Memories of a Movement by Mark Evanoff
HUMBOLDT BAY: “A TEMPLE TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF MANKIND”
Humboldt is a symbol of the great good that
can come from an enlightened partnership of
industry and government. Humboldt is but a
prologue, a part of the vanguard of atomic
power plants that will dot this country —
the vital substance of growing progressive
-Senator John O. Pastore
PG&E selected Humboldt Bay to demonstrate to the country that private utilities had the ability to construct and finance atomic power plants. PG&E nuclear engineer Williard H. Nutting recalled, “The Federal government had been a competitor in the power supply business. We wanted to be in the development of nuclear power and show that private industry could build these plants without government financing,” Humboldt Bay, located in PG&E’s northwest service area offered an ideal location to prove nuclear power’s economic viability. “It was important that the utility not appear to waste money,” Emery B. Dowell, PG&E’s first nuclear information specialist remembered. “Humboldt had the highest fossil fuel cost in the system. We needed 60,000 kilowatts in the area. It was the place we could come closest to making nuclear power economical.”
By building Humboldt, PG&E challenged members of Congress who wanted the federal government to retain development rights to atomic energy. PG&E President Norman Sutherland announced in a February 1958 telegram to Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, his plans to break the economic barrier for everyday use of atomic energy at Humboldt Bay. The telegram worried several members of the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy Commission who believed the federal government should take a stronger role in the development of atomic power plants and not leave the task to the utilities. These congressmen charged Strauss with defending President Eisenhower’s plan for private development of the technology.1
Locale civic leaders supported the plant. Dowell said he told political officials and the Chamber of Commerce about the company’s decision to build as soon as the S engineers knew it was possible to do so. “The Humboldt Standard was always a cheerleader,” he remembered.
Local residents never actually had the opportunity to voice their opinions about plant construction. Construction licensing hearings took place in Germantown, Maryland. Nevertheless, three Humboldt county residents submitted letters of opposition.
“I live about three blocks from the site of the proposed reactor,” Mrs. Charles E Chambers wrote. “I would like my protest registered as being opposed to any industrial K hazards of radiation until biologists can establish a positive knowledge of its affects l on the individual, and until safeguards are such that no increase in radiation occurs at all from industrial uses.
“It simply does not impress me,” she continued, “or other citizens here, when representatives of PG&E hold parties in town to cajole the public into acquiescence, pass on legitimate and important questions with the intimation that they reflect ‘cowardice,’ and announce in the face of all reasons to the contrary that what is good for PG&E is good for the people.”2
While preparations for construction were underway, Dowell spent months in Humboldt county answering questions about atomic energy. “We took pains to publicize all the environmental monitoring that we were doing in preparation for building the plant,” Dowell remembered. “The safer we appeared, the less anxiety was created.”
A public relations problem was created in March 1960, when the AEC’s Advisory Committee for Reactor Safeguards questioned the integrity of the pressure suppression safety system. General Electric, suppliers of the reactor, suggested this untried system as a “novel concept” to save money. With a pressure suppression system, the reactor is placed underground and surrounded by a dry well. Two condensation tanks connected to the dry well by pipes are designated to catch any radioactive steam escaping from the reactor vessel during an accident. There is not a steel dome surrounding the reactor vessel.
C.C. Whelchel, PG&E’s vice president of engineering wrote about the advantages of pressure suppression. “If leakage (from the condensation tanks) should occur, radiation would flow into the refueling building rather than through the ground and into the atmosphere. Air from the refueling building is vented through clean-up equipment and released through a high stack.”3
The Atomic Energy Commission staff applauded the idea because the concept involved fewer welds and lowered the probability of imperfections appearing in a steel and concrete reactor dome. The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, however, remained skeptical.
While the concept has merit,” they wrote, “it has not yet been demonstrated that the vapor suppression system proposed can be relied upon to protect the health and safety of the public at this site.”4
Emery Dowell appeared on local television shows to explain the concept of pressure suppression and to quell the burgeoning local fears. To change the Advisory Commission on Reactor Safeguards position, PG&E demonstrated the system in a mock- up test. After viewing the test, the ACRS approved the concept, and issued a construction permit.
PG&E President Norman Sutherland presided over the ceremony as contractors poured the first buckets of cement that began construction, and dedicated the unit to the “service of the public, the achievement of the atomic age, and the progress and posterity of Humboldt County.”5 Stephen Bechtel, Jr., president of Bechtel Corporation, general contractor for the plant, joined Sutherland at the January 22nd, 1961 ceremony.
