News

The Devil and the details

On the nearby Pecho Coast, American nuclear energy effectively died but if the neo-cons eye a renaissance, it must begin at Diablo Canyon

by

comment

Twelve years before the accident at Three Mile Island, world-renowned nature photographer Ansel Adams penned a chilling statement.

TWIN TOWERS :  Diablo Canyons massive dry storage casks stand at the crossroads of a looming nuclear renaissance and the present age of terrorism. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • TWIN TOWERS : Diablo Canyons massive dry storage casks stand at the crossroads of a looming nuclear renaissance and the present age of terrorism.

# "Diablo Canyon was prophetically named," Adams wrote in the Feb. 1967 edition of the Sierra Club Bulletin. "It grew as a contentious issue ... to sow doubt and dissension."

The immortality of his words belied the simple context of their use at the time Adams was referring to a disagreement within the Sierra Club of whether to endorse the plant's current location and save the Nipomo Dunes from utility development.

Even among environmentalists of the era, atomic energy hardly proved a robust bone of contention. Stacked up next to smoke-bellowing antiquities like Morro Bay or dystopian installations like Moss Landing, a well-placed nuclear plant symbolized progressive energy policy. By the time the first Diablo Canyon reactor became operational in 1984, that perspective had completely eroded.

"Trust seems to be what shifted," explained historian John Wills, author of Conservation Fallout. "In the 1970s, there was a realization, for the first time, of nuclear projects moving into people's backyards."

Escalating skepticism throughout the decade lunged west after an outburst of protests at the Seaside nuclear plant in New Hampshire hit the front page of every major newspaper from Boston to San Francisco. Late in 1977, at nearby Rancho el Chorro, several California direct-action organizations formed the Abalone Alliance modeled after New England's anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance and threw a gauntlet into the white sands of Avila Beach. On remote seaside ranching land, accessible only through eight miles of perilously winding canyon, Pacific Gas and Electric was building the world's most advanced nuclear facility.

Pennsylvania's narrow strafe with atomic calamity in 1979 emulsified conservationists growing increasingly jaded toward the nuclear industry's promises. Membership in the Abalone Alliance swelled. Forty thousand activists converged on San Luis Obispo later that year, launching a string of rallies and demonstrations that eventually led to the boisterous arrest of nearly 2,000 nonviolent protestors in 1981.

"It was pretty wonderful that the issue was getting recognition nationwide," said local activist Liz Apfelberg, arrested along with her husband and son during a 1981 blockade. "We really felt more hope as more people showed up."

Challenges in the judicial arena proved less successful, but nevertheless progressed long after the dissolution of the Abalone Alliance.

Despite the Alliance's efforts, Diablo Canyon's full 2,200-megawatt payload surged into the California power grid on Aug. 26, 1985. Because of the Alliance's efforts paired with news of an unimaginable Ukrainian disaster later that winter Diablo was the last nuclear plant commissioned in the United States.

'Nuclear renaissance'
In an Oct. 22 interview on the C-SPAN program Newsmakers, Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Dave Klein offered concrete federal recognition to a secret circulating around Washington since January: Nuclear power is officially back on the table. Prior to 2006, the issue remained merely a dim hope among energy hardliners like Republican Sen. Pete Domencini of New Mexico.

CLUSTERED :  One of the main beefs Mothers for Peace has with the PG&E project is the tight concentration of the radioactive mausoleums. Upon completion or in the event of completion 130 casks will line a series of concrete pads. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • CLUSTERED : One of the main beefs Mothers for Peace has with the PG&E project is the tight concentration of the radioactive mausoleums. Upon completion or in the event of completion 130 casks will line a series of concrete pads.
# Calling 2006 the dawn of a "nuclear renaissance," industry leaders spent all summer pointing to revisiting atomic power as a palpable solution to peak oil and other global energy terrors. Unlike other large-scale alternative energy proposals, a detailed protocol for the installation of fission reactors already existed.

The buzz seemed to indicate that licensing applications for new facilities inside the United States as many as 29 may receive serious consideration for the first time since Three Mile Island spooked the issue into submission. Klein didn't disagree.

"I do believe that we will see license applications in 2007 and we are looking we have expressions of intent from a lot of the utilities indicating up as I said, up to about 29 new nuclear plants," Klein said. "So I believe that there will be a renaissance in the United States."

Last fall, Constellation Energy discussed the possible construction of a third reactor at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant on the Chesapeake Bay. Some analysts scoffed, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission didn't, and a veritable deluge of licensing proposals followed.

