Nuclear Fallout: El Diablo, Godzilla, and the Greens

ArtVoice 4/7/11

In 1984 I served as a media spokesperson for the Abalone Alliance—a statewide anti-nuclear group in California which coalesced to oppose licensing the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant. Every day I’d repeat essentially the same argument, contextualized by whatever creative protest activities were going on at the moment. The story was simple: We were building a nuclear power plant two and a half miles from the active Hosgri earthquake fault. We had over 1,000 whistleblower allegations about engineering and construction defects—like building a safety system with the blueprints backwards. We talked about the plant being vulnerable to both earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as terrorism, war, incompetence, and mechanical or engineering failures.

This was five years after the near meltdown at Three Mile Island. At the height of resistance, 40,000 people rallied to call for a halt in construction. But by then the project, which had begun decades earlier in 1963, had become an out-of-control juggernaut. All of the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) company executives who had initiated the project were dead and buried, but the insanity continued.

Rolling the Devil’s dice

Diablo Canyon construction costs ballooned from an initial estimate of $188 million to more than $5.5 billion. In the end, this paper value represented over one third of the total asset value of PG&E. The economic reality was, if the plant went on line and started to produce electricity, those costs could be passed on to California’s ratepayers. And if it didn’t, PG&E would likely go bankrupt, upside-down with debt. Since banks and pension funds were heavily invested in PG&E, the utility’s failure would likely create a domino that would crash a good-sized chunk of the finance industry in the Western United States.

So it came down to choosing between certain and immediate financial catastrophe or placing a wager against a much larger environmental, social, and financial disaster. As has almost always been the case since the advent of corporate capitalism, the suits chose to roll the dice, taking their profits while foisting their risk onto the public.

On August 2, 1984, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed the plant. Soon thereafter, PG&E’s public relations spokesperson, who would often pose with her family on her nearby horse farm and tout the plant’s safety, packed up and left the county. The game was on.

The anti-nuclear movement lost the battle at Diablo, but in retrospect we seem to have won the war, at least for a while. The fight at Diablo Canyon, named by the Spanish after a team of early explorers landed there and vanished, was the final blow to the nuclear power industry. After the long, drawn-out battle at Diablo, no American utility company proposed building another nuclear power plant for a generation.

And while the Diablo Canyon plant has had a steady record of mishaps—recently having operated for 18 months without operators knowing that their emergency cooling system was inoperable—the 27-year-old plant has not suffered a catastrophic failure. And California has not suffered a catastrophic earthquake, though they are about a quarter century overdue for one. The dice have been kind to California, at least for the time being.

Risk calculus

The dice were not kind to Japan.

On March 11, we got a stark reminder of the limits of human arrogance, as PG&E put the Diablo Canyon plant under a tsunami alert. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission chimed in, reminding us not to worry as nuclear plants like Diablo are built to withstand tsunamis. In the end, the tsunami that hit California was relatively mild and posed no threat to the Diablo Canyon reactors. Japan wasn’t so lucky. The record-breaking quake off the coast of Japan caused a devastating tsunami that crippled the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors with a one-two punch.

This brings up the complex calculus in nuclear risk assessment. Up until now, our nuclear accidents have been isolated from larger catastrophes—all having been caused by mechanical or human failures, independent of larger contributing factors like hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. The unfolding events in Japan are teaching us how difficult it is to respond to multiple catastrophes at once.

You can’t easily evacuate a region, for example, when the roads are destroyed. Folks in California should take note of this reality since the Diablo Canyon license assumes that highways will be passable, even in the event of an emergency. Yet the sole road to Diablo Canyon runs along the edge of an unprotected tsunami-vulnerable seacoast before turning inland and rising over an earthquake-vulnerable pass. The Japanese tragedy also reminded us that you can’t easily provide backup power to a reactor’s cooling system when the entire regional electrical grid has been destroyed, and emergency response times are slowed when your emergency responders have been killed or displaced.

The damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.

Tokyo Electric’s 911 call

Most of our nuclear catastrophe contingency plans don’t take into account the likelihood of multiple, simultaneous disasters. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the reactors shut down when the earthquake hit, cutting off power to the cooling system. In such an instance, the emergency plan calls for operators to power the cooling system from the electric grid, using electricity generated by other plants. But the earthquake knocked out the grid. Plan B called for using diesel generators to power the cooling system. But the diesel generators were in the basement, where they were flooded by the tsunami. Plan C provided batteries with enough juice to run the cooling system until the plant could be reconnected to the electric grid, or until the grid could be fixed. This, according to the plan, could be completed in four hours, before the batteries ran out. But, as I mentioned earlier, by the time the tsunami and earthquake were done with their mischief, there was no grid.

