EDITORIAL The six-unit Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was designed to withstand the strongest earthquake that geologists said could reasonably be predicted for the region near northern Japan. It was designed to withstand the largest tsunami that the experts expected. It had triple backups to keep the reactor cores cool in the event of a natural disaster.
But, as is often the case with spectacular catastrophes, nothing went according to plan. The earthquake was far stronger than anyone figured was possible. The combination of the flooding and the shaking overwhelmed all of the emergency systems. The radiation releases are already severe enough to cause significant causalities — in the best case scenario, the danger already far exceeds that of the Three Mile Island fiasco. In a wide array of worst outcomes, large geographical areas could be uninhabitable for hundreds of years — and 39 million people living in and around Tokyo could be at risk.
The news comes just as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has been asking state and federal regulators for permission to renew its operating licenses for the two reactors at the Diablo Canyon plant. The licenses expire in 2024 and 2025, but the utility wants to front-load the process and get approval quickly to operate the plant for another 20 years.
That's a bad idea on so many levels it's hard to know where to start.
The plant sits almost on top of the Hosgri Fault, which has the same dangerous characteristics as the fault outside of Sendai, Japan. And geologists just discovered another fault running 300 yards from the plant gates. PG&E says the plant is designed to handle a 7.5-level earthquake, which is the greatest tremor anyone can foresee for those faults. Remember: nobody thought the 9.0 Japan quake was possible either. The truth is, even the best experts are only making guesses.
Then there's the fact that Diablo continues to generate, and accumulate, highly radioactive waste — and there's no place to put it. So spent fuel rods containing plutonium (among the most toxic substances on earth) sit in the bottom of a glorified swimming pool — which, the utility's experts tell us, is perfectly safe. (Remember: executives at the Tokyo Electric Power Company said the same thing about the waste material at Fukushima Dai-ichi.)
The reactors were designed to last 30 years; the relicense would push their lifespan far beyond that, increasing the likelihood of an accident. And the company has a long history of safety problems, human error, and outright lies. (Remember: these are the same folks who said the pipelines under San Bruno were safe.)
Let's face it: there's no possible way for anyone to be certain that the plant isn't vulnerable to an unexpectedly strong earthquake. And the damage that of a serious accident to a nuclear plant 150 miles north of Los Angeles could cause is incalculable.
PG&E has asked the California Public Utilities Commission to allow it to charge ratepayers $85 million for relicensing studies. State Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), a research geophysicist with a doctorate in earthquake studies, wants PG&E to conduct extensive tests on the new fault before applying for new licenses. That's a start, but it's nowhere near enough.
This plant should never have been built, and California is lucky that it's survived so far. The quake in Japan is a harsh reminder of how inherently dangerous nuclear power is — particularly in densely populated areas. The CPUC should refuse to allocate a penny for anything except a study on how quickly the plant can be shut down, for good.
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