CounterPunch, February 12, 2016
by James Heddle
Sunset for Nuclear Power?
Does the dream of nuclear power still ‘look bright’ as one enthusiastic investment advisor gushed less than a year ago, or is it the “the dream that failed,” as the Economist asserted as far back as March of 2012?
Approaching 5 years this March 11 after the still on-going Fukushima nuclear disaster, the debate goes on, enveloped in a miasma of mis-, dis-, and conflicting information generated by industry ‘merchants of doubt,’ but rarely leavened by rational analysis of What’s Really What.
The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015 by Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt et al went a long way toward settling the issue with just that – a data-based rational analysis.
Its conclusion: worldwide, despite a few troubled construction starts over budget and behind schedule, “The nuclear industry remains in decline.”
You’d never know it from the pro-nuclear happytalk and proposed subsidy and bailout bills being floated in Congress, but all around the world the global nuclear power industry is fighting for its life.
Nuclear Showdown in California
Nowhere is that battle closer to being decisively lost by the industry than in California, where the Sunshine State’s ‘last nuke standing’ – PG&E’s Diablo Canyon – faces a very uncertain future. A showdown between those who want to shut it down, and those who want to keep it going. It is a microcosmic drama with all the elements of a movie thriller:
A corrupt California Public Utilities Commission racked in scandals. A compromised Nuclear Regulatory Commission captured by nuclear interests. A resurgent peoples’ movement determined to shut Diablo down and responsibly manage the state’s thousands of tons of lethal radioactive waste. The growing vision of a nuclear-energy-free West Coast and a solartopian transition. A handful of atomic denialists clamoring to ‘save Diablo.’ All this in the context of deepening climate change and the battle for decentralized, clean, renewable power.
A Diablo shutdown in California would be a shot heard in nuclear boardrooms around the world, and would continue this bellwether state’s well-earned reputation as being ‘no country for old nukes.’
A quick look at the history of California’s Nuclear Free Movement tells the tale.
Back last century, then-President Nixon predicted 1000 nuclear reactors in the US by the year 2000.
In the 60’s, PG&E announced plans to build 63 reactors every 25 miles up and down the California coast.
Thanks to informed popular resistance interventions in the courts, in the legislatures, and in the streets, that didn’t happen.
Only 9 of those planned power reactors ever got built: 1 at Humboldt Bay, 1 at Pleasanton, 2 at Rancho Secco, 3 at San Onofre, and 2 at Diablo Canyon.
Today, only 2 are still in operation, those at Diablo Canyon.
From a planned 63 nuclear power plants in the 1960’s, down to 1 in 2015.
Not a bad track record for the effectiveness of informed non-violent, popular resistance…and a demonstration of the non-viability of nuclear energy – vulnerable as it is to public opposition, industry incompetence, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and what renowned energy expert Amory Lovins long ago called ‘a terminal overdose of market forces.’
The shutdown of San Onofre in 2012 was hailed as ‘a seismic event’ for the nuclear industry.
The man who said that was in a position to know whereof he spoke, because he had once been an executive in that very industry AND had played an important part as a consultant to
Friends of the Earth in helping to get San Onofre shut down.
That would be Arnie Gundersen. His partner Maggie Gundersen , founded and is president of Fairewinds Energy Education, for which Arnie serves as Chief Nuclear Engineer. http://www.fairewinds.org/
The Fairewinds organization has emerged as a major player in informing the public about the risks of nuclear power and the real potential of what lifelong No Nukes campaigner Harvey
Wasserman calls a solartopian transition to a renewable energy economy.
Since the San Onofre shutdown, and with a renewed sense of risk triggered by being on the frontline of Fukushima fallout, a resurgent Nuclear Free California movement has turned its attention to Diablo Canyon. There, two aging, embrittled reactors sited over 13 (count em) intersecting earthquake faults, in a seismically active state, in a tsunami zone (just like Fukushima), are being operated by a company under state investigation and federal indictment for safety negligence.
Back in 1981, history’s most massive non-violent blockade to that date, with thousands participating, occurred at Diablo in a valiant-but-futile attempt to prevent the plant’s start-up.
Today, the operating licenses for the plant’s two remaining reactors are set to expire in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Now, with its age, precarious location, serious environmental impacts, massive killing of marine life, public safety risks, PG&E negligence, seismic and tsunami vulnerabilities, public safety risks, management incompetence, lax regulatory oversight, economic viability and energy contribution all being called into question, pressure is building for shutdown of the plant’s two remaining reactors.
2015 began with a regional conference organized by a statewide coalition and hosted by Mothers for Peace in the plant’s home county, San Luis Obispo, aimed at mobilizing public awareness and local, regional and national pressure for closure.
