Tohoku Fallout: We need to take a close look at California’s nuclear reactors

The 3-10-11 9.0 Tohoku earthquake has shook the nuclear world to its knees. An event that was predicted to never occur by every pro-nuclear apologist on the planet just did.  The incident at Fukushima wasn’t an event on par with Three Mile Island or even Chernobyl.  It took place at the same time when one of the planet’s most technologically advanced cultures was also struck with one of the worst earthquakes ever recorded, quickly followed by a killer tsunami that swept dozens of miles inland shortly afterwards.   The North East coast of Japan couldn’t have had a worse 1-2-3 punch than what just happened.  Just as Chernobyl played a major role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, we may be looking at the collapse of Japan as we know it.  The economic fallout from just the nuclear component of this perfect storm from hell could very likely go beyond $100 Billion, but tuck that into a recent world bank estimate for the overall quake of $235 Billion.   It is very lucky that the quake didn’t hit Tokyo or the more heavily industrialized part of this country that is about the size of California but has over 127 million residents, even though nearly 2/3rds of the country is nearly uninhabitable by mountains.

Prior to March 21st, there had been no real indications from official reports suggesting that there were dangerous levels of radiation, even though US nuclear experts suggested that Americans evacuate at least 50 miles from the stricken Fukushima area rather than the Japanese 20 kilometer zone(what do they know but aren’t telling us). However that changed as one of the major Japanese press services (Kyodo) released a story saying that an area outside the 20 KM zone was found to have been contamination 1,600 above normal, with foodstocks in the region being taken down due to high readings.

The nature of the nightmare had just taken a turn for the worst, and with the winds expected to be blowing towards the mainland and Tokyo for the next week rather than out to sea, the struggle to bring the 4 simultaneous nuclear meltdowns under control couldn’t have more at stake.  There can be no more human errors, like the fact that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) underestimated the potential size of the tsunami by a factor of three, resulting in a 14 meter wave washing over the 5 meter sea wall and battering the reactors.  There can be no more natural accidents that might complicate the already precarious scenario where well over 200 aftershocks of a 5.0 magnitude has tested the nerves and what’s left of the complex infrastructure at the reactors that includes thousands of miles of wiring, plumbing monitoring equipment all of which are likely in a state where a new quake could be the one that takes the current situation beyond the edge.

TEPCO has appeared to stabilize one of the 3 reactors as well as get power back on site.  Good news, and let us all hope that they will be able to bring the other two reactors under control as well.  Its not sure what they will be doing with the exposed spent fuel pond and that things could still go terribly wrong.  Japan has enough on its hands, and with winds shifting towards Tokyo for the next week any further major radiation releases could be very bad for the stricken country.

Here in the US where we have 110 nuclear reactors including nearly a quarter of the country’s oldest reactors are of the same General Electric design as at the Fukushima facility. It should be noted that back in the 1970’s a report within the the US Atomic Energy Commission called these reactors unsafe, yet the report was ignored.  Japan may be suing General Electric over the failure to disclose its safety flaws.

In less than a week we have watched as the five simultaneous nuclear emergencies  reached frightening proportions as hundreds of thousands were forced to evacuate rather than being able to return home and begin cleanup after the tsunami and quake.  It may be weeks or months before those who have suffered so much already will be able to return.  Like any other nuclear power country, they were told for decades that such an event could NEVER happen with western designed reactors.  The nuclear industry told the world that the Soviet reactor at Chernobyl that unleashed radiation across the planet was of an  inferior design.  The concerns of opponents were swept aside as being hysterical or overblown.

But yet its happened.  At present it is not clear just how much radiation has been released or how much will be.  When the spent fuel pond at reactor #4 was exposed to the environment, it is very likely that substantial amounts of radiation did escape into the environment, fortunately most of it went out to sea. Getting those spent fuel rods under a protective layer of water was why they were dropping water via helicopter for several days.  Media reports told of the death of 14 elderly patients during attempts to evacuate the public.  A crane operator at the facility also died.  Hundreds of workers have been exposed to the maximum permissible dose. The government made an emergency declaration increasing the maximum allowable radiation exposure to on site workers from 100 to 250 Milli-sieverts, or from twice to five times the allowable yearly dose US workers are allowed.

