Consider the Risks of Operating a Former Nuclear Power Plant in SLO County

August 15, 2022


Our national government and several eminent personalities have recently declared their support for the extension of Diablo Canyon’s operating license to Avila Beach and other aging nuclear power plants. Due to the serious threats posed by climate change, it may be wise to buy time to wean ourselves off fossil fuels by expanding the operations of existing nuclear power plants and perhaps even building new ones with today’s advanced technology.

Before that decision can be made, however, there are some difficult questions that need to be answered, especially since a serious accident could have dramatically serious and multi-generational consequences. For California, a major failure of Diablo could have catastrophic effects on agriculture in the “breadbasket of the world” in the Central Valley. Nearby densely populated areas risk becoming “exclusion zones” of permanent settlement.

What’s the risk ? Most plants were designed and licensed for an assumed life of 20 years. As factories neared the end of their operating licenses, policymakers revisited this standard and agreed to extend the life of most factories another 20 years, arguing that engineers were “over-engineering” the designs.

Until the first license extension, nuclear accidents were quite frequent and regularly reported in the press. Several were very serious, contaminating workers, local residents, farmland, fisheries and even a town (now abandoned).

There are at least five melted nuclear cores around the world that are still radioactive and cannot be cleaned up, only contained (Fukushima was a planning failure, not a component failure). Other factories arrived within hours of the collapse and are still functioning. Related industries, such as nuclear fuel processing plants and waste storage facilities, have also exposed workers and the general public to unintentional radiation releases.

Since the last extension, public declarations of accidents have largely disappeared. This may be because new practices and upgrades have made metal fatigue and corrosion a thing of the past or, more likely, problem reporting protocols have changed (in the US , regulators are appointed by the president and therefore subject to political influence).

It strains credibility to believe that there have been no more accidents at any of the more than 70 factories in the country or hundreds more around the world. At least the public owes an explanation.

Have all operation and maintenance bugs been squashed since a Midwest plant arose hours after a severe containment breach several years ago? California shut down its other two reactors, Rancho Seco, near Sacramento, and San Onofre, near San Diego, due to major safety concerns. Diablo’s two reactors are of the same design – the second was built using “mirror image” blueprints that required contractors to copy information by hand – and both are located near two faults seismic, one of which was discovered years after the power plants started up.

Extension extensions must be carefully and professionally reviewed, with decisions based on science, not politics, and each plant must be independently and rigorously assessed. The expansions should also meet recent requirements to have closed water cooling systems – this includes Diablo – intended to mitigate environmental impacts. The advisability of relying on centralized energy facilities must be examined, as illustrated by the Ukrainian nuclear power plants threatened by war.

A transparent analysis of past safety issues and a professional and rigorous assessment of the current mechanical state of Diablo and others must be a basic requirement – ​​critical – before making a decision that could have multigenerational consequences.

It is essential that policy makers make informed decisions based on rigorous independent analysis, lest we buy a decade of ‘clean energy’ at the cost of centuries of regret.

Terry Lamphier was among more than 1,800 arrested for protesting Diablo Canyon’s initial license, later joining three pro bono attorneys and 11 other defendants to represent more than 500 people arrested protesting the charges. After two years of preparation and two weeks of testimony from defendants and expert witnesses covering design, safety, security and other issues, the judge ruled in favor of the defendants and the state dropped all charges.