Gundersens and Wasserman both closed the year with well-attended speaking tours designed to encourage informed opposition to the plant’s continued operation.
PG&E officials themselves are on record as being unsure whether or not the beleaguered utility – ‘with a lot on its plate right now’ – will seek extension of the licenses.
California’s Lt. Governor, Gavin Newsom – a former San Francisco mayor who chairs the state’s Land Commission, and is already running for Governor in 2018 – recently opined that “I just don’t see that this plant is going to survive beyond 2024, 2025. I just don’t see that… And there is a compelling argument as to why it shouldn’t.”
Nuclear Denialists Panic
That may be why, in what looks like the plant’s eleventh hour, self-styled ‘environmentalist’ and hyper-technophile Michael Shallenberger has founded the SaveDiabloCoallition and launched a campaign claiming that (not even a Colbert could make this up) a Diablo shutdown would lead to an ‘environmental disaster.’
Charging that public fears of nuclear risks – based on incontrovertible evidence and undeniable past experience – are ‘overblown’ and ‘irrational,’ Shallenberger, with surprising media attention, has become a new mouthpiece for the view that, because of its ‘low’ carbon emissions, nuclear power is a ‘clean’ source of energy and therefore a major solution to climate change.
That was a view promoted at the recent CoP21 Paris climate talks by such luminaries as James Hansen. With no great result it turns out. The Ecologist reports:
The nuclear power industry’s malaise was all too evident at the COP21 UN climate change conference in Paris in December. Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd noted:
“It was entirely predictable that the nuclear industry achieved precisely nothing at the recent Paris COP21 talks and in the subsequent international agreement. …
“Analysis of the submissions of the 196 governments that signed up to the Paris agreement, demonstrating their own individual schemes on how to reduce national carbon emissions, show that nearly all of them exclude nuclear power.
“The future is likely to repeat the experience of 2015 when 10 new reactors came into operation worldwide but 8 shut down. So as things stand, the industry is essentially running to stand still.”
Comparisons are Odious…and Misleading
The contention that nuclear energy is ‘carbon free’ is a piece of disinformation. Yes, relative to those of coal, oil, and gas, the total carbon emissions from the nuclear fuel chain is lowER.
But, by no stretch of the data, are they zero.
When you add together all the fossil fuel-dependent earth-moving machines, transportation, milling and processing operations, security and grappling with transporting and storing tons of radioactive waste lethal for thousands of years, it becomes clear how big the actual carbon footprint of the nuclear energy industry really is.
But, not only does the nuclear fuel chain emit carbon at every stage, it also emits DNA and public health destroying radioactive pollution.
Every day, ‘routine emissions’ from every nuclear reactor in the world contaminate the surrounding environment and population with radiological pollution. It’s all about our genetic heritage, you see.
A Pro-Nuclear Henny Penny
Like denialist counterparts in the asbestos, tobacco, oil and GMO industries, Shallenberger and his coalition colleagues poopoo the risks of their product. But they think the sky will fall if
Diablo is shutdown.
“Last week,” reports Mother Jones’ Tim McDonnell, “in an effort to ensure that Diablo Canyon isn’t shut down in the near future, this new coalition sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown (D); the CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that owns the plant; and five state regulatory officials. The letter warned that “closing Diablo Canyon would make it far harder to meet the state’s climate goals.” The 61 signatories include Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, climate scientists James Hansen of Columbia University and Kerry Emanuel of MIT, and the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. According to Shellenberger’s research, the MJ story goes on.
Diablo Canyon currently produces twice as much power as all the state’s solar panels (California is the nation’s No. 1 solar state). Closing it, he said, would not only shave off one-fifth of the state’s zero-carbon energy, but potentially increase the state’s emissions by an amount equivalent to putting 2 million cars on the road per year. That’s because the power gap left by the plant’s closure would likely be filled by new natural gas plants—which is what happened when San Onofre was shuttered.
“What’s powerful about Diablo is the sheer size of it,” he said. “If you flip it [off], carbon emissions go up so much.”
That’s where the Porter Ranch gas leak and a little investigative background history come in.
Methane, Radon and a Missed Opportunity
You may have noticed that utilities are not all that happy about the advent of what futurist and international business consultant Jeremy Rifkin describes as ‘a new energy regime’ which is ‘decentralized, distributive and collaborative’ (and democratically managed in the public interest), because it threatens their investor-owned, centralized business model. That’s why utilities around the country are fighting so hard to make rooftop solar and net-metering prohibitively expensive.
The California Energy Commission’s own data have shown for years that the state has a 40% surplus energy capacity. The piddling amount supplied by Diablo – Shallenberger says 8%, others calculate 6% – could easily be made up by conservation, efficiency and the state’s huge untapped solar and geothermal energy potential in Imperial County, which the National
Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has identified as one of the richest sources in the nation.
