The shutdown of Diablo Canyon and its two atomic reactors by 2025 is the result of a joint proposal among Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), environmental, and labor groups. This action is neither the beginning nor the end to the decades long story of Diablo Canyon’s design, construction, and operation. PG&E’s promise to replace the nuclear power generated by Diablo Canyon’s two reactors with renewable energy and to no longer seek a 20-year license renewal for these atomic reactors comes with a cost. The two reactors located on multiple California fault lines will continue to operate for nearly a decade more. In this Fairewinds Energy Education Podcast series, the Fairewinds Crew will share the troubled history of Diablo Canyon and speak with the leading activists in opposition to Diablo Canyon’s ominous 50-year presence along the California coast.
Almost from the day it was proposed in the mid-1960’s, Diablo Canyon has encountered more problems than any other nuclear plant still operating. During Part 1 of the Fairewinds Podcast series “Diablo Canyon: The Devil’s in the Details”, Fairewinds’ Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen exposes the plant’s long sequence of problems and shows that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) complicity is the only reason these two reactors continue to operate.
Does it come as a surprise to learn that 26 energy companies with businesses in the state of California donated nearly $10 million to Governor Jerry Brown and the California Democratic Party within days or weeks of winning favors? According to the Pasadena Star, a report from the public interest group Consumer Watchdog titled “Brown’s Dirty Hands” uncovers the shocking extent to which fat checks have influenced regulatory decisions in the energy industry. Edison International, the parent company of California nuclear reactor owner Southern California Edison, and Diablo Canyon atomic reactor owner Pacific Gas and Electric were two of the three major investor-owned utilities that collectively contributed nearly $6 million to Brown and the Dems. Liza Tucker, who authored the Consumer Watchdog report, draws attention to an especially lewd ‘quid pro quo’ donation from Southern California Edison (SCE). The California Democratic Party received a donation of $130,000 from SCE on March 26, 2013. Is it simple coincidence that according to Consumer Watchdog it was “the same day that Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey cut a deal with an SCE executive in a Warsaw, Poland, hotel room to make ratepayers — not shareholders — cover 70 percent of the $4.7 billion cost to close the fatally flawed San Onofre nuclear plant”?
When too much uranium is accidently put in one location, a nuclear chain reaction can occur, which is called an “inadvertent criticality”. This is exactly what could have happened when “excessive” amounts of uranium in an “air scrubber” [filter] that could lead to a “criticality” or “flash explosion” were recently discovered at the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant in Columbia, South Carolina. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was notified of this issue back in July and finally sent in a special inspection team last week. The NRC inspection team found more than 200 lbs. of uranium were present in the nuclear fuel plant’s air filter, which was almost three times the federal limit of 66 lbs. of uranium. This high amount of concentrated uranium not only greatly threatens the health of its employees, but also puts the plant at risk of explosion. Exposure to uranium can lead to kidney damage when inhaled or ingested, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. According to the public relations folks at Westinghouse, up to 170 workers at Westinghouse’s facility were not evacuated because of the nuclear threat, and instead they have been temporarily laid off until the mess is cleaned up. Westinghouse’s company spokeswoman Courtney Boone claims that “the force reduction” is not due to these safety violations. “Many of the employees volunteered to take the time off; some were notified this week of their need to participate in the temporary work reduction,’’ Boone said. Sounds like an evacuation to the crew at Fairewinds. Westinghouse is not paying the salaries of these employees who temporarily have been removed from their jobs, but workers are being offered no-interest loans while they are out of work.
Unfortunately, this incident is not the first of its kind in the US or in the world. During 1999 in Japan, the nuclear fuel plant Tokaimura experienced an “inadvertent criticality” and exposed 119 onsite and offsite people to excessive radiation including three workers who received excessively high doses, killing two of them. The NRC claims that Westinghouse has agreed to perform an in-house investigation of its “safety culture”, an obscenely light tap on the wrist considering the high risks involved for explosion and exposure.
Washington state regulators have fined the federal government and the Department of Energy $50,000 for the careless treatment of nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (Site). The Hanford site has been under intense scrutiny as more workers come forward claiming exposure to noxious fumes emanating from leaking underground storage tanks that hold atomic waste. Located adjacent to the Columbia River,
“Hanford is the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere, where the United States dumped billions of gallons of radioactive waste on the banks of the Columbia and into the river itself. Today, waste in unlined cribs and trenches has spread into large pollution plumes and dozens of storage tanks have leaked high‐level nuclear waste. Vast areas of groundwater are poisoned and, in some places, flowing into the Columbia River,” according to the public-interest group Columbia Riverkeeper in its publication Hanford and the River.
In early August, firefighters were forced to burn Rattlesnake Mountain while fighting a wildfire in order to prevent an atomic disaster and keep the nuclear garbage at the Hanford Site from catching fire. The lingering health ramifications to workers, the permanent destruction of the environment, and the tremendous threat that the Hanford Site poses to the public is not financially quantifiable, but it is certainly a cost significantly higher than the mere $50,000 fine to this taxpayer financed, Department of Defense created, and Department of Energy operated facility.
After more than 100 construction cancellations and cost overruns costing up to US$5 billion apiece, Forbes Magazine in 1985 called nuclear power “the greatest managerial disaster in business history…only the blind, or the biased, can now think that most of the money [$265 billion by 1990] has been well spent.” U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chair Lewis Strauss' 1954 promise that electric power would be “too cheap to meter” is today used to mock nuclear economics, not commend them.
Former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner (NRC) Peter Bradford highlights the enormous economic faults and promulgated lies of the nuclear power industry in his latest article for The Conversation. As a former Commissioner of the NRC and a current board member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Mr. Bradford knows what he is talking about. The nuclear industry whines that it simply cannot compete with the low cost of renewable energy and claims that it is due to the heavy subsidization of renewable power technologies. Well, Mr. Bradford points out that this is simply untrue:
All carbon-free energy sources together have not received remotely as much government support as has flowed to nuclear power. According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, total subsidies paid and offered to nuclear plants between 1960 and 2024 generally exceed the value of the power that they produced.
The myth that atomic energy is a necessary component to a carbon-emission-free world is smashed to pieces as Mr. Bradford confesses that during his 5-years with the NRC, more reactors were licensed than any comparable period since, and the 1977-1982 goals of decreasing American’s reliance on fossil fuels was achieved without building any additional nuclear powered reactors. Lovers of atomic powered energy will argue that shutting down nuclear reactors will cause a rise in greenhouse gases however, an emissions-free transition is possible if shutdowns are planned in advance. California and Nebraska are currently working with utilities and energy companies to plan reactor shutdowns that entirely replace atomic power with renewable and sustainable technologies.
Mr. Bradford brilliantly ends his argument:
Christopher Crane, the president and CEO of Exelon, which owns the nation’s largest nuclear fleet, preaches temperance from a bar stool when he disparages renewable energy subsidies by asserting, “I’ve talked for years about the unintended consequences of policies that incentivize technologies versus outcomes.” However, he’s right about unintended and unfortunate consequences. We should not rely further on the unfulfilled prophesies that nuclear lobbyists have deployed so expensively for so long. It’s time to take Crane at his word by using our power markets, adjusted to price greenhouse gas emissions, to prioritize our low carbon outcome over his technology.