Did I mention that there was no Plan D, other than, perhaps, to cut and run?

Fukushima Daiichi’s operator, Tokyo Electric, soldiered on for a while, ordering their workers into the hot zone to apply patches to a rapidly deteriorating radioactive quagmire. Eventually Tokyo Electric’s executives did what corporate libertarians always do, and socialized the disaster, essentially dialing 911 and passing much of the mess over to the government. More than three weeks later, as radioactivity from this still unfolding disaster is appearing in rain in Massachusetts and milk in California, Japanese firefighters are literally battling a nuclear meltdown, hosing down the bubbling mess with pumper trucks.

One reason why these plants are licensed to operate despite essentially flying in the dark with no realistic worst-case contingency plans, and no real responsibility in the event they go apocalyptic, is because the nuclear industry in both the US and Japan essentially regulates itself. In Japan, the government and the nuclear industry have been working in partnership for decades, with the government counting on the industry for technical expertise and hence removing itself from any effective watchdog role.

Last week traces of plutonium started appearing in Japanese soil. The government-industry partnership in Japan responded with hopeful lies, arguing that these were “safe” levels of plutonium. The reality is that any measurable amount of this human-made element will give you cancer if you breathe or ingest it.

Nuclear welfare

Nuclear power operators creating problems and then foisting them onto the government to fix when they, as we unfortunately put it, go nuclear, is such a norm globally as to be codified in law. The potential risk from a nuclear accident is so huge as to be commercially uninsurable. In fact, if the nuclear power industry were left to fend for itself in the free market, it would instantly collapse, turning upside-down once risk gets factored into any equation. The risk of catastrophe is so high, and the potential catastrophe so large, that the cost of insurance, assuming hypothetically that it was available, raises the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity off of the charts.

The reason we have a nuclear power industry despite a market-defying toxic risk factor is because pro-nuke lobbyists have secured the largest corporate welfare package in the history of commerce, with the government picking up the entire industry’s insurance tab. This was first done in 1957 with the passage of the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, which Congress and the George W. Bush administration extended in 2005 to last another 20 years. The plan is funded to deal with minor nuclear accidents totaling about $12 billion in damage. Beyond that, the funding follows the Iraq/Afghanistan war model, meaning there is no funding plan in place.

The funding plan for building nuclear power plants now follows a similar model, with taxpayers picking up the risk and guaranteeing construction loans for new nuclear plants. Taxpayers will also pick up the tab for nuclear waste transport accidents, damage from nuclear terrorism, and the eventual cost of a national nuclear waste repository, once some cash-strapped state finally succumbs to taxpayer-financed bribes and acquiesces to hosting it.

Aging nukes

While corporate welfare keeps the nuclear industry afloat, an outbreak of sanity seems to have kept electric utilities from starting construction on any new nuclear power plants since 1974. The result of this de facto construction moratorium has resulted in the aging out of our nuclear infrastructure. Yet, with no new plants coming on line to replace those that have outlived their initial life expectancy, the old plants keep soldiering on, with a compliant Nuclear Regulatory Commission extending their operating licenses well into the plants’ golden years.

Of the 104 nuclear power plants operating in the US, 101 have been in operation for over 20 years. Fifty-three of these plants are more than 30 years old. Seven are more than 40 years old, with the oldest, New York’s Indian Point plant (less than 20 miles upriver from New York City), recently relicensed to operate well past its 60th birthday. A 105th plant, in Tennessee, has been under construction since 1973.

By comparison, think about the last time you saw a 1965 Plymouth Belvedere or a 1973 Ford Maverick barreling down the Thruway.

There’s a reason why engineers gave these plants the life expectancies that they did. Old cars break down, but we can keep towing them to repair shops and fixing them. When a nuclear power plant breaks down, things aren’t so graceful. The Union for Concerned Scientists, an independent watchdog group, recently published a report chronicling mishaps at aging US nuclear plants in 2009-2010, documenting 14 “near-misses” during a one-year period. A number of these breakdowns initiated Rube Goldberg-type chain reactions that would have been comic, at least to engineers, except for their potential to create unspeakable disasters.

Zombie reactors

At a plant in Braidwood, Illinois, an old electrical line shorted, causing the reactor to shut down and a backup system to start pumping water. A valve, however, got stuck in the open position, causing water to overflow onto the floor, eventually finding a hole and leaking down onto an electrical panel, causing another short, which in turn caused two pumps circulating water between a nearby river and a heat exchanger to shut down. This caused a second reactor to shut down, which in turn opened valves to release pressure into the river. But these valves also stuck in the open position after the pressure was released, blowing sheet metal siding off of the containment building. This siding landed on power lines feeding external power to the cooling pumps on the first shut-down reactor. The power lines shorted out, cutting power to two more cooling system pumps and to the valves that allowed them to discharge heated water into the river. Without power, these valves also became stuck open, which allowed brackish river water to get sucked into and contaminate the cooling system. Meanwhile, an old auxiliary pump that kicked in burst a leak, causing more shorts in yet another control panel. This chain continued on for a while longer, opening up the possibility of a meltdown.