The still-subtle debate even reached the Central Valley in August when the Fresno Utility Commission looked far outside the box for solutions to the agency's myriad of fiscal woes. Commission chairman John Hutson proposed studying the feasibility of placing a 400- or 600-megawatt reactor next to a wastewater treatment facility west of town. If pursued, the new plant would employ treated graywater to cool the small reactor, effectively trading sewage for revenue from PG&E and other utility companies.

The revelation arrived at about the same time a crippling heat wave threatened rolling blackouts across California. Based on the industry standard of 1,000 people per megawatt of production a figure recently challenged as an overreach the plant would ideally solve two major bugaboos in the San Joaquin Valley. Hutson estimated that utility rates for Fresnans would drop to 2 cents per kilowatt, down from the 17-cent rate for PG&E juice.

"We have some of the highest poverty rates in the nation here in the Valley. It's Appalachia west," Hutson said. "The project would spark growth while providing an independent energy solution."

However, before municipalities, utilities, and power interests start drafting plans, one major issue requires attention: What do you do with fuel after the reactor milks it dry?


Carter's ass or a hole in the ground
Members of the nuclear community often blame the Carter administration for present shortfalls in uranium recycling technology. Early in his presidency, Carter banned reprocessing in the United States due to the fear that it contributed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Reagan, of course, relegalized it, but not before the winds of public opinion showed a strong shift away from nuclear energy.

ELECTRIC :  Long before a nuclear plant rested on its shore, Diablo Canyon was described as a place of great energy. In part, the future of American energy policy depends on this remote slice of the Pecho Coast. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • ELECTRIC : Long before a nuclear plant rested on its shore, Diablo Canyon was described as a place of great energy. In part, the future of American energy policy depends on this remote slice of the Pecho Coast.
# Today, many advocates for atomic power seek to again explore breeder reactors which recycle degraded Uranium-238 into weapons-grade Plutonium-239 as an alternative to entombment at a national repository. Scientists can then separate out the more volatile breeder product into recycled uranium "yellow-cake." The industry often points to France as an operational model.

According to physicist Arjun Makhijani, conventional wisdom within the scientific community places breeder technology far from the scope of economic plausibility. In addition to requiring large subsidies to get reprocessing facilities off the ground, yellow-cake is, plainly and simply, far more expensive than fresh-mined uranium.

"It's a failed technology," claimed Makhijani, who pointed out that the French government closed its flagship reprocessing program due to horrible inefficiency. "It would require 2,000 breeder reactors operating for 50 years to produce the fuel needed in America.

"It's basically impossible."

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the chief lobby representing commercial nuclear power, often presents scientific literature stumping for uranium recycling. Still, a group spokesman failed to produce a physicist willing to go on the record in support of the controversial technology as of press time.

"Despite the talk surrounding breeder reactors, there's not a lot of meat to the bone," Nuclear Watch director Jay Coughlan commented. "The emperor has no clothes."

Advocates of reprocessing replied that the rising price of uranium combined with reactor evolution abroad that allows plants to bypass the costly preparation phases in fuel recycling is making the process more economically viable.

"In Scandinavia, they have amazing new reactor technology," the Fresno Utility Commission's Hutson said. "The cell phone in your hand is more advanced than the communications equipment on Apollo 11. Our technology is just atrophied in this area."

Whether reprocessing constitutes a promising new chapter in the energy policy saga or just another hydrogen fuel cell, the reactor network necessary to make recycling possible on a large scale doesn't exist yet. So, instead, the immediate future of nuclear power stands mired in the scorched home sands of the military industrial complex.

PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
# One hundred miles outside of Las Vegas, the Department of Energy has drained more than $9 billion to build a tunnel, a lab, and a pile of controversy. A process that's proven as thorny as the facility's botanical namesake, the construction of the Yucca Mountain national repository is already years overdue with no apparent end to the delays. A healthy regiment of Southern Nevadans perpetually raises objections and is less than enthused with the concept of their backyard being transformed into a salvage pile for the gnarliest of industrial byproduct.

"This is the wrong site," asserted Jon Sommers, aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "The science is neither sound nor complete.

"This facility will never be built."

Due to neo-conservative control in Washington, plans at Yucca earned expedition throughout the 109th Congress. As a measure of short-term relief, New Mexico's Domencini authored a bill this fall that would finance the construction of a dry cask storage facility in the desert basin while the Department of Energy excavates its atomic catacombs 1,000 feet below the mountain.

"We must get Yucca Mountain back on track. We need Yucca Mountain," Domencini commented during a Nov. 13 speech before the American Nuclear Society. "In September, I introduced a bill addressing Yucca Mountain that I hope will stand as the foundation for a debate in the next Congress."

Of that, there seems little doubt. However, even if on-site dry cask storage somehow manages to evade stalling litigation, Yucca Mountain isn't exactly a magic bullet solution to growing fuel stockpiles. At Diablo Canyon always the quintessential example spent fuel could linger in the Central Coast past mid-century. Since the DOE formulated its waiting lists based on the date reactors went operational, Diablo Canyon literally occupies the last spot in the queue.