While building the plant, PG&E submitted a series of geology reports to the AEC attempting to prove the site safe to build a nuclear power plant. However the AEC never fully accepted PG&E’s conclusions and requested more studies. For instance, PG&E reported the maximum intensity earthquake expected was intensity VIII on the modified Mercalli scale. The AEC responded, “The ambiguity is in the word ‘expected’. ‘With at least nine shocks of intensity VIII a matter of record, more shocks should certainly be expected, but [PG&E’s] report appears to give the impression that there is no need to plan for anything of greater intensity.”6
The AEC noted that PG&E submitted contradictory information on the foundation materials under the reactor. Accurate foundation material descriptions are essential for determining the intensity of an earthquake under a power plant. In one section of the report PG&E described the material as “slightly consolidated gravels, sands and clays, with the majority consisting of finer grained materials.”7
Yet when the report described earthquake hazards for the area, PG&E described the material as rock, specifically “a faintly well endured series of mudstones, siltstones, sandstones and conglomerates.”8
The AEC noted “There is a very great difference between a reactor situated on rock and subjected to an earthquake of VIII and one situated on water-saturated clay and silt and subjected to intensity IX. . . “ 9
Despite the inconsistencies and PG&E’s inability to resolve them, the AEC issued a provisional operating license August 28, 1962. PG&E agreed to submit an updated seismic review and to define proper acceleration and design spectra for the buildings on the site.
CELEBRATING A NEW NUCLEAR POWER PLANT
California took a certain stately pride in Humboldt Bay as the plant neared completion. It was the first full scale nuclear power plant west of the Mississippi. The State Senate passed a resolution congratulating the company in March 1963:
Resolved by the Senate of the State of California, that members thereof look with pride on this splendid example within our state of the resource and initiative of which our free enterprise system is capable, and they express the hope that this kind of forward looking progress may curb the expansion of government into those areas so well preserve by private industry.10
Reactor operation began in August of 1963. Six hundred civic and political Leaders gathered on September 23rd to celebrate the plant’s opening. Dignitaries from General Electric and Bechtel Corporation spoke about the wonders of the new technology and the beginning of the atomic age. Representatives from the California Public Utilities Commission joined the corporate dignitaries on the speakers’ platform.
Senator John O. Pastore, chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, reassured the audience that the plant was a “symbol or example of the great good that can come from an enlightened partnership of industry and government.” To the corporate leaders, the honorable Senator proclaimed, “You have built a temple to the advancement of mankind. Humboldt is but a prologue, a part of the vanguard of atomic power plants that will dot this country — the vital substance of growing progressive industrial society.”11
C.C. Whelchel outlined PG&E’s ambitious nuclear power program. “After 1970 it is probable that almost all, if not all, new fuel generating plants in the state will be nuclear powered. We have, in our plans for the 70’s, single nuclear units of one million kilowatts. These plants, like this pioneer Humboldt Bay plant, will be clean, quiet and I safe. They will be the conventional units of their day.”12
Humboldt, however, experienced operating problems from its inception. The stainless steel cladding holding the uranium fuel pellets began cracking and leaking radioactive gases. Fuel pellets fell out of the fuel rods and settled to the bottom of the reactor vessel.
Radioactive emissions from the plant climbed to 85,000 microcuries a second – exceeding federal emission limits. Rather than replacing the leaking fuel rods, PG&E dropped the reactors operating capacity to reduce the emissions and stay within federal annual average limits of 50,000 microcuries per second. PG&E remained within the law because of the ‘averaging provision’ over a calendar year of the statute.13
Former reactor control room technician Robert Rowen, said that PG&E wanted “as much mileage as possible from the stainless steel fuel rods and refused to replace them.” Uranium fuel is expensive, and PG&E chose not to buy new fuel rods with the stronger zirconium cladding. In fact PG&E began operating the plant knowing problems
existed with stainless-steel fuel rods. Dresden I experienced leakage problems with its stainless-steel fuel rods. PG&E executives decided to replace the fuel rods at Humboldt V only within the procedure of normal refueling — and waited until September 1965, before replacing one-third of the core with the stronger zirconium fuel rods. Technicians rearranged the remaining stainless steel fuel elements and placed them in less stressful parts of the core.
Radioactive emissions remained high however, and PG&E requested the Atomic Energy Commission to increase the stack limits of radioactive emissions to 210,000 microcuries per second, four times the allowable limits, as a solution to the problem. Company attorneys argued it was their long standing position that the AEC radioactive emission limit was overly conservative and did not properly reflect the considerable safety factor present in plant operation.14
The AEC denied the request August 19, 1966 noting, “Fuel damage situations substantially worse than the one that prevailed should preferably be handled by removing the damaged fuel from the reactor than increasing the stack limit.”15
Assembly member Mervyn Dymally asked PG&E for more information about the leaking fuel rods. PG&E Atomic Information Specialist Hal Strube explained that leaking fuel rods “were not a problem.” The plant was run at 40 percent of its rated capacity to, “extend the life of the remaining stainless steel fuel rods cladding in the core. This is in the interest of achieving maximum fuel economy and has no relation to public health and safety. It is anticipated that fuel load operation will be economical…when shutdown is scheduled to add more zirconium clad fuel to the core, replacing most of the stainless steel clad fuel.” He denied any connection between PG&E’s AEC request to increase emission limits and the increase in emissions from the plant.16
Even after PG&E replaced all the stainless steel fuel rods, emissions remained high. Highest “offsite readings” occurred across the street at the South Bay school yard. During the period of August 1967, through February 1968, off-site dosimeter stations read 159 millirems above background levels. This was within the 500 millirem federal limit, but above the releases occurring at other nuclear power plants. Proposed changes in the NRC regulations would have reduced the allowable limits to 5 millirems per year. PG&E maintained they could comply with the proposed regulations, but never met the criteria because the AEC never changed the regulations. Emissions from the plant remained the highest in the nation.17 And Science Magazine called Humboldt the nation’s dirtiest reactor.18
WORKING FOR THE COMPANY
In the early years, supervisors matter-of-factly informed plant workers that radiation was good for them. Forrest Williams, a former control room technician remembered, “Supervisors used to joke that rats exposed to 1ow-level radiation lived longer, and we should get our daily dose.”
