Tuesday, July 29, 2008

5.4 Earthquake rattles nerves in SoCal; Genpatsu-Shinsai contemplated...

July 29th, 2008

Dear Readers,

California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore first announced his ardent support for nuclear power a little over a year ago, when he introduced a bill to allow new nuclear power plants in the state. He hardly knew a thing about nuclear power back then, made a fool of himself, and the bill was defeated.

Now he is claiming that nuclear technology is: "Simple science, engineering, and economics."

I've studied nuclear power for more than 35 years: It isn't simple.

DeVore's letter (shown below) is a calculated attack, although it is practically a form letter. Pronukers only call nuclear technology simple when they want to denigrate a specific activist, as in: "It's so simple, why don't you understand it?" Otherwise, they'll say: "It's so complicated, you obviously just don't understand it." DeVore is afraid to say that, since he doesn't understand it much, himself.

DeVore points out that tritium occurs naturally. Yes -- caused by cosmic rays -- but at what rate?

DeVore doesn't mention the rate, probably because he doesn't want the public to know that even for surface water, it's about a 3,000th of the legal limit for tritium in drinking water of 20,000 picoCuries per liter. Virtually all of nature's tritium is only in the surface water.

DeVore is pulling numbers out of his hat.

Is the tritium poisoning from San Onofre really "less than 0.001 millirems of radiation per year" or is that just someone's "best guess?" And for that matter, how much less? Because let's face it, they ALSO tell us, with a straight face, that San Onofre has "zero" radioactive emissions. Yet they're admitting to increasing our tritium intake by "less than 0.001 millirems of radiation per year" per person, so how is that "zero"? A point to note for next time they say "zero emissions."

When DeVore compares nuke plant emissions to an airplane flight, he forgets one crucial fact: Flying is voluntary, and the people flying and taking most of the risk also get the benefit.

Electricity can be produced in benign ways. Even if these ways are more expensive (which they aren't) the fact that they are benign is worth something. Besides, a 350-mph elevated electric bullet train could get across the country in less than half a day, center-city to center-city, easily competing with total travel times when going by air. It would be quiet, efficient, and vastly safer than diesel trains, cars, or airplanes. It could be built in just a few years. The trains could not be hijacked into nuclear power plants or other crucial structures. Such trains would quickly put most airlines out of business forever -- and good riddance. If we reduce the fuel used by the airline industry, it eases the demand in other areas. But how do we get all the electricity we would need?

Wind power (with or without a mix of other renewables) can supply all our needs. And apparently DeVore doesn't remember that we have a beautiful new lake in SoCal which you can pump water into when renewable energy is available, and let the water flow out through hydraulic turbines when needed (into other reservoirs lower in the system). There's your peaking power, your night power, your cloudy-day power. The reliability of such a system would far surpass anything DeVore's nukes could deliver, even though renewable sources may be intermittent by themselves. Nukes are notoriously unreliable, from fires inside the plant, and from a thousand other causes.

As I am completing this document (and thinking of a title for it) a magnitude 5.4 earthquake has struck about 65 miles away. San Onofre is about 15 miles closer to the epicenter. Geologists are calling today's quake "an earthquake drill for The Big One" and say it neither "cuts the severity or the risk" of The Big One coming tomorrow. The Japanese have a phrase for what might happen: Genpatsu-Shinsai. We have a phrase for what IS happening: Criminal Negligence. You are not being protected as you have the right to expect.

DeVore is also wrong about the cost estimates for new nuclear power plants. Today's higher gas prices influence all construction projects. Estimates of $2 billion for a new nuclear plant (on an existing site) could be found a few years ago. Next it was four, now eight billion. Next year, who knows? It would not surprise me if sixteen billion dollars was the projected construction cost of a new nuclear power plant in 2009. The real cost is sure to be even higher.

And that's not including the hospitals for the cancer victims, either. Pronukers never include any of those costs.