Then, there's the proclamation from certain Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Reid, that they will never suffer a nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain.

To prepare for the long wait or worse PG&E secured the licensing to build a complex of heavy-duty dry storage casks in 2002. Set to occupy a nearby hillside, the cask facility commenced construction earlier this year. The utility planned to begin emptying a nearly brimming storage pool by the end of the decade.

Then, someone sued.


The two faces of terrorism
Straight out of the age of the Abalone Alliance, Mothers for Peace an anti-war, anti-nuclear group founded during the Vietnam Era joined forces with the Sierra Club and former SLO county supervisor Peg Pinard against the Diablo storage project. Claiming that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission circumvented environmental analysis delving into the possible outfall from a terrorist attack on the facility, the plaintiffs challenged the validity of permits to construct the dry cask bunker, and won.

In June, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found the NRC deficient in certain aspects of its pre-licensing analysis. Calling the ruling a procedural caveat in the federal regulatory bureaucracy, PG&E promptly forged onward with its plans to construct the facility. Mothers for Peace, who firmly interpreted the Ninth's decision as an active injunction, called upon the NRC and PG&E to take the judicial requirements to heart.

The group primarily objected to what it views as flagrant safety shortfalls in the project and a lack of public input in the licensing process.

"We're talking about 130 casks all in a row," Mothers for Peace's Jill ZaMek said. "They could construct a berm or spread the casks out, but they decided to keep building. They don't have the legal license to do it."

Diablo Canyon's Gerald Strickland, project manager for the dry cask bunker, described studies conducted by the utility that deflated concerns that a hijacked plane could spring a radioactive leak. He also defended PG&E's decision to cluster the casks.

"By having them together within a facility, it's easier to protect them," Strickland said. "When you license a facility for storage, you're required to protect it the same as the plant itself."

Instead of revising its plans, the utility appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. On Nov. 21, the justices granted a 13-day extension to the Dec. 2 deadline for briefs filed in the case. In addition to the NRC and PG&E, the most powerful nuclear lobby in Washington NEI is expected to file an amicus brief on behalf of the industry as a whole.

PG&E alpha lawyer Gene Schearr backed the assertions of the NRC that the regulatory body carried out more-than-adequate terrorism analysis. The utility also holds firm that public involvement during the licensing process fulfilled all National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) disclosure requirements that do not jeopardize national security in the post-9/11 climate.

"The NRC has an extensive process of review," Schearr said. "They have received a lot of feedback on the matter. The challenges constitute obstruction tactics under the guise of an environmental statute."

Predictions of legal proliferation took little time to materialize.

The Ninth recently winnowed through a lawsuit by the Bay Area Tri-Valley CARES to find a grievance worthy of legal objection. In a case remarkably similar to the Diablo ruling, the court determined that the Department of Energy also failed to fully analyze the impact of a terrorist attack on the new biological weapons lab of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Nuke-watchers monitoring the facility claimed it holds up to 1,540 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium enough for 150 fission bombs in addition to large amounts of enriched uranium and tritium (the spooky stuff that gives the fusion bomb its oomph). Soon, UC scientists at Livermore will add biowarfare matter to the compound's deadly inventory.

At the behest of Homeland Security, the DOE designed the proposed laboratory to push the boundaries of America's defense against pandemic-spreading agents in the hands of terrorists. Activists responded with complaints that adding a bio lab only made the aging complex more attractive to terrorists. The concept: a terrorist strike against a facility built and operated to combat the effects of a terrorist strike.

"In terms of terrorism, Livermore is vulnerable," Tri-Valley CARES director Marylia Kelley said. "It's already quite an attractive target."

"This is the best-protected bio lab in the country," LLNL spokesman Steve Wampler retorted. "This facility has always been at the forefront of detection and defense."


Chiefly, however, the Livermore activists became embittered toward an institution that Diablo Canyon protestors knew all too well: question-and-unanswers sessions conducted by federal regulators.

"This is the age of terrorism, and we're always enveloped in these threats," Nuclear Watch's Coughlan said. "The regulatory branch is talking out of both sides of its mouth."

Delving into the secrecy policy
For the purposes of this report, both the NRC and DOE refused to comment on the peace-group lawsuits or the matters involved.

"We're in the process of evaluating [the Ninth decision]," NRC regional administrator Bruce Mallett told locals at a mid-summer safety review in San Luis Obispo.

The regulatory body's statement hasn't changed a word, but the commission continues to offer assurances. Still, PG&E spent the time and money to appeal the ruling. Utility lawyer Schearr and his team cited an "immense practical importance of the issue to PG&E, to the entire nuclear industry, and indeed to all industries regulated by federal agencies subject to NEPA."