A control room technician who asked not to be identified continued, “PG&E would take us up to our exposure limits right away. There was no effort to limit exposure.”
Part of the control room technician’s responsibility was to monitor the radiation levels in various parts of the plant and to ensure that workers followed safe operating-procedures when working around radioactive materials. “In those days,” the anonymous technician continued, “the company wou1dn’t allow us to do our job. We got into trouble for raising safety concerns. We were not allowed to talk to the AEC inspectors.” “There was a lot of pressure put on us radiation monitors to overlook things for the sake of economy,” Williams added. “The company would rather expose people than spend money to minimize exposure. It took persistence from us to convince the company » to purchase lead pegs for our use when handling radioactive materials.”
Robert Rowen led the effort for safe working conditions. He applied what he had learned about radiation in the Marines, to his work at PG&E. “I began to notice differences,” he said, “between what I was taught in the service and the PG&E training manuals. I’m not the kind of person to overstep responsibilities. I asked about the discrepancies I noticed, and the company ‘s response to my questions raised more questions.
“The highest periods of worker exposure,” Rowen continued, “were during refueling. Regular plant workers couldn’t do the work because they’d exceed their radiation exposure limits. So PG&E transferred ‘Sponges’ to Humboldt from throughout the PG&E system to do maintenance and repair work. The men received no training in how to handle radioactive materials or informed about the dangers of radiation.” Supervisors instructed the sponges on how to take off their protective clothing, but that was it. Rowen once discovered a fellow worker picking particles out of his teeth that had been in contact with a hot pipe.
The company’s performance in handling high—level waste from the reactor core also troubled Rowen. During the 1960’s, utilities shipped their high—level radioactive waste to the West Valley reprocessing facility in upstate New York. Only one shipping g cask existed for all the nuclear power plants in the country—and there was pressure on the utilities to load the cask quickly when it arrived at their plant. The reprocessing company levied large fines against any utility that kept the cask too long. Loading a cask with fuel was a dirty process. The cask became contaminated with radioactivity when lowered into the spent fuel pond to enable the transfer of the spent fuel into the cask. Clean-up crews decontaminate the cask before shipping it to the next location. On August 6th, 1969, the crew had a particularly difficult time cleaning the cask. “We spent four or five days trying to decontaminate it,” Rowen recalled. But, “It was beyond the legal limit no matter what we did.”
After each cleaning, the crew took “smear samples” from various sections of the A cask to estimate the radioactivity level. Readings showed an average of 7,000 “disintegrations” per minute, more than three times the legal limit.19
Gail Allen, in charge of cleaning the cask, finally grew impatient with the progress. Ray Skidmore noticed Allen taking his own smear samples in a method he had not seen before. Allen’s smear samples showed an average of 400 disintegrations per minute. Skidmore took more smears in approximately the same place and all his measurements had readings of 4,000 disintegrations a minute, still above the legal limit.
Although the cask did not meet federal shipping standards, Allen told Rowen to sign a statement releasing the cask for shipment.20 PG&E workers later reported finding a chunk of uranium stuck on the outside of the cask after it returned to Humboldt on a flatbed railroad car. Emissions reached 50 roentgens per hour.2} Nuclear power plant workers are only allowed exposure to five rems of radioactivity a year. According to calculations by Dr. John Gofman, for every six hours the uranium emitted 50 rems of radioactivity, one person can be expected to die from cancer.22
MONITORING IN AND AROUND THE PLANT
Over the years Rowen raised several objections to the company’s methods of monitoring radiation releases from the plant. One classic technique was feeding grasses gathered from around the plant to rabbits. The purpose ostensibly was to measure the accumulation of radioactivity absorbed into grazing animals. However, Rowen explained that the rabbits were fed mostly commercial feed pellets and that there was no program to measure the intake of radiation into the rabbits.23
Plant manager James Carroll, explained, “We found domestic rabbits won’t eat grass as their solid diet and the poor animals were starving.” He said the company had other radiation equipment to measure radiation releases in addition to the rabbits.24
PG&E’s other radiation measuring instruments included 30 dosimeter stations placed in various locations in the county. Rowen complained that radiation measurements taken at three locations near the plant were “off the scale”. One of these stations was at the South Bay school yard. The dosimeters, designed to measure up to l0 millirem of radioactivity, could not make higher measurements. Film packs augmented the dosimeters, and provided more accurate readings, but had to be developed before they could be read. Processing took about two weeks. In the event of an accident, Rowen t complained, accurate measurements could not be immediately obtained.25
Rowen continued, “A good monitoring practice would be never to let your instrumentation go off-scale, because it ultimately raises the question of how far off scale did it go and why? What was the cause of it?”26
In desperation, Rowen took his concerns about safety practices and radiation monitoring to a union safety meeting. Howard Darrington, chief shop steward, remembered, “Bob got into the philosophy of radiation exposure. He raised a question that should not have been raised at the time. Rowen was suggesting that there was no safe level of radiation exposure.