DeVore claims nuclear power is five times cheaper than solar power. It's probably closer to the other way around, and of course, that's not including paying for the "simple science" of solving the waste problem, or for an accident. Or the "simple science" of building a next generation of nukes that actually works. The designs are years late, haven't been finalized, and the estimated costs keep rising.

The cheapest way to replace San Onofre is with energy conservation efforts. Car and truck manufacturers could be forced to increase their fleet's gas mileage. Rules on housing insulation, roofing, venting, and yes -- solar heating and cooling could all be tightened. Many solar systems are totally passive (no moving parts), require no maintenance, and come with lifetime guarantees. But people still won't buy them. That's what rules, regulations and legislation are for. Instead, old, biased metering laws are another problem yet to be "solved" by the regulators.

Regardless of what we do with San Onofre, we WILL do many of these things. We will add capacity, or save through conservation, the equivalent of San Onofre's entire energy output every couple of years, regardless of whether we close San Onofre or not. But if we close it, we will immediately stop building up the waste pile. The expensive, dangerous, complex, intractable waste pile.

If we switch to renewables a little bit sooner, a little quicker, a little better, a little more completely, we can even stop burning our precious coal and oil (this was recognized as a crime as far back as the 1800s, long before nuclear power was even dreamed of).

DeVore compares San Onofre's cost per megawatt to natural gas (the cleanest of all carbon-based fuels). But wind power compares even more favorably, without leaving the deadly and costly legacy of nuclear waste, and without the possibility of bone-headed accidents or terrorism, or catastrophic engineering flaws, or acts of God.

Each additional gram of spent fuel which San Onofre produces is enough to poison a city. Yucca Mountain is now expected to cost nearly 100 billion dollars, and the price could still go much higher, if it is ever built (which this writer doubts, and he doubts also, that, if built, it will work). But the utilities will have made their billions and people (like me) will have gotten their cancers.

DeVore also compares nukes to coal. Historically, pronukers never used to claim anything about coal being a significant radiation emitter. When discussing the dangers of coal 30 or 40 years ago, they would talk about sulfur emissions, black lung disease, and mining accidents. In the last few years, however, pronukers like DeVore have started talking about the radon, thorium, uranium, and so on. But in reality, the nuclear fuel cycle's mine tailings alone present a far greater radiological hazard than coal's radiation dangers (which, admittedly, also exist).

The scientific estimate of tritium's Relative Biological Effectiveness (RBE) may change again. If it does, there is little doubt which way it will go -- they will tighten the standards. In fact, the only reason 20,000 picoCuries per liter of drinking water is allowed by the EPA is because it would be too expensive for nuke operators to reduce the value lower than that (they do capture tritium sometimes, when they want it; but no one has any use for that much tritium).

Tritium crosses the placenta. When the fetus needs liquid, if the mother has been poisoned with tritium, then the fetus gets poisoned, too. How much tritium is DeVore willing to add to the fetus's environment before he thinks it would be too much? Would ten nuke plants in SoCal, each releasing about a 1000 Curies of tritium, and each producing about 500 pounds of plutonium per year, be enough for DeVore?

Most of the so-called "background radiation" DeVore mentions never even gets inside a person (that which does get inside is presumed to be responsible for billions of cancers, worldwide). But tritium can get inside. Does DeVore know how much tritium it takes to potentially harm a fetus fatally, or mutate it, causing a painful deformity?

One atom.

Millions of people are exposed to San Onofre's tritium. Every radioactive decay can cause cancer, and kill. They are not just polluting the local water. They are polluting everybody else's water, too. The half-life of tritium is about 12.3 years. Is DeVore's claim of "less than 0.001 millirem per year" really a locally-taken reading? When was the last time anyone went out and tried to measure it? Who was tested?

DeVore never explains the law he says needs to be overturned, just claiming it bans new reactors.

What the California law really says, which many other local laws around the country and around the world also say, is this: You cannot build new reactors until the nuclear waste problem is solved. But of course, it can't be solved. It would violate the laws of physics to do so.

