Nuclear Reactors on Earthquake Faults? Even Faust Would Know Better
by Bing Gong, with Megan Matson
Faust made a deal with the devil to exchange his soul for unlimited knowledge and power – from an old German legend.
On April 14, we traveled to Sacramento for a 4-hour hearing on nuclear power plant safety in California. In light of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, State Senator Alex Padilla, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications, convened the hearing to assess the safety of California’s coastal nuclear power plants and spent fuel rod storage facilities. The Fukushima nuclear plant was designed to withstand a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and a 20-foot tsunami. The 9.0 earthquake and 47-foot tsunami that hit Fukushima were well beyond these expectations. The two reactors at Diablo Canyon are designed to withstand a 7.5 earthquake, and San Onofre’s two reactors are designed to withstand a 7.0 earthquake. In particular, there is a fault called the Shoreline that was just discovered recently, within a few hundred yards of Diablo. No one yet knows how this new fault might interact with the other two faults.
We first heard a prepared statement from a representative of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), that seemed to focus entirely on the development of additional reports, the review of guidelines and checklists, and the ever ongoing postponement of any action until such time as additional information becomes available. The tenor of the exchanges was really captured when Senator Padilla asked “When a seismic incident occurs, what is the plan for containment of damages?”
The NRC representative replied “Well, after the event we would review all processes to see where–”
Padilla cut in, “After a seismic event? Wouldn’t that be too late?”
State Senator Sam Blakeslee, whose district includes the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor, also challenged NRC’s oversight, and restated his demand that adequate peer-reviewed seismic studies be done before PG&E’s Diablo Canyon license renewal is considered. Senator Blakeslee is also working in DC with Senator Boxer on a review of the NRC’s adequacy. He commented in frustration to the NRC representative, that he “was hearing the same doublespeak from your boss in DC.”
We also heard from an expert geologist from UC Davis about the existing science and historic records on earthquakes faults and tsunamis. He concluded that Californians can expect a future earthquake/tsunami event as large as the recent Japan event, possibly in our lifetime, and closed with a quotation from Will Durant – “Civilization exists by geologic consent – subject to change without notice.”
It was heartening to hear one panel detail the process of decommissioning nuclear power plants and the replacement of that power. A representative from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) described how Rancho Seco was shutdown after a public vote in 1989, and outlined a basic roadmap for “incremental decommissioning” that other plant closings could follow.
The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) also presented at the hearing. The CPUC is the state agency that holds the purse strings where nuclear relicensing and decommissioning are concerned. The CPUC presentation included the interesting news that there is more than enough money in PG&Es Decommissioning Trust Fund to cover the estimated costs of decommissioning Diablo Canyon, with hundreds of millions remaining. Megan Matson asked in her comments that the nuclear reactors on earthquake faults be suspended, reviewed, and replaced with other, less lethal forms of electricity. She cited in her comments another PG&E document submitted to the CPUC showing an average annual surplus power capacity at PG&E of 12,000 megawatts through 2020. That’s enough power to replace the 2200 megawatts of Diablo’s reactors four times over, immediately.
[Graph courtesy of Womens Energy Matters. Scroll down for a chart of energy projections. ]
The hearing concluded with community concerns over nuclear safety. Rochelle Becker, Executive Director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, pointed out that there are already $23.6 billion in liability claims against Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of the Fukushima plant. In any U.S. nuclear disaster, claims over $12.6 billion would be paid by the federal government, so that the nuclear plant operator would be bailed out by us, the taxpayers.
The line heard so many times from pro-nuclear speakers is “Lessons learned, lessons learned,” like Fukushima is just a hands-on learning opportunity and blessing that will make us even better and smarter at this. But Faust wouldn’t even bargain the devil for nuclear power, because it’s such a dumb deal. Taxpayers are left holding the bag for the spent fuel waste, insurance liability, and financing subsidies because no bank will touch it, and as you can see in Japan already, for the bailout of the utility. Meanwhile, Dr. Helen Caldicott says that it’s not until their 18th year in operation that a nuclear power plant generates a carbon-free electron, such is the heavy carbon lifecycles of those plants.
Germany will drop nuclear power as soon as possible, Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week. California should suspend, review & replace Diablo Canyon and San Onofre immediately too, developing nuclear-free renewable projects and efficiency here at home.
Listen to KWMR Post Carbon Radio on Monday, April 25 at 1 pm for a discussion of the Sacramento hearing on nuclear safety with Megan Matson, Bing Gong, Bernie Stephan, and Rochelle Becker.
[Chart courtesy of Womens Energy Matters. ]