“There were large worker—management antagonisms at the time,” Darrington continued. “Some of the workers cheered Bob on, some felt he raised questions that shou1dn’t be raised, and some didn’t like him and disagreed with whatever he said. A lot of employees don’t like the boat rocked, and weren’t interested in issues. When Bob raised the issues, they didn’t like the tensions created.”
After the meeting, Warren Raymond, plant supervisor, issued a directive to employees that radiological safety hazards were “not the proper subject of a union safety meeting.”27
Undaunted by the order, Robert Rowen and Forrest Williams brought the matter up again at May 24th, 1970 union meeting. “Bob and I expressed concern about the management’s philosophy toward radiation protection,” Williams remembered. The men told the union members about their experience as monitors measuring workers exposed to radiation. “We picked up hot spots on people that had gone through hand and foot radiation counters. We knew that hot particles were floating around that hadn‘t been detected.”
A PG&E security man questioned two men after the meeting. A few days later management suspended Williams and fired Rowen. Rowen later learned that the Eureka Police Department compiled a report on he, Williams, Ray Skidmore and Howard Darrington. The security guard that interviewed Williams supplied Eureka Police Chief Emahiser with the men’s social security numbers and said that they lived at a common address. The report attempted to make the case that the men advocated violence, read revolutionary literature, and were “fire bombers”. Emahiser sent copies to PG&E security officer Burt Jones, and PG&E personnel officer Robert Taylor. A third copy went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.28
None of the information in the report was true. The men did not live together and the address did not exist. Rowen decided to sue for libel. However, due to a mistake made in legal procedure, the matter never came to trial. Both PG&E and the Eureka police department have denied any involvement in the report. But Police Chief Emahiser told the Eureka Times Standard in early 1972, that he felt used by PG&E. Six months later he refused additional comments claiming “a lapse of memory.”29
While trying to get a copy of the police report, Rowen appealed his firing. Federal Arbitrator Sam Kagle upheld the company’s contention that Rowen was fired for threatening a supervisor. But a referee for the unemployment appeals board concluded the discharge was for “reasons other than misconduct, in other words, because of his extreme safety conscientiousness.”30
After Rowen left PG&E, the San Francisco office circulated a memo to all PG&E service centers charging Rowen with plotting to destroy company property. Rowen’s friends sent him copies of the memo. “I suppose in their minds they thought I was harassing them in some way,” Rowen recalled, “in terms of raising issues concerning radiation protection safety, and threatening to go to the Atomic Energy Commission and other outside agencies.”
“All I know,” the anonymous technician reflected, “is that they were trying to push atomic energy. They didn’t want opposition. I bet there were five Robert Rowen stories in the United States. He tried to make them stay within the rules.”
Rowen continued to speak out about safety violations at Humboldt after his firing, and the Humboldt Grand Jury investigated his charges. After examining the record and interviewing participants, the jury commended Rowen for “his determined efforts in bringing the situation to the attention of the public.” The jury noted that at least in one instance, Rowen was discouraged from speaking to an AEC inspector on matters relating to safety. They suggested that the AEC conduct unannounced random tours and schedule interviews with plant workers off site.31
After numerous requests, the Atomic Energy Commission investigated Rowen’s 49 specific charges on incidences of bad management. On October 2, 1971, the Commission issued a press statement and found PG&E guilty of two violations and found four safety areas warranting attention.32
PG&E characterized the two violations as involving “paperwork on a discharged employee and a matter of judgment of tests made during the repair of a pump.”33 The discharge employee to which PG&E referred was, of course, Rowen. PG&E failed to give Rowen a record of his radiation exposure levels for more than 90 days after the discharge. The “judgment of tests” was in reference to the company’s failure to measure radioactivity in an area before directing people to work there.34 But these details didn’t appear in the original newspaper accounts.
The Commission noted that PG&E inadequately trained personnel and allowed unqualified persons to load fuel} To keep the Commission informed of safety violations, the AEC ordered PG&E to allow its employees to talk to AEC inspectors. PG&E responded defensively and told reporters employees are free to talk to AEC inspectors off the job. Spokesmen termed the violations “technical aspects of the regulatory requirements rather than matters of personal safety.”35
The Eureka Standard editors wanted to learn more about the actual report findings, and requested the AEC to supply a copy. After 10 months, the AEC issued a summary report which showed several of Rowen’s charges to be true, but because no technical violations occurred, no mention was made of it in the original AEC press release. Inspectors found a pattern of plant employees following poor procedures when working with radioactive materials. One day, workers stacked cardboard boxes, filled with contaminated clothing, outside. It rained and the boxes filled with water and leaked. The AEC agreed that the incident took place, but issued no violation because the contamination in the area remained below Department of Transportation shipping guidelines, and PG&E repacked the materials before shipment.36
In still another incident, workers packed metallic radioactive objects into plastic . bags before placement in an outside storage vault. Rowen worried that the bags might rip when packed with the sharp objects and that radioactive particles could blow out of the vault when it was opened. After examining the storage vault, the AEC found no ripped bags and issued no precautionary guidelines.37
The AEC chose not to investigate Rowen’s contention that PG&E management refused to allow employees to discuss radiation issues at their union safety meeting, deeming it a “management-labor matter.” Other charges ignored by the AEC included an incident where a temporary employee placed radioactive material in an unshielded cabinet. Because PG&E personnel disposed of the material when it was discovered, the AEC thought it unnecessary to investigate the incident. The inspectors apparently did not want to find out why the mistake occurred, and if PG&E management took precautions to prevent its reoccurrence. The anonymous technician explained that safety procedures never actually improved until after the formation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1975.