So sans an active injunction and if the ruling only mandates an easily conducted additional study what's the holdup? Additionally, since the Ninth's ruling never actually stopped the construction of the dry storage casks, why risk a clarification of that issue by the Supreme Court? The perceived gap in rationality behind PG&E's actions sparked speculation among the peace groups.

"The reason everybody [applies] their theories is because it doesn't make sense," said Mothers for Peace attorney Diane Curran.

Despite heavy language used in the appeal documents, PG&E's attorney referred to the lawsuit as "less than a landmark case." He agreed that elements of the NEPA public disclosure requirements constituted the main tear in perspective between the utility and the activists.

"The NRC determined additional reviews under NEPA would endanger national security," Schearr said. "The agency's NEPA reviews are surplus ... what they've done is actually quite well documented."

Members of Mothers for Peace and Tri-Valley CARES, who are watching this potentially precedent-setting lawsuit as carefully as they are their own attributed the utility's hesitance to conduct the study to the underlying fear that subsequent public review would spark newfound awareness. If the court forced the NRC to publicly state the environmental impact of a successful terrorist attack, the frightening reality could endanger the nuclear renaissance, they assert. Activists hastened to predict the resurrection of the Abalone Alliance.

"NEPA is the one area where they have to involve the public," Curran said. "They don't want the truth to come out. It's almost an inevitable conclusion."

"Since the Abalone Alliance, we've seen the decay of the doomsday image to the point where it's almost a fait accompli," historian Wills added. "There could be protests again."

PG&E's Strickland disagreed that the situation bears the potential for a major disaster.

"If there were an attack, it wouldn't be like a plant meltdown. There is nothing around the casks to volatize [the fuel], no mechanism to spread it across a large area," the engineer said. "The anti-nuclear folks know this."

For 20 years, Diablo Canyon's sparkling performance and safety record has stockpiled street cred for the industry. But the quarrelsome issue of what to do with spent materials impacts a safe plant as much as it does a perilous one. For the first time since the lawsuit began last year, PG&E officials admitted that licensing entanglements could threaten plant operations since the storage pool is practically full.

In one of its few actual statements, the NRC illustrated concerns that NEPA studies could provide terrorists with an attack blueprint. Both peace organizations said that they would accept a classified security appendix.

"We're not asking the government to publish the full review," responded Kelley of Tri-Valley CARES. "We're asking if a terrorist got access to dangerous material and if that material leaked out, what would the impact be?"

Whichever side one takes, the Mothers for Peace lawsuit jeopardizes the modus operandi of multiple regulatory bodies when dealing with terrorism: the "trust us, we know what we're doing" mantra.

For good or ill, everything hinges on the Supreme Court decision.


SMUD happens
The move to the Supreme Court also comes at a dubious time for PG&E.

The utility stirred up quite a bit of discord during this election season by launching an $11-million campaign to prevent the annexation of Yolo County into the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). PG&E told voters that the value of its infrastructure in the community weighed in at $520 million, and, therefore, Yolo and Sacramento County ratepayers would experience a hefty increase to bankroll the startup costs. Whether or not that assessment proves accurate an independent report suggested otherwise PG&E declared a value of only $64 million for tax purposes.

PG&E stood behind its assessment even after the independent review appraised the infrastructure much lower.

Yolo County voters split over the issue and the PG&E-sponsored campaign managed to convince a majority of Sacramento voters. Certain politicians cried a hearty foul, and now the corporation faces an official inquiry. Anti-nuke activists stepped forward to call greater monitoring of the utility's affairs a matter of moral imperative.

"Their campaign was all about intimidation, lies, and fear," Woodland councilman Art Pimentel said. "I don't know why, as a state, we allow them to get away with so much."

The grid itself provides much motivation to support the energy company. During the August heat wave, Diablo Canyon's production alone made the difference between an alert status and the first rolling blackouts since Enron played marionette with the deregulated market.

"Solar and wind can't replace this as base load power," plant spokesman Jeff Lewis said, looking up at the hillside above the plant. "People don't realize that."

Above, an inconceivable amount of electricity passed through a Byzantine network of industrial conduits, filling the air with buzzes and snaps before hopping a steel tether on its long journey to the hungry Central Valley. An angry swell broke chaotically on the rocky shoreline below and a torrid wind battered the sun-deprived valley. The long drive back to Avila promised the steady scorn of thousands of cryptic-looking live oaks almost as unsettling as the approaching nuclear quandary.

Diablo Canyon was indeed prophetically named. Staff Writer Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at pklemz@newtimesslo.com.

Tags

Add a comment