Nuclear (again!) – The Ukiah Daily Journal
The climate crisis has recently caused record heat, threatening California’s power grid, creating official panic after decades of denial. One of the protests was the sudden, last-minute extension of the license to operate the Diablo Canyon nuclear complex.
A recent UDJ editorial described nuclear energy as renewable (false), although the electricity actually produced is carbon-free. However, a lifetime assessment shows that a nuclear plant releases as much carbon as a natural gas plant, given the energy used in uranium mining and enrichment, the production of concrete and steel and plant construction. This does not include the carbon released when dismantling a large power plant (never done yet), nor the centuries of disposal of high-level nuclear waste (which has not yet been done either).
Nuclear power is the most expensive electricity on the market today, which partly explains the decline of the industry. The Diablo Canyon facility has two 1100 MW Westinghouse reactors, each containing 4500 tons of enriched uranium. When uranium fissions (splits), energy is released and fission byproducts are created. These by-products degrade the energy efficiency of the fuel, requiring fuel replacement after five years, even if only 5% of the uranium has been consumed. Enriched uranium has low levels of radiation, but once the fuel contains fission byproducts, radiation levels are dangerously high, with the potential to kill a human within minutes. With no disposal site available, this “spent” fuel is stored on site, with 43,000 tonnes now at the Diablo Canyon facility. Nuclear power is not only expensive, it has serious consequences if it fails. The nuclear industry assures us that it has everything “under control”, but the reality is different.
The Fukushima nuclear complex had six General Electric reactors commissioned in 1971. The 2011 earthquake generated a 30′ high tsunami, which flooded the emergency cooling pumps, causing the reactor cores to melt , with subsequent hydrogen explosions, in the three units in operation at the time. . While the wind was blowing mostly offshore to the east, highly radioactive contamination was detected 150 miles south of Tokyo. The full extent of reactor damage is still unknown, but repair costs are expected to exceed $1,000,000.
Design of the Diablo Canyon reactor complex began in 1965, with construction beginning in 1968. The San Andreas Fault was known to be 45 miles to the east, but in 1969 the Hosgri Fault was discovered 2 .5 miles west, requiring plant overhaul.
Units went live in 1985, with final costs dropping from $376 million to $5.5 billion. In 2008, the Shoreline Fault was discovered less than a mile to the west. The National Regulatory Commission, with the conflicting goals of regulating nuclear energy and promoting it, voted 3 to 2 that the design was “good enough”. In 2015, the Diablo Cove fault was discovered, which runs directly under the foundations of the facility.
The reactor’s normal design life is about 40 years, and PG&E had planned to shut down in 2025, due to a failing economy and costly upgrades needed because intense radiation makes metal brittle and weak. Additionally, the wrong welding rod was used during construction, further increasing the risk of embrittlement. A recent UDJ article argued that the expected seismic movements on the various known faults had been correctly calculated in the design of the plant, but there is no public assessment of how the reactors were degraded by embrittlement. PG&E says its reactor embrittlement report is “proprietary,” even though a seismic or thermal shock could cause a massive failure. San Francisco is 240 miles to the north, Los Angeles 150 miles to the south, and the agriculture of the Central Valley 100 miles to the east. As a longstanding gift to the nuclear industry, no insurance is carried to cover losses due to nuclear contamination. None!
The recent 5-year extension agreement provides an upfront payment of $1.4 billion, with an open check for further upgrades, paid for by all California taxpayers, with all work exempt from California law on environmental quality.
We are being asked to choose between killing the planet with carbon or risking widespread nuclear contamination from an aging and compromised reactor. We can choose “none of the above”. The recent threat to the network was averted by timely demand reduction. Like grumpy babies, we want electricity when we want it. Maybe we can learn to live with our energy income, living more modestly if necessary, while creating a safe and sustainable electricity system.
Crispin B. Hollinshead lives in Ukiah. This article and previous articles can be found at cbhollinshead.blogspot.com.