One of the most serious accidents at Humboldt Bay occurred just after Rowen ‘s firing. On July 17, 1970, a worker threw the wrong switch at a PG&E substation twelve miles from the plant — and set off a disastrous series of events in the nuclear power plant’s control room.
Nuclear power plants require enormous amounts of electricity to operate. The worker’s action cut off the electricity flow to the power plant. Technicians attempted to start the emergency generator, but it failed to operate. Without electricity, the control panel didn’t work. Technicians had no idea what was going on inside the reactor. The transmission lines designed to carry electricity from the power plant into the electricity grid also didn’t operate, and the reactor shut itself off when there was no place for the generated electricity to go. Although the fission reaction stopped, heat continued to build inside the reactor core. But the safety systems designed to siphon off the steam in the reactor vessel and allow it to escape into the drywell, failed to operate. Control room operators cou1dn’t activate the valves manually because there was no electricity to operate the controls and the control panel didn’t indicate pressure levels inside the reactor.
Pressure in the reactor vessel increased as the water boiled and turned to steam. The water level dropped from the normal nine feet above the core to within six inches of the top of the core before a pressure safety valve lifted, and allowed the hot steam to pour into the drywell. The lowered pressure activated a cooling system that sprayed the core with water. Eighteen minutes after the power was cut off the emergency generator finally kicked into operation.
The AEC accident report stated the incident “illustrate(s) the value of redundant safety systems of reactor designs.” The activation of the low-pressure core spray “were only partial employments of the facilities total fail—safe system.” The Commission admitted the event confused the control room operators.
Public Relations have always been important to PG&E in their work with nuclear 1 power and the company tries to counter any negative publicity. In 1971 Don Widner produced a television documentary surveying nuclear power plants in the United States for a Los Angeles television station. Widner interviewed assistant Humboldt plant manager James Carroll, about the problems PG&E experienced with the old stainless steel fuel cladding and the radiation leaks. Prior to taping the interview, the reporter asked Carroll questions to set a proper sound level. After the show aired, Carroll sent a letter of complaint to the station manager and charged Widner with secretly taping the pre-interview discussion and dubbing it into the final interview, Carroll, however, had never seen the show.
Fritz Drager, the Nuclear Information Specialist for Humboldt, reviewed Carroll’s W letter, and drafted an internal memo stating that Carroll’s charges could be “most effective in preventing this highly biased program from ever appearing on the air again, or, at least, causing the section referring to us to be wiped out.” Drager sent Carroll’s letter to members of Congress, several public relations firms, and members of the Atomic Industrial Forum. Because of the controversy generated by PG&E, NBC affiliate stations refused to air the show.
Widner sued for libel and retained David Pesonen as his attorney. At the trial Caroll admitted that his charges were untrue and the jury awarded Widner $7 million in damages. PG&E appealed the damage claim, and both parties agreed to an out—of—court settlement totaling approximately $500,000.
Although Widner never violated journalistic ethics, PG&E successfully kept the show, “Powers That Be”, off the air.
FAULTING AT HUMBOLDT
By 1969, PG&E still had not completed the geology studies first ordered by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1962, nor determined the plant’s ability to survive an earthquake. Nevertheless, the AEC issued PG&E a full—term operating license on January 21, 1969. Three months later PG&E submitted an undated seismic report stating no fault passed through site and that Humboldt was safe to operate as a nuclear power plant. However the AEC found these studies inadequate and requested more detailed studies.
PG&E hired Earth Science Associates to conduct the additional studies. In August, 1972, the consultants reported the Big Entrance Fault existed 2,000 feet west of the plant. The United States Geological Survey also conducted its own investigation and described two active faults near the site in a February 16, 1973 report. USGS geologist Robert H. Morris reviewed the Earth Science Associates report and found it inadequate and inconsistent. PG&E’s consultants filed a second report in July 1975 and concluded the three faults mentioned in their first report and the USGS report, were inactive.
Morris again reviewed the Earth Science Associates’ report and wrote, “The USGS must conclude that there have been insufficient data presented upon which to base a determination of the geologic and seismological safety of the Humboldt Bay power plant site.” PG&E built the plant to survive an earthquake with a force of .25 g. But the new geological evidence showed forces greater than .25 g’s were possible.
