Relearning deadly lessons
Operations at California nuke plants need to be pared back and finally stopped
By John Grula 03/31/2011
The unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan should put an end, once and for all, to recent calls for a nuclear power “renaissance” in the US. Instead, the recent events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant dramatically demonstrate how nuclear power should be phased out completely.
The organization with which I am affiliated, the Southern California Federation of Scientists, has long opposed the further development of nuclear power, and the ongoing disaster in Japan certainly vindicates our position on this issue.
It will take many years to determine exactly how many deaths and cancers will be caused by the apparent meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, but the casualties may eventually exceed those caused by the 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine. In that case, The Chernobyl Forum, comprised of various United Nations organizations and the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, has estimated the number of cancer deaths caused by Chernobyl may reach a total of 4,000. On the other hand, “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” a book published in 2009 by the New York Academy of Sciences, concludes that by 2004 almost 1 million had died as a result of the released radioactivity.
At Chernobyl, more than 50 reactor staff and emergency workers died soon after the accident as a result of explosions and acute radiation sickness. How many heroic reactor staff, emergency workers and others at the Fukushima plant have already or will soon die from these causes remains to be seen.
The Fukushima calamity reminds us of the interconnectedness that exists among our modern technological societies. Decisions made decades ago in Japan about how and where to build nuclear power plants are now affecting Southern Californians as we wonder how much deadly radioactivity, such as highly carcinogenic plutonium, may eventually drift our way.
There are 104 commercial nuclear power plants in the US, many of which have designs and are operated in ways similar to the Fukushima plant. This includes the practice of storing spent fuel rods in “swimming pools” near the reactors, where the highly radioactive and physically very hot rods must be continuously covered with water. At Fukushima, the inability to keep stored fuel rods continuously under water — due to failures in water pumping systems and cracks in the pools that have created leaks — has been an even bigger problem than dealing with the radioactive fuel in the damaged reactor cores.
Storing spent fuel rods in pools of water is a temporary “solution” to the very long-term problem of how we safely dispose of this extremely dangerous radioactive waste. While this waste contains radioactive isotopes with relatively short life spans, such as Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 with half-lives of about 30 years, the longer-lived transuranics (uranium and heavier species) remain highly radioactive for many thousands of years.
California has two nuclear power plants, Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo (about 190 miles from Pasadena), and San Onofre near San Clemente (about 70 miles from Pasadena). Both are located next to the ocean, like Fukushima, and thus may be vulnerable to tsunamis. And, of course, both are located in earthquake country. Less than three years ago, a previously undiscovered fault was found within a mile of Diablo Canyon. Although regulators have asked the utilities that run the plants to conduct additional seismic studies, neither has sought the permits required to do so. While Diablo Canyon and San Onofre have been built, as was Fukushima, to withstand the largest earthquake considered likely in their regions, we now know Japan never thought a magnitude 9.0 earthquake could occur off the coast of Fukushima. Upgrades to ensure the structural and operational integrity of Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, both of which have been cited for multiple safety violations in recent years, should be done immediately. Moreover, early closure of these plants needs to be given serious consideration.
Recently nuclear power has been promoted as a carbon-emissions-free alternative to fossil fuels like oil and coal, and thus an energy source that could help alleviate global warming. But in addition to the incalculable dangers posed by highly radioactive fuel, nuclear power plants are extremely expensive to build, require government subsidies to be economically feasible, are difficult to insure, and in the event of a major accident the taxpayers who survive are liable for the costs of the clean-up and recovery.
Now that Fukushima has demonstrated the magnitude of the risk, and given the unsolved problem posed by the need for long-term safe disposal of radioactive waste, further development of nuclear power should to be stopped in its tracks.
John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.