The nuclear industry hopes DeVore will successfully overturn California's law. In the meantime, they circumvent the spirit of the law. San Onofre's owners want to replace about 25% of each reactor at the plant in the next few years -- at a cost of around 3 to 5 billion dollars, in dozens of little projects. It might be 30% or more; it might be only 20% And they probably will replace another 25% in the next 10 years.

If you want reliability, don't buy an old, partially-rebuilt car. And don't buy an old, partially-rebuilt nuke plant, either.

To rebuild more of the plant now would cost a lot more money -- now. More people would object, because higher rate increases would undoubtedly have to be granted (since SCE really has no excess cash to speak of) to pay for the work. If they actually promoted the idea that it would be "nearly 100% rebuilt" that would make it clear to everybody that the "new" San Onofre violates the law forbidding new reactors until the waste problem is solved.

This piecemeal replacement means that, until the day they finally shut it down for good, they'll be replacing failing old parts which were installed prior to the day it went online decades ago, and they'll be having SCRAMS (emergency shutdowns) because of those failures. So really, we're getting the worst of all possible worlds -- partially rebuilt old reactors BECAUSE of the 1972 law, AND, if DeVore gets his way, new reactors all over California, too. And still no place to put the waste!

The 1972 law says "solve the waste problem first." If it's all so simple, as DeVore claims, then why isn't it solved yet? The answer: Ionizing radiation breaks down any chemical bond. The nuclear industry tries to get the world to misunderstand the significance of that "little" fact.

Over the decades, tens of thousands of scientists (and millions of citizens) have spoken out against nuclear power and against nuclear weapons, which are still very inter-connected. Nuclear power represents a "retirement program" for military servicemen on board our nuclear submarines and nuclear aircraft carriers, and San Onofre (and Diablo Cyn, and each of the others) produce about 500 pounds of plutonium per year per reactor. Democratic principles were ignored, and the plants and bombs were built anyway.

Time has proven that the old "anti-nuclear" ideas which DeVore disparages were, in fact, completely correct. Yet the industry continues living on lies, and continues producing copious quantities of carcinogens for infants and other living things, with essentially no insurance in case of a catastrophe, and with a thousand other scandals.

San Onofre should be shut down and its waste removed -- but to where? A desolate location of course! But "desolate" and "empty" are not the same thing, and whoever is already there will have to be well-paid to get them to store the nuclear fuel rods for tens of thousands of years. The waste will be stored at your children's expense -- both in their radiation burden from released radionuclides, and in more obvious ways, namely, money for guards, new fences, new roofs, new filters, and, as the fuel rods inside crumble, possibly unquenchable fires -- or worse -- within a few decades.

The less waste there is, the lower the likelihood of an accident (and the lower the day-to-day cost).

Experts have recommended that San Onofre's dry casks should at least be separated from each other by mounds of dirt, with other protective measures. Southern California Edison has rejected all such requests. They have no land or money for such safety measures. So safety is further compromised so that San Onofre's owners can make a profit.

The future for those "dry casks" is clear. One day, a tragedy will occur. A thin veneer of steel and concrete (thin to a jumbo jet's turbine engine shafts, or to a cluster of 50-caliber machine gun rounds) is all that stops the catastrophe.

Shutting San Onofre down permanently begins the long, slow process of reducing the risk. Until then, 250 pounds per day, per reactor, of "high level radioactive waste" -- which is almost entirely spent fuel -- will be generated. Tritium and other radionuclides will be released, profits will be made, waste will pile up, and citizens will die.


Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

Some additional reading with more information:

It's All About the DNA:

Tritium Explained (why "Low Level Radiation" can be disproportionately harmful):

My first tritium article is linked to from this animation I created a few years ago. It lists the actual number of tritium atoms in a teaspoon of tritium, for instance:

Letter to the Editor by Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (published in the OC Register):


Jerry Collamer trots out the usual anti-nuclear-power arguments in his July 10 letter to the editor entitled, "Imagine San Onofre without SONGS" and in his July 22 follow-up, but he fails to grasp simple science, engineering and economics.