Recognizing the plant’s safety problems, the NRC amended the provisions of PG&E’s license to operate Humboldt, and required the utility to upgrade the plant “in a timely manner” to withstand the effects of an earthquake greater than .25g. The May 21, 1976 order further required PG&E to determine if the Big Entrance and Little Salmond faults located near the plant could cause surface displacement. PG&E was not allowed to continue operating the plant after its next scheduled fuel loading until the necessary modifications had been made. In July 1976, the plant closed for refueling.38
On May 20, 1977, PG&E petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the new requirements from the license on the grounds that the company proved the plant safe and that the required seismic studies would be completed by July 1, 1977. Essentially L PG&E was asking to reopen the plant before determining potential earthquakes in the area and evaluating the plant’s ability to operate safely during an earthquake. Nor was the utility allowing time for the NRC to evaluate the adequacy of PG&E’s own studies.39
The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and the Six Rivers Chapter of Friends of the Earth challenged PG&E’s petition on July 20, 1977. Two weeks later the NRC staff refused to support PG&E’s request for exemption from the earthquake requirements. When faced with opposition from both environmentalists and the NRC, PG&E requested to delay hearings on its own petition. The utility said it wanted to conduct additional seismic studies.
On October 6, 1980, after successfully delaying seismic retrofit for three years, PG&E delivered its new geology reports, written by Woodward Clyde and Associates, to the ASLB. The report showed that the Little Salmond and Big Entrance earthquake faults were active, and a third fault, the Buhne fault, also in the immediate vicinity, was active. The three faults surrounded the reactor in a triangular pattern. The report concluded that the seismic and geologic issues raised by the NRC appeared “capable of resolution.” 40
When filing the report, PG&E requested still another delay of action on their amendment application. PG&E needed time to analyze reports from Bechtel Corporation which compared the cost difference in making the plant earthquake safe and decommissioning it.
PG&E found itself in an embarrassing position. It originally requested permission to reopen Humboldt on the grounds the plant could survive an earthquake—but the new seismic studies proved otherwise. To save face, on December 31st, 1981, the utility requested permission to withdraw, without prejudice, their application to be exempt from the NRC’s seismic requirements.41 Without saying so directly, PG&E admitted its non-compliance with seismic requirements imposed in 1969.
The ASLB postponed making a decision on the request, but told PG&E in July 1981, “By simply offering to withdraw its request that these requirements of the license be deleted, the licensee cannot avoid the necessity of complying with them nor can it relieve the Board of its responsibility regarding the same.”42
“PG&E has in effect conceded that presently it is unable or unwilling to expend the funds necessary either to complete the seismic and geologic investigations ordered by the Commission more than five years ago and to upgrade the plant as necessary, or to bring the plant into compliance with newly issued Three Mile Island safety regulations promulgated by the Commission,” the ASLB noted. “It is apparent that the design of Humboldt is deficient in a number of respects.”43
Michael Sherwood, of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, representing the intervenors in the case, argued that PG&E’s motion to withdraw the petition for exemption should be denied and that the ASLB should order the plant decommissioned because of PG&E’s refusal to comply with the NRC seismic requirements.44
“By taking no action,” he wrote, “the Board allows the unsatisfactory status quo to continue, which is precisely what PG&E desires. This, however, is also precisely what is contrary to the public interest.”45
This plant, Sherwood continued, “is not designed and has not been constructed to withstand the maximum credible earthquake along any of the three capable faults adjacent to it. The plant, ‘therefore, cannot safely be operated as presently constructed.46
On December 31, 1981, after nine months of deliberations, the ASLB ordered the utility to submit plans for either making the plant earthquake safe, or to decommission it — six months after the NRC adopted a program of safety goals for the nuclear industry. The NRC circulated draft goals in February 1983, but allowed an additional A two and one half comment period before the rules became law. The decision allowed l PG&E to postpone any activities at the plant to make it either earthquake safe or to decommission it. PG&E claimed it had to know the safety rules before it could determine k the cost benefit between decommissioning and seismic retrofit.
The local anti-nuclear group Redwood Alliance recognized PG&E’s attempts to
delay decommissioning Humboldt. Because of the plants small size, and lowered electricity demand throughout the state — seismic retrofit could never be cost effective. PG6cE simply didn’t want to find itself in the embarrassing position decommissioning one plant because of earthquake faults, while trying to open Diablo Canyon, when it is located two and one half miles from an active earthquake fault. Recognizing the NRC was not going to order PG&E to decommission Humboldt, the Redwood Alliance took its — fight to the Public Utilities Commission.
The Public Utilities Commission couldn’t force PG&E to decommission the plant, but it could make it financially difficult for the utility to allow the plant to sit idle. As a first step, the PUC wanted to determine all nuclear utilities’ ability to finance decommissioning — especially if a plant shutdown early. Traditionally utilities acquired funds for decommissioning through monthly electricity bills. However the money wasn’t put aside into a separate account, rather it was reinvested in the utility itself — buying more trucks, office equipment, and nuclear power plants. The PUC staff worried that when it was necessary to decommission a plant, the money wouldn’t be there.
