Another Fukushima? In America? Not if, but when
Alexander Cockburn on the shameful trade-off that keeps nuclear power on the agenda
Americans read the increasingly panic-stricken reports of deepening catastrophe at Fukushima, speed to the pharmacy to buy iodine and ask, "It's happened there; can it happen here?"
Along much of California's coastline runs the Ring of Fire which stretches round the Pacific plate from Australia, north past Japan, to Russia, round to Alaska, and down America's west coast to Chile. Ninety per cent of the world's earthquakes happen round the Ring.
The late great environmentalist David Brower used to tell audiences solemnly, "Nuclear plants are incredibly complex technological devices for locating earthquake faults."
Apparently acting on this piece of sarcastic wisdom, the US has deployed four nuclear plants near the Ring of Fire faultline, including two active ones in my home state of California.
Forty miles up the road from me, in far northern California we had a boiling water reactor, closed in 1976 because – surprise! – there was an earthquake from a "previously unknown fault" just off the coast. Now all we have are spent nuclear fuel rods in ponds, right on the shoreline, a few feet above sea level, nicely situated for a tsunami, such as the one that disabled the relief diesel generators designed to pump emergency coolant in the Fukushima plant. Three plates meet a few miles west of where I write. We had a 7.1 earthquake in 1992. First moral in the nuclear business: Expect the unexpected.
Further south, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, planned in 1968 when no one knew about the Hosgri fault, part of the Ring of Fire, a few miles offshore. See moral number one.
Further inquiry established that there'd been a 7.1 earthquake 40 years earlier, offshore from the plant, completed in 1973. The power company – Pacific Gas and Electric - said it would beef up defences. In their haste, the site managers managed to reverse the blueprints for the new earthquake-proofing of the two reactors, and so the retro-fit wasn't a total success. Second moral in the nuclear business: people do mess up.
Back to the first moral: they recently discovered yet another fault and are now worried about "ground liquefaction" in the event of a big quake. In 2008 there was a terrorist attack by jellyfish which blocked the cold water intake, and the plant was shut down for a couple of days.
Head south another 150 miles and we get to the San Onofre plant, right on the shoreline. In fact I've swum in its shadow, in waters highly esteemed by anglers because fish gather there, enjoying the elevated water temp; some also claim the fish there get bigger, faster. There are storage ponds for spent fuel in a decommissioned unit in a spherical containment of concrete and steel with the smallest wall being 6ft thick, just about the same as the ruptured containment at one of the Fukushima units.
Further illustration of moral number two was in evidence in one of San Onofre's two active units, when it was discovered that the mighty engineering and construction firm Bechtel had installed a 420-ton nuclear-reactor vessel backwards. The nearest faultine is the Cristianitos, deemed inactive. See moral number one.
The power company says San Onofre is built to withstand a 7.0 quake right under the plant. They also constructed a 25ft protective sea wall, which is half the height of the walls that crumbled like sand last week along Japan's north-east coast. San Onofre is sea-water cooled. Environmentalists don't care for that so they plan to build two cooling towers the other side of Interstate 5, California's main north-south road, thus immune to jelly-fish attack, but open to other methods of assault.
The Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast figures the probability of an earthquake of 6.7 magnitude or higher is 67 per cent for Los Angeles, 63 per cent for San Francisco. Up where I live, in the Cascadia subduction zone, we have a 10 per cent possibility of an 8.0 or 9.0 force quake.
There are robust souls who look on the bright side. Some of them are in the pay of the nuclear industry - President Obama for example, who took plenty of money from this industry for his presidential campaign and used his State of the Union address last January to reaffirm his commitment to "clean, safe" nuclear power. This week, Obama's press spokesman confirmed that nuclear energy "remains a part of the President's overall energy plan".
The United States produces more nuclear energy than any other nation. It has 104 nuclear plants, many of them old, many prone to endless shutdowns, all of them dangerous. Take the Shearon Harris nuclear power station in North Carolina, also a repository for highly radioactive spent fuel rods from two other nuclear plants.
It would not even require a quake or tsunami, only a moderately ingenious terrorist, to breach Shearon Harris's puny defences and sabotage the cooling systems. A study by the Brookhaven Labs estimates that a pool fire there could cause 140,000 cancers, and contaminate thousands of square miles of land.
The benchmark catastrophe amid peacetime nuclear disasters remains the explosion in the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station on April 26, 1986, in the Ukraine. Earlier this week Fergus Walsh, the BBC's medical correspondent, comforted his audience with the amazing nonsense that by 2006 Chernobyl had prompted only 60 deaths from cancer!
In 2009 the New York Academy of Sciences published Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, a 327-page volume by three scientists, Alexey Yablokov and Vassily and Alexey Nesterenko. It is the definitive study to date.
In the summary of his chapter 'Mortality After the Chernobyl Catastrophe', Yablokov says flatly: "A detailed study reveals that 3.8–4.0 per cent of all deaths in the contaminated territories of Ukraine and Russia from 1990 to 2004 were caused by the Chernobyl catastrophe...
"Since 1990, mortality among the clean-up teams has exceeded the mortality rate in corresponding population groups. From 112,000 to 125,000 liquidators [members of clean-up crews] died before 2005 - that is, some 15 per cent of the 830,000 members of the Chernobyl clean-up teams.
"The calculations suggest that the Chernobyl catastrophe has already killed several hundred thousand human beings in a population of several hundred million that was unfortunate enough to live in territories affected by the fallout."
Set Fukushima next to Chernobyl and its ongoing lethal aftermath. Think of southern California or North Carolina. Nuclear expert Robert Alvarez, who advised President Clinton on nuclear matters, writes this week that a single spent fuel rod pool - as at Fukushima or Shearon Harris - holds more cesium-137 than was deposited by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the northern hemisphere combined, and an explosion in that pool could blast "perhaps three to nine times as much of these materials into the air as was released by the Chernobyl reactor disaster".
In the past few years there's been an explicit trade-off here in the US - and in Europe too - between the nuclear power industry and the many green organisations and prominent environmentalists who are fixated solely on their hypothesis of humanly caused global warming.
When the House of Representatives (though not the US Senate) voted for a climate bill in 2009, the inclusion of a clean energy bank to provide financial backing for new energy production, including nuclear, was part of the bargain.
This shameful pact has got to end. It's over. Look at the false predictions, the blunders, the elemental truth that Nature bats last, and that human folly and greed are ineluctable aspects of man's condition. There's no middle ground. ·
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