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

Archive for the tag “radiation”

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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PG&E – Supplier of Golden Skeletons – Tom Rossi

Note from editor:

The following Disassociated Press Article was apparently beamed back to the present day from the year 2029 in an as-yet-uninvented time machine or possibly a wormhole in the space-time continuum:

March 20th, 2029

San Francisco:

A settlement in an undisclosed amount was announced today in case of the PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric) napalming of large areas of northern California back in 2016. This was an incident in which several thousand people were killed and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case, survivors of the event, argue that PG&E deliberately burned many acres of trees in order to eliminate interference with their power transmission lines.

Gordo Assesino, chairman of PG&E since 2027 was interviewed outside the courtroom:

“This was really just a continuation of the program of elimination of ‘flesh-based’ jobs that we began back in 2010. That’s when we started, on a large scale, to replace meter-readers with microwave-band radiation emitting ‘smart meters‘. Installing the smart meters was a huge investment, sure. But in the long run it saved us many millions on salaries and retirement benefits that we would have had to pay out to our flesh-based implements. And although there were countless health ‘problems’ reported, pinning the cause on the smart meter radiation proved to be too difficult, especially since we had all the government regulators like the CPUC on our payroll.”

Assesino continued, “In 2012, the executive board realized that PG&E was spending around $180 million per year clearing tree branches and other vegetation from our power lines. Then we put two and two together and realized that what had worked with meter-readers would work with trees!”

So, in what was (to say the very least) a very bad pun, just as PG&E had fired meter readers and replaced them with “smart” meters, they “fired” the trees – literally set them on fire by dropping napalm onto heavily vegetated neighborhoods. According to PG&E, this reduced the need for trimming by 90% in what they called the “rollout” or “application” areas.

Assesino: “Of course, there were some collateral damages. A few lives were lost and a few properties were damaged. But overall, the program was a success and we were able to cut our vegetation control costs by an astounding amount. And we certainly do appreciate the sacrifices that some have made in order to allow this boost to our economy.”

The wrongful death suit, among other legal actions, was brought in 2017.

Assesino: “The board knew that most of the litigants would simply die before the case even reached the courts. In the meantime, our lawyers filed motion after motion in order to delay the case as much as possible. If you look back at the case of the Ford Pinto, strictly from a business perspective, even with the damages awarded, Ford profited over $100 million from the entire product cycle. And those are 1977 dollars! You can see from this that what looks like a skeleton in Ford’s closet it really a “golden skeleton.”

When asked why he would make such a bold statement in public, Assesino said, “We’ve found that we no longer need to maintain the facade that we “care” about our customers. We have them by the you-know-whats. They need us.”

“If the plaintiffs see us as a huge, cold, corporation, they will only be intimidated and become more likely to just drop the case or at least settle for a lesser sum. Our lawyers convinced the judge that most of these people could have died anyway, for who knows what reason. They took the smoking gun and buried it so deep that the plaintiffs became afraid they would lose. That’s why they settled.” 

“I’m not supposed to tell you anything about the settlement that was reached today, but I’ll just say that it’s far, far below anything that will make a significant dent in our profits. This will be yet another golden skeleton in our closet. This should inspire confidence in our stockholders, which will be a good thing for the overall economy. Way back in 2010, we miscalculated the balance sheet with our natural gas pipelines, it’s true. We honestly didn’t expect as big a fire as there was in San Bruno. But enough years have gone by that I can tell our stockholders now, we still came out on top of that deal too.”

With that it appears that it’s back to business as usual. In fact, on news of this settlement, PG&E stock went up 16 points today.

-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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Want Water, Get Nuclear – Roger Ingalls

We can debate the dangers and virtues of nuclear power but its proliferation is inevitable. Pro and con arguments are irrelevant. One basic human need makes nuclear power an absolute necessity.

Water is humanity’s lowest common denominator. Without it we die. Drinkable water is precious and in short supply. Only one percent of all water on Earth is potable and accessible. Currently, twenty percent of the world’s population does not have daily access to fresh water. Let me rephrase, “today, November 17, 2011, approximately 1,400,000,000 people will not taste safe water”.

Fast forward 40 years to 2050. The number of people on Earth has increased by 50% and now sits at approximately 11 billion. Since the Earth won’t magically make more potable water, half the world’s population (7 billion) will struggle to survive.

Clearly, something needs to be done. We could just let people die off but that would be an economic disaster because we need an ever-expanding population to fuel our financial system that is based on perpetual growth (crazy as that sounds living on a finite planet).

The only option we have is turning salt water into fresh water. Desalination is an energy intensive process. Today, fossil fuels are already stretched thin and most energy experts say we are in or heading into a peak oil scenario where we are draining cheap oil reserves faster than we can find new ones. Also, oil and natural gas are used to manufacture pesticides and fertilizer (respectively) so they will be in heavy demand for agricultural purposes to feed the new billions.

The only way we can produce an adequate amount of fresh water is by running desalination plants with nuclear power.

Again, the arguments about safety are irrelevant. We need to look at this in terms of future lives saved. Nuclear power will prevent the deaths of billions from starvation and thirst. Forget about saving 30 or 40 people from radiation poisoning over the next 50 years – that’s crazy logic.

Think in terms of benefits. Think a generation or two into the future.

 * The 104 nuclear power plants operating in the U.S. over the past 40 years have not caused a single death while wind energy has already killed 41 in its short existence.

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Roger Ingalls is well traveled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Yesterday, Alon asked for responses to his post about statistics that make it appear that coal is worse than nuclear when it comes to radiation emissions and health risks. Here are my views.

Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.” I have taken a year of graduate-level stats and I can verify that you can choose your methods to show almost whatever it is you want from a given set of numbers. This is what people do who have an agenda to forward other than just getting the truth out.

Back in the days when George H.W. Bush was president, he said in a speech: “More low income people will benefit from these tax cuts than high income people.” Well, that was technically true. It’s just that the “low income” people benefited by about ten dollars, while the “high income” people benefited by the tens of thousands of dollars. It’s a lot like how a magician uses misdirection – making you look over here at this hand while the other hand slips a pigeon out of a pocket.


Death stats are often used to downplay some danger or another. The reason more people have not died from radiation (lately) is that nuclear accidents are still seen as serious and people get the hell away from them. If the Japanese government had not evacuated the area around Fukushima, the stats would look a whole lot worse.

Plus, nuclear advocates (who seem inexplicably to have some hold over our news media) just love to point out that the reason that a person died could have been anything – not necessarily radiation. It’s actually somewhat difficult to “prove” that someone died of radiation poisoning, unless it was a severe and obvious case.

Another important fact is that radiation is essentially forever. If you were to pee in a lake, the urine would not only dissipate, but biological processes would act on the urine to essentially make it really go away – change form, etc. Radiation does dissipate, but it’s still there, at least until well beyond its half-life.

Accidents like Fukushima are the gifts that keep on giving for a long time. Fukushima is FAR from over and the radiation coming out of there is not slowing down but is in fact probably speeding up. It’s flowing into the air and the ocean.

Nukeys also love to tell you about how you get more radiation from sunbathing or whatever. But it’s the TYPE of radiation that matters. Here’s a hint, nuclear accident release the bad type.

Furthermore, compared to coal-fired plants, nuclear power plants don’t release much radiation on site when everything is working properly and no mistakes are made. But mistakes and accidents happen much too often for my comfort. The latest accident, Fukushima, has released thousands of times the radiation from any pile of coal sludge.

As I’ve said before, nuclear is not cost efficient, nor is it safe. Nukeys love to tell you that, with the development of new technology, nuclear will get safer and safer. This, of course, will happen given time and lots of money. And in the process, there will be some accidents, radiation leakage, health issues and possibly lives lost.

What would happen if we instead took that time and money and put it into developing solar, wind, wave, and geothermal energy? I guarantee that, at the end of the same time period and with the same expense, we would be many times better off by going the renewable energy route.

But there is a danger with, specifically, solar power. The most efficient way to utilize solar power is to produce it yourself, at your own house (and in reality the old-fashioned solar water heater roof units are the best thing you can do). This means that you would buy the equipment, which is manufactured by companies competing for business – largely on price. Then, your energy would be pretty much free. So there is a  danger…

…to corporate profits.

-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.

Tom also posts on thrustblog.blogspot.com

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Nuclear Power – Really?

So there I was, having drinks with some friends, and telling them about my recent blog posts regarding Germany’s decision to stop using nuclear power and the role of Chancellor Angela Merkel. I threw out the comment: “how many nuclear power disasters will it take until we give it up as an energy source?”

A friend’s boyfriend turned round and remarked: “And how many earthquakes do you need before you move your family out of the Bay Area?”

Cutting. Incisive. And I was just about to offer to buy him a drink.

1989 Bay Bridge split by earthquake

Now, the validity of his point notwithstanding, I think there is a huge difference between natural and man-made disasters. In my radical teenage years, my friends and I planned to disrupt the movement of nuclear waste through the English countryside. I remember one woman asking how we would feel if we did something that created a radioactive leakage right there in the village where the demonstration was planned? I probably wouldn’t have bought her a drink either, even if I was underage back then.

The LA Times recently published the transcripts of a Q&A with Elmer E. Lewis, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University. Professor Lewis has authored two textbooks on nuclear power, answered questions regarding the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the damage and consequences on the environment. He has conducted considerable research on the physics, safety and reliability of nuclear systems.

Professor Lewis

“The combination of an earthquake of unprecedented intensity followed immediately by a tsunami of historical proportions in Japan has resulted in the most serious nuclear reactor accidents in decades,” Professor Lewis said. “Understandably, the uncertainty associated with the further progression of the partial melting of the reactor cores has engendered a great deal of psychological trauma as well as media attention.

“However, it appears that loss of life to the public — if any — caused by the radiation releases from these accidents will be minuscule when compared to the thousands of deaths caused by the earthquake and tsunami.”

You can click on the LA Times link to read the entire transcript. While I don’t want to take Professor Lewis out of context – he is an academic researcher, not an emotional, frustrated blogger – I am mystified enough to write a few posts about nuclear power. I do plan to move from there to alternative sources because I don’t subscribe to the naysayers when they do not provide alternative solutions.

As I read the transcript, I became increasingly lost in the technical side of it. But then one caller’s comment (identified as Morgan) stood out. “From the beginning of this disaster the Japanese government and the plant operators have been quoted as saying there is little risk of the situation becoming more critical, and yet that’s what has been happening with each passing day. It makes it difficult to trust anything they say, as it seems they’re not being up front with the public about the present situation. These kinds of events call for complete transparency. This is part of the reason for the rising public distrust over nuclear power.”

Too cool not to use!

I also have no intention of leaving the Bay Area despite the reality that at some point in my lifetime I will probably have to deal with an earthquake. I just hope we know where the ‘off” switch is at the nuclear plants when the earth moves.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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