Are we evaluating the risk from failure of our nuclear power stations?

We supply below copy of an article from the SLO Journal, California, USA, where environmentalists are asking the question — what happens if Japan is repeated here? MARINET asks, are we similarly evaluating the true nature of the impact of a serious failure, for whatever reason, of our nuclear power stations in the UK?

SLO’s Godzilla: Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant

by Carol Georgi and Karl Kempton, former Energy Planner for San Luis Obispo County and Lead Author of “Proposed Central Coast National Marine Sanctuary, 1990”

  • Scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024/2025 (two 40 year old reactors)
  • PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric Company) is applying to add 20 more years of operation, until 2045. (will be 60 years old)
  • Radioactive nuclear waste is increasing and being stored onsite until 2105, but with no alternative storage site, forever?


Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Japan and the victims of this tremendous ongoing tragedy as we write. This nuclear accident is the second tragedy affecting marine habitat with implications for our local rich, diverse and dense marine habitat and life forms with national and international significance we have witnessed during the last few months. The first tragedy was the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, a grim demonstration of what is possible off our shores.

The nuclear disaster in Japan also demonstrates what the release of radioactive materials into our land and offshore waters would entail. Nuclear power advocates are flooding the media and internet with dubious messages designed to placate growing public and scientific concern.

PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant (DCNPP) is mankind’s attempt to assume that engineering can eliminate any possibility of a seismically induced accident. However, improbable is not impossible, as earthquakes are unpredictable. “Now, as Japan struggles to contain four out-of-control reactors, all of us — whatever our views of nuclear energy — must focus not on assurances that it can’t happen here, but rather on ensuring it never does,” Joel R. Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Southern California program of the Natural Resources Defence Council.

From the beginning, (designed in the 1960’s and built from the seventies through the early 1980’s), local residents and concerned scientists have opposed and questioned DCNPP for four main reasons:

  1. Risk benefit analysis and economic costs to the public, the state and the national economy
  2. Storage of deadly radioactive spent fuel on-site
  3. California’s unpredictable seismic faults could cause dangerous earthquakes
  4. Once through cooling is problematic to operational shut-downs, destroys at least 1.7 billion fish larvae each year, and is vulnerable to tsunamis

Risk Benefit Analysis and Economic Costs to the Public and to the State and the National Economy

What would happen if a massive earthquake hit a California nuclear power plant? Estimates are that California represents 13% of the US GDP, 12% of the population, and ranks eighth in global economies. Therefore, losing California’s productivity due to a nuclear accident would be catastrophic to both California and the entire United States of America.

Nuclear power plants are built within an economic philosophical framework called risk benefit analysis. Do the benefits of an economic endeavour outweigh the real and potential risks? The bottom line is that for San Luis Obispo (SLO) County residents, we are the at risk. For PG&E, profits are the benefits. The tragic problem with PG&E’s bottom line is that it’s fractured with known and hidden faults upon which the other risks of nuclear power sit.

The real experts for risk benefit analysis can be found in the insurance business sector of the economy. Our political and economic system has designed within it a variety of checks and balances to avoid undue risk and maintain a balance of power. After careful study, the insurance companies, when approached to insure nuclear power plants, refused. For them, the risks were too overwhelming. How did the nuclear industry do an end run around this check? They got the government to insure them (the Price-Anderson Act of 1957). The Encyclopaedia of Earth states, “opponents argue that the Act represents a massive taxpayer subsidy of the nuclear industry that substantially reduces the cost of doing business. Some opponents claim that without the cap on liability damages, the industry could not survive.”

Had PG&E proved during the licensing and hearings process a willingness for transparency, being openly forthcoming, honest, and non-bullying, many a PG&E critic would not be looking askance at the avalanche of safety and not-to-worry hubris filling local and national newsprint and air waves as the Japanese tragedy unfolds.

Some could give PG&E credit for naming the plant after the devil, Diablo Nuclear Power Plant, as unintended truth in advertising. Some believe the devil comes in many disguises, bearing gifts to the gullible. In this county, the gifts have come in the form of a huge property tax windfall for government and for a large number of groups, associations and non-profit organizations, as generous donations and grants. This has bought many open — and unfortunately — hidden friends and a loud painful silence.

Let us examine some of the risks PG&E is willing to take, since they have no real liability.