In March 1983, the PUC required all utilities operating nuclear power plants to create an external decommissioning fund, managed by a third party. Ratepayers will be charged a decommissioning fee while the plant is in rate base, but under the new procedure, the utilities must physically set the money aside. The Commission further ordered the utilities to request insurance companies to sell decommissioning insurance to cover decommissioning costs if a plant closed prematurely, or a utility went bankrupt.
Because Humboldt was no longer in the rate base, the PUC ordered PG&E to prepare a report estimating the cost of decommissioning and a proposed method to U recover the expenses. Three months later PG&E announced plans to decommission the plant, and requested an annual $3.5 million rate—increase to pay for the procedure. Cost of decommissioning was estimated to exceed $200 million by the year 2000. PG&E not only requested full reimbursement for decommissioning, but is also asking the public to finish paying the plants constructions costs. Ratepayers are being asked to compensate PG&E for building an unsafe reactor that didn’t operate for its projected lifespan.
PROBLEMS WITH DECOMMISSIONING
Decommissioning the Humboldt reactor will present some unique problems. The S reactor, drywell, and condensation tanks are completely underground, which will make ‘ dismantlement difficult. The water table is above the bottom of the reactor, which may become contaminated during decommissioning.
No commercial nuclear power plant has ever been decommissioned. The NRC has few rules describing procedures to be followed. Three methods of decommissioning are possible, dismantlement, entombment, and storage. Dismantlement means that the plant is completely torn apart and removed from the site. The fuel elements are removed, the pipes and internal components are flushed with cleaning fluids, and the radioactive structures are cut apart by remote control, and taken for burial to a high-level waste disposal site. The remaining materials are cut—up and taken to a low-level waste disposal site. Department of Energy studies indicate that the volume of materials needed to be buried from a plant the size of Humboldt will total 11,700 cubic meters–equal to 16 percent of the low level waste generated annually in this country. Finding a place to bury the material could pose a difficult problem. Only three low-level waste disposal sites exist in the United States. Simple arithmetic shows that disposal of the 81 licensed reactors in the United States, not counting those under construction, will be problematical. And there is no high—level waste disposal site. Yet the NRC considers dismantlement the safest form of decommissioning.
Another option available is safe storage. This method also requires the fuel be I unloaded, all liquids removed and the system flushed out. These materials are then placed in high-level waste depositories. The rest of the plant is placed under armed guard for 30-100 years to allow time for the short-lived radioactive isotopes to decay, before dismantlement and disposal at a low-level waste disposal site.
The final method is entombment. After the liquids and fuel elements are removed the entire structure is encased in concrete. Entombment cuts the expense of hiring armed guards for 100 years.
The NRC is just beginning to formulate rules for decommissioning, and its likely dismantlement will be the only method allowed. However, because no high—level waste disposal site exists, nuclear power plants will simply sit idle in a modified form of safe-storage. Fuel will remain on the site, and the systems will not be flushed out.
The problem is that safe-storage really isn’t safe. Significant quantities of radio-active isotopes nickle-59 and niobium—94 form inside the reactor vessel. The half-life of nickle-59 is 80,000 years, outlasting any presently contained structures. Consequently the reactor vessel will have to be removed, before it falls apart and allows the radio-isotopes to escape. But there is no safe place to put the reactor vessel.47
But dismantlement of reactors also will create problems. Donald Blackmon, of Duke Power in South Carolina, has argued that since no permanent geologic repository exists for long-lived radioactive wastes, entombing may be less harmful than burial of the wastes at a waste dump.48
Even NRC staff member Carl Freedman specializing in decommissioning, admits that disposal will be a problem. He‘s not sure where the wastes will be taken.
HUMBOLDT’S RELATIONSHIP TO THE COMMUNITY
The cities located near the Humboldt Bay plant no longer stand solidly alongside PG6cE. Anti-nuclear advocates sit on both the County Board of Supervisors and the City Council of Arcata. The Redwood Alliance played a key role in organizing the candidate’s campaigns. F.D. Weeks, manager of Humboldt, wrote to the PG&E corporate headquarters in San Francisco to get help countering the bad publicity created by the Redwood Alliance.
“The anti-nuclear groups are expert at giving us a black eye. We need guidance and direction on how to react,” he wrote. “The Redwood Alliance are well organized and getting stronger …. This group of people are in the right places …. They exert great influence (manipulate or control) the Arcata City Council and the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. Their people are [are] infiltrating, with little resistance, the local labor groups and the Democratic party committees.”
“To offset the anti—PG&E campaign, we need strong, well coordinated public relations effort. In my opinion, the Company should consider assigning one or more competent people to work more or less full time, initially on a PR program for our Division.”
Weeks outlined the necessary ingredients for a successful public relations effort. “Get some positive, factual, pro—nuclear information out to the various media. in the sensitive areas of geologic studies, seismic work, [and] decommissioning, develop a good story and get it told. We’ve been evasive on these issues too long and as a result our credibility is stretched thin.”49
Humboldt Bay has fulfilled Senator John O. Pastore’s predictions that the plant is but a prologue for the nuclear industry. Humboldt is a symbol of all the reactors that have not worked as expected. It will be the first privately financed reactor to be decommissioned — if a place is found to store the wastes.
