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Wake-up call to PG&E!

Why is the energy company scared to allow a physics experiment at Diablo?


Between our everyday lives and events that dominate our news, it is easy for other topics, such as a neutrino project, to be missed. Recently there has been publicity highlighting a “neutrino telescope� at Diablo Canyon. This is a project worthy of our consideration, and yet it hasn’t been given a fair shake. Let me explain.

This experiment is to be located near the Diablo Canyon reactors. Berkeley physicists, who head the group, have made this their prime location. And the proposal includes Cal Poly! Imagine, a possible Nobel Prize in our backyard! Similar projects in Japan have been welcomed. These have led to major discoveries and have won a Nobel Prize — something in which the citizens take tremendous pride.

With an enthusiastic initial reception by PG&E upper management, it seemed the proposal stood a good chance. No one was naive enough to think there wouldn’t be hurdles, but consultants were sure that concerns could be met. Many citizens and citizen groups have supported it. To them it just seems like “a good idea,� “a no-brainer,� and a “win-win� situation.

What “good� is all this? The answer depends, of course, on your definition of “good.�

The U.S. has always committed to supporting science. Recently, other countries have begun to overtake us in basic research. This experiment, ranked a “must-do� experiment by several scientific boards, is too good to pass up. It is good for science, the United States, and our prestige.

• On a practical level, research spawns practical applications. The space program is a prime example.

• From an economical view, the proposal would spend (funded by NSF and DOE) $50 to 100 million, a good fraction of which would stay here.

• From an educational view, it provides a tremendous opportunity to interact with scientists. The project includes workshops, meetings, and a science outreach program to school districts. The benefits to education at Cal Poly are obvious. What an opportunity to forge a new model of education-industry cooperation!

So why doesn’t PG&E want the neutrino project? In general, the company’s “reasons� fall into three categories:

Security: I doubt a team of scientists, used to working all over the world, would be a problem. At any rate, they are willing to undergo whatever security scrutiny is needed.

Schedule: PG&E claims that building the project would interfere with their construction plans. The group is willing to work around PG&E’s schedule. In fact, there would be no interference with plant operations — the group recognizes that the plant is there to deliver electric energy, period.

Environment: The tunnel opening would hardly be noticed, especially compared to the construction already there. Tunnel tailings amount to 25 percent of those to be generated by carving the hills for dry-cask storage. PG&E’s geologists have suggested the tailings be used to cover previous scars. When completed, the tailings could be returned to the tunnel, which when sealed would look nearly pristine. Environmentalists who have contacted me and learned the facts do not have a problem. The environmental cost is tiny and benefits huge. The group is aware of environmental concerns, and is willing to accept that challenge.

What can be done to get this going?

At this date, it would take a miracle. So far, essentially no significant responses have come from people in power — those who should be concerned. This includes the CSU, our senators in Washington, and the governor, despite articles in the SF Chronicle and LA Times.

What we need is a change of thinking from PG&E. Do I think this will happen? No. Is it worth continuing the fight? Absolutely.

PG&E does not see the obvious: the project could generate positive public relations. They also forget that the research upon which nuclear plants are built, was done, in large part, at universities funded by our taxes.

Some sort of corporate
conscience should trigger reconsideration. But apparently it will not. To be sure, it would take effort on PG&E’s part. But it
would have tremendous results. Compare this attitude to Japan, where corporations rush to basic research. They supplied top engineers for the neutrino laboratory! One would hope that PG&E realizes that society does value basic science, and that as part of the fabric of society, they should help.

A quote from an article by Dr. L. Krause, a well-respected physicist, from last fall’s Tribune, tells it as it is:

“If the experiment goes off as planned, Diablo Canyon will be placed alongside the other locations where, throughout history, fundamental progress in our understanding of nature took place.

“To paraphrase the words of Robert Wilson, the first director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, who was asked whether it would contribute to the defense of the nation, he said: ‘No, but it will help keep the nation worth defending!’�

Unfortunately, we will likely lose this wonderful project. This will be a loss for us and a “win� for PG&E, who won’t have to be bothered. A “win,� but at what cost?

Dr. Tony Buffa is a professor in the physics department at Cal Poly. He can be reached at abuffa@calpoly.edu.

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