Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Was Fukushima Not Enough Of A Warning For America's Ruling Elite? Does It Have to Happen Here?


Saturday there was a rally on the Avila Beach pier in San Luis Obispo to protest the license renewal for PG&E's ancient Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. PG&E is asking to renew the troubled facility until 2045 right in the middle of seismic studies to learn more about two earthquake faults found offshore of the plant. More than a few Californians feel Diablo Canyon and San Onofre are disasters waiting to happen. If what happened at Fukushima happened in California the consequences could be hundreds of times more catastrophic, with millions of people affected.
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,” [local radio talk show host Dave] 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.

A few days ago I heard a California legislator-- I think Fiona Ma (D-SF)-- on the radio talking about how earthquake faults are not taken into consideration when license renewals are granted, although NRC regulations require companies that build nuclear plants to take into account local seismic history and fortify the plants against the largest quake that is likely to occur. Yesterday's USAToday ran a feature by Steve Sternberg warning that 5 nuclear reactors are in earthquake zones, the two in California plus the South Texas Project near the Gulf Coast; the Waterford Steam Electric Station in Louisiana; and the Brunswick Steam Electric Plant in North Carolina.
San Onofre, for instance, is built to withstand a magnitude-7.0 earthquake within 5 miles of the site, he said. In addition, the plant is 30 feet above sea level and has a reinforced concrete sea wall that is 30 feet tall and could withstand a 27-foot tsunami.

Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant suffered major damage from a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and 46-foot tsunami that hit March 11. The disaster triggered nuclear radiation leaks and an extensive evacuation in the region around the plant, which was built to withstand a 19-foot tsunami.

After installing solar panels on my roof, I now generate more electricity than I consume. My electric bill went from $1,000 a month to zero. I can't understand why builders aren't required to put in solar generating capacity on every new building in California. The 104 American nuclear plants produce around 20% of the nation's energy. That should all be replaced with solar energy. Stephanie Cooke, author of In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, 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.

The real question is whether or not there is the political will to make a sea change in the nation's energy policy. Obama understands it and has made some significant movements in that direction. The Republican Party has politicized it as an issue and made it next to impossible for a weak president like Obama to proceed. I guess if something like Fukushima happens in America, Republicans can blame Obama and the necessary sea change will happen-- on the graves of God-knows-how-many Americans. Germany has a much less dysfunctional response-- even if the Conservatives had to suffer a post-Fukushima electoral catastrophe in Baden-Württemberg first.
Germany’s utility companies want “swift and complete” abolishment of nuclear power in the wake of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima reactors, says their umbrella organization.

The technology should be phased out by 2020 or at the latest by 2023, the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, BDEW, said Friday following a board meeting.

Up until today the organization had been fully behind nuclear energy, but the events in Japan caused the dramatic U-turn.

The group called on the government to set everything in motion to speed up the transition toward a stable, ecologically responsible and affordable energy mix without nuclear energy.

“The catastrophe at the Fukushima reactors marks a new era and the BDEW therefore calls for a swift and complete exit from using nuclear power,” the group said in a statement... Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, stands alone among the world’s leading industrialized nations in its determination to overcome nuclear power.

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