The economic costs, on top of the quake and tsunami will be very large.

One thing for sure, is that the Fukushima nuclear reactors have dramatically increased the already difficult problems of just dealing with the devastating aftermath of the quake and tsunami.  The danger is far from over and could continue for weeks even months or until the damaged spent fuel from the damaged ponds are either removed or covered.

This event has sent political shockwaves across the global nuclear industry that was in the midst of its self proclaimed “Renaissance” after Chernobyl nearly ended the experiment.  In the US, Forbes Magazine called the first push the largest managerial failure in American history costing the public as much as putting a man on the Moon or the Vietnam war.  A leaked 1982 report showed that meltdowns at reactors in the US could cost hundred’s of billions of dollars and result in tens of thousands of lives being lost.  Those estimates were born out with Chernobyl as the common estimated cost of the 1986 disaster is around $200 billion, or an amount worth more than all the electricity the former Soviet nuclear power industry produced during its entire existence.

Elsewhere Germany and many other countries stopped development of new reactors and agreed to a complete phaseout of all nuclear facilities.

The American public for a while at least, became educated about the link between nuclear weapons and power.  The push to end the nuclear fission era expanded as the aging weapons infrastructure was finally exposed under public pressure, with wave after wave of scandals. Today the Department of Energy acknowledges that it will cost between $270-330 billion to clean up over the next 50 years, much which will be related to nuclear waste contamination at its facilities across the United States.  Activists within the DOE after a decade of fighting were finally able to get funding to help deal with the massive epidemic facing current and former workers. During the Bush administration the original law and the force of the government was turned against workers attempting to get help for their medical costs, resulting in years of red tape and denials of most claims.  In what has to be one of the most scandalous examples of government behavior, all the medical records of former workers from the Mounds Ohio facility were likely purposely irradiated then dumped in a nuclear waste dump half way across the country so that claimants could not apply for help. Here’s an earlier piece on the scope of the nuclear mess we’ve created.

In late 1998 the government failed in its attempt censor a 13 year study disclosing the details of this country’s open air nuclear weapons testing to the health of citizens acknowledged that the tests had killed thousands and injured the health of millions.  The US also refused to increase safety standards to the industry and public after post Chernobyl studies on Hiroshima victims showed that the impacts of radiation were between 4-16 times worse than standards were setup to deal with.

The fact that just because the American public has been left out in the dark on the scale of the impacts the nuclear era has had has mostly been done for the sake of national security or so it goes.  The nuclear nightmares that the first American to orbit the earth, John Glenn exposed during is senatorial career included examples of the US government doing nuclear experiments on citizens without their knowledge or consent.  Another of the barely known impacts about nuclear fission  is that almost all of the uranium mined was dug up from the lands of tribal people here and around the world.  The Dine, Africans, and Australian people have suffered major health impacts.  A congressional investigation done by Rep. Waxman disclosed that the US had failed to clean up the radiation and mines 30 years after promising to do so.

The full story, because of the government’s policy of making most of this country’s nuclear story a matter of national security means that we do not know everything that has happened and that after 9-11 there will be many more nuclear secrets.

But it should be stated that what we already know should have been grounds for a phase out of nuclear weapons and power in this country.  It means that those who claim the dangers outweigh the benefits are the very people who have control over the flow of what we know or don’t.   It is also why America’s media has and continues to completely censor the scale of opposition here and abroad as a matter of policy so that the general public that has trusted our officials on the matter of nuclear policy have failed to understand or support any further calls that have been made for decades by those who have opposed the nuclear experiment because of its inherent dangers and costs.