  1. A radioactive release large enough to radiate a 12-mile radius would close down the major north-south coastal transportation corridor for the entire state and cause considerable damage to our county population and ocean life.
  2. A radioactive release large enough to radiate a 50-mile radius would threaten National Security by making Vandenberg Air Force Base useless. That also means no West Coast space launch site.
  3. Radiation would contaminate vast areas of major agriculture production including perhaps California Central Valley agriculture lands. This would also perhaps shut down the other main north-south transportation corridor.
  4. Then there is the huge population who survived the earthquake damage at risk and faced with death, slow death and injury from radiation.

This potential destruction is as if PG&E has been playing a card game while being pals with the card dealer (NRC) and the gambling house (Nuclear Industry). However, PG&E has not been playing with their money, but with the money belonging to all others at the table (ratepayers). PG&E was given an operating permit to get away with a bet on our lives and livelihood and on the economy of the county, state and, nation and national security (Vandenburg Air Force Base, aka Space Port West Coast). All these risks have been for PG&E’s profits.

What About the Payments the California Ratepayers Continue to Pay?

Extending DCNPP’s operating license would likely open ratepayers up to footing even more than the $5.5 billion bill for the plant thus far, commented Steven Weissman, a former administrative law judge at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and current law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, as reported in the Scientific American magazine.

Furthermore, as reported in the same article, California’s only power to influence the federal re-licensing process lies in its ability to protect customers from high electricity rates. PG&E’s request to pass on about $85 million of seismic studies and other re-licensing costs to the ratepayers could provide an outlet for the California Public Utilities Commission to withdraw the plant’s certificate of public convenience and necessity.

Storage of Deadly Radioactive Spent Fuel On-site

Concern: Safety of Indefinite Storage of Nuclear Waste On-site

The DCNPP, owned and operated by PG&E, consists of two reactor units, and each unit has its own spent fuel storage pool. The Diablo Canyon Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI) provides additional spent fuel storage capacity when the storage capacity of the spent fuel pools is reached. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has stated that nuclear power plants may store spent fuel on-site for 60 years after cessation of operations.

DCNPP plans to put the spent fuel from the pools into dry storage casks. However, with a 20-year extension to PG&E’s operating license, the pools will then be used to store the next 20-year supply of spent nuclear fuel. The U.S. has no permanent storage solution for the waste, which takes about 250,000 years to lose it’s harmful radiation potency. Therefore, San Luis Obispo County now has a radioactive storage site at DCNPP, one that was never planned, permitted, nor agreed to by the community or the state of California.

Janet Zimmerman’s article, “Japan Crisis Renews U.S. Nuclear Fuel Storage Debate,” in the Press-Enterprise is an analysis of the problems with the U.S. storage of radioactive nuclear spent fuel.

Zimmerman states, “At U.S. nuclear plants, spent fuel rods are cycled out of reactors every 18 months or so and placed in deep pools of circulating water to cool. The process takes seven years or more. As the pools reach capacity, the rods are moved to dry-cask storage on site, since there is no national repository.” Nuclear power plants have to rack and stack their used nuclear fuel and build another facility to maintain and guard. Therefore, U.S. communities with nuclear power plants now have to also endure radioactive nuclear waste storage sites.

Zimmerman further reports that in a 2008 speech to the nuclear trade industry, Nuclear Regulatory Commission head Gregory Jaczko said it is safer to store spent fuel in the dry containers than in the wet pools. He recommended requiring plants to transfer spent fuel to dry casks rather than letting it accumulate in the pools.

A large radiation release from a wet pool fire could result in thousands of cancer deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars in decontamination costs and economic damage, according to a 2004 study published in the journal Science and Global Security. (Storing Radioactive Fuel)



Newsweek reported a study that showed,” an attack on a dry cask storage area would result in a much smaller release of radioactivity and much less severe damage.” In one important respect, the threat in the U.S. might be even greater than what befell Japan. The U.S. has failed to establish a permanent nuclear-waste depository, the NRC allows plant operators to move from “open rack” configurations — which cool the rods most effectively — to a “dense pack” design that eventually fills pools “almost wall to wall,” argues Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies, a former Department of Energy official.

Source: San Luis Obispo Journal, Issue 22, April 2011

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