these valves no longer reached their finish lines. Interlocks prevented other safety valves from opening until the first valves were fully open.” We’re lucky to have the NRC to catch these problems, even if it takes them eighteen months. Since workers could have still opened the valves manually in case of emergency, the NRC rated this violation as “Severity Level IV”, the least serious sanction, but a sanction nevertheless. Thank you, NRC.
The rest of the events of Diablo Canyon are nothing but little sins. According to Mothers for Peace, between 1984 and 1985 there were several arrests of security guards who trafficked cocaine. During the San Simeon earthquake of 2003, with a force 6.5 on the Richter scale, 56 of the 131 emergency sirens distributed in the area didn’t work because the batteries weren’t charged. In October 2008, one of the gates to collect sea water for cooling the reactors stopped operating, clogged by jellyfish. It may have been scary, but thanks to PG&E the problem was fixed without even having to close the plant.
There is nothing to worry about the great amounts of radioactive waste stored there over the last thirty-some years. The two pools that store waste in Diablo Canyon were about to overflow, but the creativity of the engineers, and lawyers, invented a way to get twice the nuclear waste into the same space. It’s true that now, after twenty-six years in operation, the pools are almost full again, but I’m sure PG&E will think of a new solution to continue storing extra waste for decades to come.
Sometimes politicians stand up to energy companies instead of just letting things flow as usual, as in New Orleans, where both Democrats and Republicans defended a continuation of off-shore drilling even after the BP accident. The Republican California State Senator/seismologist Sam Blakeslee and the Democratic US Congresswoman Rep. Lois Capps have called for the new Shoreline fault seismic survey to be completed before approving any new permits. The NRC would have approved the renewal if it wasn’t for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which canceled a meeting scheduled with PG&E to authorize an increase in electricity rates in order to cover the cost of renewing the license. As good capitalists, PG&E wants to pass the cost of renewing the license to the consumer; that’s $85 million. But the CPUC didn’t approve the rate hike, and PG&E has decided to stop the request for an extension, at least for now. Back in 1989 electricity rates did go up, from 8 to 14 cents per kwH to cover the cost of construction of Diablo Canyon (including the $110 million invested in legal fees).
Some might dare to call these rate hikes a nuclear tax, and to suggest, for example, that we could spend this $85 million instead on solar panels. Citing this comparison chart of energy production costs, they’d say that we could produce 16,000 megawatt hours if we used the proposed new rate hike for the construction of a solar tower; this would be eight times more than the 2,200 megawatt hours generated by the two reactors at Diablo. And they might also add that the costs of maintaining a solar power plant are much lower, and that solar panels are less toxic than nuclear waste, and that solar energy doesn’t dump radioactive waste into the sea. Don’t be fooled, though. Nuclear waste may be carcinogenic… but so is the sun.