JUICE: Terminal Velocity

By Published On: March 19, 2010

The pro-nuclear Reddy Kilowatt wasn’t drawn to have a cache of drinking water, spare flashlights, and a hazmat suit (although he does seem to have the proper booties). Those earthquake preparations should be part of a well-equipped nuclear cartoon character--especially one that’s 48-years-old and should know better. The massive 7.2 temblor March 11 in Chile and 8.8 earthquake also in Chile February 27, the 6.5 quake January 9 that destroyed much of the original town of Eureka on Humboldt Bay in this state, and the 7.0 temblor in Haiti January 12 are stark reminders that California is a land of fault lines waiting to move. There will be another Northridge or Loma Prieta--we just don’t know when. We also know that Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors are built within a few miles of a major fault. We know too that the shuttered but still-radioactive Humboldt Bay nuclear plant is within a few hundred feet of earthquake faults. Earthquakes are not as contentious an issue for Southern California Edison’s San Onofre nuke. What’s so terrifying about faults and nuclear power is that an earthquake can suddenly tear up either or both a fission container (reactors) and associated waste storage facilities that contain plutonium. “Oops” just wouldn’t be the word for it. If radioactivity is released from a power plant due to an earthquake, then it’s bye-bye to human lives, and at the least, sayonara to a huge swath of land cordoned off for more than a hundred thousand years because the soil and everything else will remain toxic. If you remember the 1986 repercussions from the Chernobyl reactor fire, it gives you a bleak reference scenario. PG&E deems the nuclear facility “clean, affordable, and reliable.” In late January, PG&E requested an estimated $16.7 million from ratepayers to study earthquakes near the Diablo facility. This is on top of the $14 million spent last year for a feasibility study to apply for lengthening the reactors’ lifespan by 20 years from its current licenses. Those licenses are set to expire in 2024 and 2025. Now, PG&E estimates it would cost ratepayers $85 million for the paperwork to even get to the point of a 20-year license extension. If history is an indicator, like the state’s familiarity with earthquakes, these millions of dollars are just the beginning of a decade of such requests. In the current request, Diablo’s owner wants to conduct 3-D seismic surveys--like an underwater version of the movie “Avatar.” This wasn’t done prior to building the plant, nor prior to installing one of its reactors backwards, because the whiz bang technology to do so hadn’t gone commercial. Some environmentalists want the multi-million dollar studies in an effort to prove that the nuclear plant presents a grave danger. The thing is, we already know there is at least one major earthquake fault 3.5 miles from Diablo Canyon--the Hosgri fault. A second fault, the Shoreline, is less than a mile from the reactors. We already know that despite all the U.S. Geological Survey’s money and scientific minds, earthquakes remain unpredictable. We know too that the California coastline is a spectacular accident waiting to happen. Spending another $16.7 million or more on studies that we know cannot be proven is whiz bank, not whiz bang. Here, state regulators come to the financial angle: Diablo Canyon has long been a honey pot for PG&E. Diablo Canyon has been not only a health risk to California with the specter of earthquake damage, but certainly a financial risk for more than 25 years. In 1988, the state and the utility came to an agreement to lessen the amount of return on investment that ratepayers were paying on the nuclear plant through a novel ratemaking approach. Before that, if Diablo Canyon had less-than-expected performance, ratepayers still paid the bill. With the 1988 deal, Diablo’s owner could only make money on the actual power delivered from the nuclear facility. In that deal, as it progressed, the California Public Utilities Commission allowed a 7 percent annual increase in the rate of return. The state estimated five years later that PG&E received a 34 percent return in 1993 and was about to exceed a 40 percent rate of return in 1995. By the time the state deregulated the electricity system in 1996, the Division of Ratepayer Advocates estimated that PG&E had gained more than $28 billion from its original $5.5 billion investment in building the nuclear plant. During PG&E’s bankruptcy reorganization from 2001-03, the company attempted to spin off Diablo Canyon to a new, unregulated subsidiary. The bankruptcy court wouldn’t touch the plan, but if it were approved, Diablo’s “pension fund”--its decommissioning fund--could have been raided for cash. The fund currently holds about $2 billion. The state can keep granting PG&E more and more ratepayer funds for more and more studies to keep the aging Diablo Canyon nuclear plant alive for years beyond its 2024-25 retirement date. Or, regulators can say “enough is enough.” PG&E, which aches to present a “green” image to consumers, should be focusing on replacing nuclear power instead of potentially risking lives and property by keeping the plant alive. The utility’s chief executive officer recently said the company plans to become “expert” in distributed generation--a positive alternative to centralized fission. The first $14 million for studies is too much already. Those funds could have simply bought over 300 big rooftop solar installations free and clear. Photovoltaic systems too could collapse in an earthquake, but I’d rather be around one of them with my water bottles and flashlights than to need those same earthquake items, plus a major hazmat suit for 240,000 years (the toxic life of radioactivity). But, I might look cool in the booties.

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