A similar chain of old parts failing took place at a reactor in Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, this time complicated by an auxiliary diesel generator that only ran for 15 seconds. At a plant in South Carolina, an old 4,160-volt electric cable shorted out and started a fire, which led to another electrical short, a circuit-breaker failure, more fire, and a potentially catastrophic loss of external power. A Wolf Creek, Kansas plant got hit by lightning, causing the reactor to shut down and the plant to lose its external backup power. This time, the diesel generator worked, powering an auxiliary pump which in turn sent a water pressure spike into the aging plumbing, which blow a hole in an old, rusted pipe.

In short, we’ve been very lucky. The Japanese haven’t been so lucky. That’s the basic difference between our nuclear program and theirs. Of the United States’ 104 nuclear power plants, 24 of them are old General Electric plants, identical to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors at the center of the Japanese nuclear catastrophe. (The FitzPatrick and Nine Mile Point Power stations on Lake Ontario near Oswego, which opened in 1974 and 1969 respectively, are Fukushima Daiichi twins.) Dr. Stephen Hanuaer, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission (the predecessor of the NRC), recommended in 1972 that licenses for these reactors not be renewed due to design flaws. An additional 12 American nuclear power plants have an updated model of the same reactor.

Godzilla

The Godzilla movie franchise, along with its knockoffs, culturally embodies the post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki Japanese unease with nuclear science. The story line is always the same. Radioactivity mutates creatures into monsters, usually coming from the sea, which is central to Japanese history and life. Radiation poisons the sea, and the sea spawns monsters that destroy Tokyo. It is tragically ironic that Fukushima Daiichi is now poisoning, among other things, the sea.

The monster in the Fukushima Daiichi story, however, is not Godzilla, but the always confident executives of “everything will be all right” Tokyo Electric Power. Closer to home, the company without a Plan B is planning on building, with American partners, a Japanese-engineered nuclear power plant in south Texas. Tokyo Electric is still planning on funding up to 20 percent of that project, with the American taxpayers guaranteeing $7 billion in loans, and of course and picking up the insurance tab for the life of the plant, which, if history is any indicator, could be extended indefinitely.

Mothra vs. Prius

Like in the monster movies, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster has awakened another entity—the long dormant, cocooned, anti-nuclear movement. Though I’ve been writing anti-nuclear articles every four years or so since we lost the battle at Diablo Canyon (see Know Nukes, ArtVoice 4/12/07, http://artvoice.com/issues/v6n15/know_nukes), I refrained from writing anything for the first three weeks after the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi began. The human tragedy was and is overwhelming, and I wanted to give it some space, and not seem to be saying “I told you so” while the tragedy was unfolding.

This, however, hasn’t stopped nuclear power propagandists from moving forward with their “it can’t happen here” fantasy—as if anything other than luck has saved us from walking in Japanese shoes this past month. And it hasn’t stopped European and Japanese activists from hitting the streets to protest, wasting no time trying to avert the next nuclear disaster.

If there’s any good news on the nuclear front this month, it’s the upset victory of the avidly anti-nuclear German Green Party over their conservative rivals, in a special election in one of that country’s more conservative provinces. This election has already caused winds of change to blow across Germany, with mainstream politicians from across the political spectrum battling to come up with the most comprehensive plans to decommission that nation’s nuclear power plants. You can win.

Here in the US, we’re already addicted to nuclear power, relying on atom-splitting power plants for almost 20 percent of our electricity. If the public starts to buy electric and plug-in hybrid cars, like the Nissan Leaf, the upcoming new Prius, and the Chevrolet Volt, our electric demand, and hence, the pressure to re-license aging nuclear power plants, will grow. We can’t afford this. While it’s not likely that we’ll be able to pull off a German-style political upset and begin planning to decommission plants any time soon, we can press state governments to regulate electric cars out of existence until we have a clean power grid to support them.

And, on the subject of writing laws: Imagine what would become of the nuclear power industry if regulations mandated that company executives, instead of salaried workers, soldiers, and firefighters, were responsible for cleaning up nuclear accidents? Would Tokyo Electric Company really be planning new power plants around the world if the executives in charge of planning and siting these plants had to man the hoses when they started to melt down?

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.


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