Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

San Onofre Nuclear Shutdown – A Medium-Sized Victory – Tom Rossi

It was announced this week that the nuclear power plant at San Onofre, California (San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS) would be permanently shut down. Finally. But this was not really a victory for what I’ll call the “anti-really-obviously-stupid-nuclear” movement. And I’ll tell you why.

SONGS should never have been built. Its first reactor came on line in 1968. It wasn’t known, at the time of its construction, that the site was almost directly atop a fault line, but what was known? It was well known that California was the home of thousands of fault lines, even if some of those are fairly short.

What’s important is that geologists knew that they didn’t know about all of California’s faults. They knew that it was likely that many more than were known at that time would be discovered in the coming decades. They were right.

San Onofre, like pretty much anywhere in California, was an idiotically dangerous place to build a nuclear power plant. But that wasn’t the only issue.

Nuclear power plants have limited lifespans. This is due to both the inevitable seepage of radiation (and its effects) into various parts of the mechanisms of the plant, and to the fact that tiny flaws due to vibration (as was the case in San Onofre) make the first problem worse and also cause general deterioration that is incredibly difficult and expensive to fix. Mainly because of these problems, the risk of a radioactive leak or release increases with time.

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So, nuclear power plants typically are only in operation for around 40 years anyway. As a whole, SONGS had outlived that, even though its second and third reactors had only been on line for about 30 years.

And, in fact, each of the reactors at SONGS had problems. Activists are claiming victory, and I wish it were so, but SONGS has succumbed not to political pressure nearly as much as decay and economics. And the victory gets even more hollow…

The news coverage of the closing of SONGS has been sparse and, as usual, somewhat dominated by the nuclear industry’s PR messages. And while some anti-nuclear activists are celebrating, continued industry control over the media may tell us which way the wind still blows.

Today, almost every story on SONGS is about how many jobs will be lost and how much it will cost to decommission the plant. That’s how dirty businesses are defended, now – they provide jobs. I guess we never should have shut down asbestos production. Think of all the jobs we could have saved!

And the cost of decommissioning any nuclear power plant is almost completely predictable and has to be figured into the total cost-benefit analysis of a nuclear power plant project. Decommissioning cost is part of the reason that nuclear power is an economic failure (a predictable one) as well as a hazard to both human and ecological health.

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I pay close attention to corporate influence on the media. It’s visible pretty much everywhere, but often, so is the backlash. Other people who pay attention make lots of noise and usually get some media attention themselves when the media show bias toward war profiteers or oil companies, for example. But the nuclear industry dominates the media much more thoroughly. They act pre-emptively in planting their messages on networks like PBS (on the completely pro-energy-industy program “Need to Know” for example) and the other “mainstream” channels.

It doesn’t bother me so much that some people are pro-nuclear. Some of them are actually real environmentalists that have been convinced that nuclear is a solution to carbon emission and, therefore, climate change. But in the media, there is no debate. That’s because the anti-nuclear side has no money with which to sponsor television programming. The grass-roots movement is still very strong, but the nuclear industry fights top-down.

These days, I always hear about new reactor designs that will be the greatest things since sliced bread – with much less radioactive waste and so forth. I asked famously converted “climate skeptic” and physicist at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore Labs, Richard Muller (who is a really nice guy, by the way) what he thought about these new reactor designs, and he said, “Well, they look good on paper.” Interesting response.

One thing I’m sure of is that the crop of older nuclear plants that are still in operation need to be shut down. Any old excuse will do just fine, but shut them down, soon. They are all old and the risk of an accident is increasing, as are stockpiles of radioactive waste.

The closing of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is certainly something to celebrate. But don’t sound the victory gong just yet. We have a long and difficult battle ahead if we want to slow down the energy-addiction-justified poisoning of our planet… and ourselves.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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