In 1982, Emery Dowell reflected about the plant he once promoted. “I’m still positive about nuclear power generation. I believe that it can be made to operate safely. In the next thirty to forty years if we don’t use fission, the lights will go out in some areas.
“My concerns about waste disposal still have not been satisfied. It was a knotty ‘ problem when I tried to explain it twenty years ago. But I had the optimism of youth that the problem would be solved.”
Footnotes for Chapter 4
1. “Strauss Ignites New Atom Fight,” New York Times, February 20, 1958, p. 9.
2. United States Atomic Energy Commission Docket 50-133, Amendment No. 4, November 16, 1959, correspondence file.
3. C.C. Whelchel, “Pressure Suppression Approved to Humboldt Bay,” Electric World, November 21, 1960, p. 68.
4. Letter from the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards to John McCone, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, March 14, 1960.
5. “First Concrete Poured for $20 Million Nuclear Plant,” Humboldt Standard, January
6. “Geological and Hydrological Considerations in Power Reactor Site Selection,” Nuclear Safety, A Review of Recent Developments; Prepared for U.S. Atomic Energy Commission by Oak Ridge National Laboratory; June 1960, V. 1, No. 4; pp.64-76
10. California State Resolution No. 87, March 14, 1963.
11. **60,000 Kilowatt Uranium-Fueled Generating Plant, Dedicated to Public Service on Humboldt Bay,” Blue Lake Advocate, September 26, 1963, p. 3.
13. Don Endahl, “PG6cE’s Humboldt A-Power Plant Runs Into Fuel Element Problem,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
14. John Read, “N—Plant Series: Operating History Key to Understanding,” Eureka Times Standard, June 20, 1972.
15. R.L. Doan, Director of the AEC Licensing Division to Richard Peterson, PG&E General Counsel. August 19, 1966, file Docket 50-133.
16. Letter from Hal Strube to Mervyn Dymally, Chairman of the Assembly Committee on Industrial Relations, May 1966.
17. John Read, “N-Plant Series Resumes,” Eureka Times Standard, June 18, 1972.
18. “Reactor Emissions: AEC Guidelines Move Toward Critics Proposition,” Science, V. 172, No. 3989, pp. 1215-16.
19. John Read, “Rowen’s Comments in Log Embroiled Him in Dispute,” Eureka Times Standard, June 28, 1972.
21. John Read, “Three Specific Allegations in Complaint,” Eureka Times Standard, June 29, 1972.
22. John W. Gofman and Arthur Tamplin, Poisoned Power, Emmaus Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1979. According to Gofman, there will be one cancer death for every 300 man-rems of exposure. This is true whether 30 people each receive 10 rems of exposure, or 300 people each receive one rem exposure. In the Humboldt case, the case emitted 50 rems per hour, or 300 rems every six hours. For every six hours it emitted 50 rems of radiation that contaminated people, one person can be expected to die from cancer.
23. John Read, “Humboldt Bay Quick to Point Out Safety Mark,” Eureka Times Standard, June 24, 1972.
24. Stanford N. Sesser, “AEC Charges Pacific Gas and Electric With Violations of Power Plant Rules, Changes Sought,” Wall Street Journal, December 20, 1971.
25. John Read, “Nuclear Protection Standard Outlined,” Eureka Times Standard, December 26, 1971.
27. John Read, “Task of Ex-Employee Divided in 2 Parts,” Eureka Times Standard, June 23, 1972.
28. Robert Rowen, personal interview.
29.- John Read, “A-plant Series 8,” Eureka Times Standard, June 27, 1972.
30. John Read, “The Robert Rowen Story,” Eureka Times Standard, June 19, 1972.
31. Humboldt Grand Jury, Interim Report, Sara Parsons, foreman, 1972.
32. John Read, “Power Plant: October 28, 1971 Incident With AEC Noted,” Eureka Times Standard, July 3, 1972.
34. John Read, “Power Plant: October 28, 1971 Incident With AEC Noted,” Eureka Times Standard, July 3, 1971.
35. Michael Harris, “PG&E Accused of Nuclear Violations,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 21, 1971.
36. John Read, “AEC Investigation Termed a Wristslap by Ex-Employee,” July 4, 1972;
“Power Plant: Radiation Crud Allegedly Allowed,” July 5, 1972; “Power Plant: Replies to Some Allegations Received,” July 6, 1972, Eureka Times Standard.
38. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Docket No. 50-133, July 14, 1981.
40. Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, July 14, 1981, NRC Docket No. 50-133.
41. A Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Motion to Withdraw Application for Licensing Amendment, December 31, 1980, NRC Docket No. 50-133. `
42. Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, July 14, 1981, NRC Docket No. 50-133.
44. Intervenors Response to PGécE’s Response to Boards Order of July 14, 1981, October 15, 1981, NRC Docket No. 50-133.
47. Colin Norman, “Isotopes the Nuclear lndustry Overlooked,” Science, January 22, 1982, p. 377.
48. Colin Norman, “A Long-Term Problem for the Nuclear Industry,” Science, January 1982, pp. 376-379.
49. E.D. Weeks, “Public Relations Problems in Humboldt County,” PG&E internal memo, January 19, 1980.