But when San Onofre shut down, where did the decision-makers turn for making up the difference? Not conservation, efficiency and renewables, but gas.
That’s where the Porter Ranch gas leak comes in.
Termed by famed whistleblower Erin Brockovith ‘The worst environmental disaster since the Gulf Oil Spill,” the world knows by now that the still-ongoing leak emits hundreds of tons of the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere every day – according to the California Air Resources Board, the equivalent of “more than 1,411,851 cars.”
According to an on-going investigation by San Diego-based attorneys Mike Aguirre and Mia Severson, the post-San Onofre decision to switch to gas and therefore reliance on use and expansion of the Porter Ranch gas storage facility rather than available renewable sources was made behind the scenes in secret meetings by government officials.
According to a letter sent Feb. 8, 2016 by the attorneys to Mike Gatto, Chairperson of the State Utilities and Commerce Committee, the trail of responsibility for the decision leading to the Porter Ranch disaster leads all the way to Governor Jerry Brown.
That’s where the post-San Onofre uptick in carbon emissions came from that Shallenberger and company are so worried about.
But here’s the kicker: according to recent reports, the leak not only contains the greenhouse gas methane and many other toxic compounds that have made hundreds sick and forced the evacuation of thousands. It also contains the radioactive gas radon.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
Dependent on off-site power sources for its over-crowded waste storage pools, crammed with more accumulated waste in dry storage canisters (despite 7 decades of trying, there is still no federal radwaste repository on the horizon) every nuclear power plant is a time bomb in place awaiting a desperate, ruthless, tech- savvy terrorist. For more on the radwaste storage issue, see Donna Gilmore’s SanOnofreSafety.org
And, as Chernobyl and Fukushima amply demonstrate, every local nuclear disaster is a global nuclear catastrophe as well.
So, since we are all downwinders now, and the ‘save Diablo’ denialists’ hysteria to the contrary notwithstanding…Why Decommission Diablo? Let us count the whys:
Diablo’s Dirty Baker’s Dozen
It has two aging reactors in a tsunami zone, just like Fukushima It’s located over a network of 13 active earthquake faults Its out of compliance with fire regulations It’s out of compliance with seismic regulations It’s out of compliance with California’s Once-Through Cooling law It destroys sea life It releases toxic emissions in daily operation It’s a proven health risk to the surrounding population It has no emergency evacuation plan for the surrounding population A senior NRC inspector recently said ‘shut it down’ until seismic safety is assessed and was overruled It’s totally vulnerable to physical and cybernetic terrorist attacks Its energy output is not needed It is run by a company that punishes whistleblowers and is under felony indictment and investigation for safety abuses and corrupt practices. Once a powerful citizens’ movement opposed Diablo’s start-up.
Now a resurgent movement of citizens is saying ‘Shut It Down’ and calling for a nuclear energy free West Coast.
A Nation of Downwinders
Fallout from Chernobyl registered throughout the northern hemisphere. Fallout from the still-on-going Fukushima nuclear disaster was detected across the United States and into Eastern Europe. Radioactive contamination of the Pacific continues inching toward our shores.
Prevailing winds off the Pacific blow inland – south and southwest. Simulations of fallout from a Diablo disaster show Santa Barbara and L.A. both being in the potential path. Drifting east, fallout from a nuclear disaster in CA would first take out the central valley, a major food source for the world, then continue on cross-country in unpredictable swirls and pockets. We would literally become a country of downwinders.
The Real Implications of a Diablo Shutdown
On the other hand, a Diablo shutdown and the demise of nuclear power in California:
Would represent a double win for democratic choice and enlightened energy policy Would be a victory and vindication for a non-violent movement that has persisted for over half a century Would be one more stake in the heart of an international dinosaur industry thrashing about in its death throes and taking desperate measures to survive. Would free up resources for, and stimulate a policy shift toward helping California again lead the way in a solartopian transition to a renewable energy future. Because of CA’s image as an early adaptor bellwether state, policy-makers, legislators and investors around the country and the world take notice. And, with more and more shutdowns of aging reactors around the country being announced each month, it would help speed the day – listen for the approaching hoofbeats – of decommissioning coming soon to a reactor near you.
Worldwide, as Dr. Jim Green observes in the recent Ecologist article, “…with over 200 reactor shut-downs due by 2040, the industry will have to run very hard indeed just to stay put.”
James Heddle is currently at work on a documentary SHUTDOWN: The California-Fukushima Connection. http://www.shutdowndoc.tv/ He co-directs EON – The Ecological Options Network with his partner Mary Beth Brangan. EON3.net. http://eon3.net/ EON’s YouTube Channel is here :https://www.youtube.com/user/eon3/videos He can be reached at mailto:Jim@eon3.net .