As others have said elsewhere, we have been put to sleep by the claims of the technocrats that they know what they are doing and doing it safely.  With polls showing a reversal in support for nuclear, can we hope for an honest debate on this issue?  I’m more than cynical about this as can be seen by the response of both democrats and republicans just days after the disaster.  This is not to say that all of our representatives have jumped on board the nuclear lobbying bandwagon.

There are reason’s why Californians need to call for new investigations into the safety of the state’s two major reactor facilities near Los Angeles (San Onofre) and San Luis Obispo (Diablo Canyon).

The Onagawa facility was approximately 50 miles from the epicenter of the Tohoku quake while the Fukushima facility was 109 miles.  That’s a very long way from these facilities, it ruptured a 500 KM segment of the Pacific plate.  The USGS’ report showed strong ground motion near the Fukushima reactors, so one thing to watch as the blame game evolves is whether or not the reactors were designed to meet the actual levels that were recorded.

The nuclear industry is already attempting to frame the impacts to Fukushima facility by saying that the reactors functioned properly resulting in their safe post quake shutdown.  We can expect at some point once it becomes secure enough that there will be further investigations by Japanese and international investigators to determine just what went wrong.

I can think we can all safely agree that the primary issue here is that TEPCo failed to construct the reactors to withstand a quake of this magnitude, and and that both the resulting ground motion and tsunami played prominent roles in the disaster.

In California the two largest facilities both have fault lines just a few miles away and thus even though any quake may not be  as large, the close proximity could very mean the impacts could be as large or even larger.

I would say the main issue here is the  precautionary principle.  Having sat through the Diablo Canyon seismic hearings in the 80’s, what I saw was the classic situation where the company spent such and such amount of money to withstand ground motions and wave sizes up to a particular size.  The concern I took away from those hearings was that opponents (the state of California) were able to challenge the technical claims of PG&E to the extent that even though PG&E won, they did so on a number of rather very narrow legal technicalities.  The state of California will or should be demanding that new investigations about the instance of new faulting recently discovered should mean that new seismic and safety investigation be conducted.  Contrary to the NRC’s claim that the reactors are safe,  this event had better lead to the closure, or at least refusal to extend Diablo’s license on the grounds that it won’t survive a maximum credible incident.

It should be noted that the Hosgri faultline which is 2.2 miles from Diablo last broke in 1927 destroying either Santa Maria or Santa Barbara (I forget which one).  In 1980 it was estimated to be capable of a 7.0 quake which is what PG&E claims Diablo is supposed able to withstand.  After the fact it was discovered that the utility may have not designed the reactor to withstand the type of fault (slip thrust) that had newly been identified after PG&E 2nd retrofitting of the facility.

The main point here is that seismic knowledge has expanded substantially since the days when PG&E built and redesigned Diablo Canyon not to mention San Onofre.  PG&E is currently attempting to prematurely relicense Diablo Canyon with hearings set for this coming month.   They need to be canceled.

Having read the post Chernobyl 1986 state of California mandated review of PG&E and So Cal Edison’s evacuation plans.  It should be noted that these plans were never taken seriously simply because the state nor anyone else ever believed that such an event would occur during the lives of these facilities. Ciablo was even licensed and started operation before its evacuation plan was in place.  It was Judge Robert Bork who allowed Diablo Canyon the green light as well as the final decision made the day before Chernobyl, saying that it was not up to the judiciary to become “activists” in the Diablo case.

We also know that PG&E nearly went into bankruptcy in its attempt to get Diablo Canyon online.  The facilities were originally estimated to cost just over $300 million in 1965 but ended up costing $5.8 billion to construct and an additional $7 billion in financing. After the 2nd forced retrofit when a 25 year old newly hired engineer discovered that PG&E had built the seismic supports backwards the company was unable to find any private financing anywhere in the world to repair this and hundreds of other design error that were also discovered.  They were only able to finish the reactors because President Reagan issued a secret order giving PG&E over $2.2 billion in EPA loans.

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