First, Mr. Collamer frets about tritium leakage from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). What is tritium? It is an isotope of hydrogen containing two neutrons. It comes from both natural and man-made sources. Natures's tritium is being constantly made when cosmic rays collide with Earth's atmosphere. Man-made tritium can be produced by nuclear reactors.

The two operating nuclear reactors at San Onofre do produce tritium. How much? Enough to increase exposure to humans by less than 0.001 millirems of radiation per year, or 3/10,000th of a percent of the normal radiation dose an average person would get in a year. Put another way, if you flew round trip to New York from L.A., that one trip would give you about 5,000 times more radiation than would the tritium from swimming in the ocean near San Onofre for a year.

On the other hand, San Onofre's nuclear reactors save about $2 billion a year in natural gas that would otherwise be burned to make electricity. SONGS also saves millions of pounds of coal from being burned every year - and burning coal is responsible for releasing tons of mercury, as well as radioactive particles, into the environment.

Mr. Collamer then advocates building more solar power in Riverside to replace San Onofre's nuclear reactors. I was not aware that the sun shined 24 hours a day in Riverside. Even so, solar costs a minimum of five times more per kilowatt hour than does nuclear power. Due to construction and maintenance costs, solar is less effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well, with about seven times the full life-cycle greenhouse gas emission of nuclear.

The fact is, we need nuclear power in California. Modern nuclear power is safe and efficient. Each new reactor built would save about $2 billion a year of natural gas from being burned - money that is best kept in California to boost our economy.

Each new reactor also saves millions of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year. In fact, California's ambitious greenhouse gas reduction plans are impossible to reach without additional nuclear power. That is why I have written four bills in the past two years to lift California's obsolete 1970s ban on the construction of new nuclear-power plants.

Chuck DeVore
State Assemblyman, 70th District

Contact information for Ace Hoffman appears at the bottom of this email.

Quotes collected by Ace Hoffman:

"Nuclear war must be the most carefully avoided topic of general significance in the contemporary world. People are not curious about the details." -- Paul Brians (author; quote is from: Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction)
�When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.� -- Sinclair Lewis (first American Nobel Prize winner in Literature, 2.7.1885 - 1.10.1951)
"There is no such thing as a pro-nuclear environmentalist." -- Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa, 1992)
"Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories." -- Sun Tzu (Chinese general b.500 BC)
"The most intolerable reactor of all may be one which comes successfully to the end of its planned life having produced mountains of radioactive waste for which there is no disposal safe from earthquake damage or sabotage." -- A. Stanley Thompson (a pioneer nuclear physicist who later realized the whole situation)
"Any dose is an overdose." -- Dr. John W. Gofman (another pioneer nuclear physicist who saw the light (9.21.1918 - 8.15.2007))
"Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery." -- Octavia Butler (science fiction writer, 7.22.1947 - 2.24.2006)
"If you want real welfare reform, you focus on a good education, good health care, and a good job.

If you want to reduce poverty, you focus on a good education, good healthcare, and a good job.

If you want a stable middle class, you focus on a good education, good health care, and a good job.

If you want to have citizens who can participate in democracy, you focus on a good education, good health care, and a good job.

And if you want to end the violence, you could build a million new prisons and you could fill them up, but you never end this cycle of violence unless you invest in the health and the skill and the intellect and the character of our children. you focus on a good education, good health care and a good job.

And other than that, I don't feel strongly about anything."

-- Paul Wellstone (US Senator, D-Minnesota, 7.21.1944 - 10.25.2002)
"There are no warlike peoples - just warlike leaders." -- Ralph Bunche (8.7.1903 - 12.9.1971)
"Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God." -- Thomas Jefferson
"Please send this to everyone you know!" -- Ace Hoffman (original collector of the above quotes, January, 2008)

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Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA