By: Michael Poloz
We must be honest with ourselves about nuclear energy, especially in the countries that have the most power plants, which are the United States, Japan, Russia and France, that it isn’t going away any time soon. The leader, with almost one-forth of all the nuclear power reactors in the world with 104, the USA can’t feasibly go the route of Germany and be nuclear free in fifteen years or so. This is not to say that we wouldn’t like to be; the fact is that we as a nation just can’t.
Everyone, at least now, agrees that clean, natural, renewable and safe energy is a necessity. We need that kind of energy to be the sole type giving power throughout our entire energy grid. Research is ongoing on solar, wind, hydro and geothermal, and they won’t be at a nationalizing, fully self-sustainable level until some years. The question is what to do in the meantime? What does the US do with their 104 reactors?
To be succinct, I will comment on only one nuclear power plant location and try to represent the larger picture with it. In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station disaster, the seismic state of California will suffice with the Diablo Canyon Power Plant at Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County. Since its inception, the plant has drawn controversy throughout the years. The plant sits near a few fault zones with one being offshore. Concerns raised during the plant’s construction led to reinforcing parts of the complex and the recent Japanese disaster has reignited some protest groups.
It’s hard to use the word “safe” talking about nuclear power plants when catastrophes such as Chernobyl and Fukushima stain our history. It’s hard to use the word “clean” when we hear about nuclear waste. These locutions are somewhat meaningless to the facts. The fact is that, yes, overall, nuclear power stations are rather safe, but when a disaster happens, it’s not exactly a problem one can fix with a Band-Aid. In addition, if the process of obtaining energy from the plants was clean, we would not be burying vast numbers of barrels filled with toxic waste deep into mountains. The fact is that we have these power plants and we will be stuck with them for some time. The Diablo Canyon Power Plant is a good example of the good, bad and ugly sides of obtaining energy from this energy source.
The construction of the plant—the largest concern for any plant—seems sound. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) states on its website that “Diablo Canyon is built to withstand the largest earthquakes and tsunamis that experts postulate could occur in the region.” The plant sits on a high coastal bluff, but is it high enough to withstand a tsunami? Experts have their estimates and predictions, but until an actual tsunami hits to test the location, some will not stop holding their breath. After Japan, one may stray to the cynical side and say that these are exaggerated claims, especially since the offshore fault zone was only recently discovered. But the fact is that the plant is there and the energy from it is needed. It’s good to hear that there have been precautions taken and studies conducted after Fukushima, but the bad part is that it sits on the coast in a quaking state. The ugly comes when the perfect (though improbable) seismic disturbance shows up, like the recent one in Japan.
Our culture in the United States disallows the limited use of nuclear energy. We use it nonchalantly and refuse to cut back on our addiction—it seems that some deem the ability to be wasteful an American virtue. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees the power plants in our nation but the citizens do not oversee their own power consumption. And any talk about energy conservation ends in hyperbole about “Big Government.” Meanwhile, before we have our utopia of clean, natural and renewable energy (whenever that will be), we must make sure the construction of our power plants are state of the art and regularly inspected. This is currently the best we can do. And if a catastrophic meltdown occurs on US soil, and keeping in mind the oil spills off our coasts, our energy policy will most likely remain the same: Consume and clean up later.
Image by: Michael Poloz