Americans read the increasingly panic-stricken reports of deepening catastrophe at Fukushima 1, speed to the pharmacy to buy iodine and ask, "It's happened there; can it happen here?"
Along much of California's coastline runs the "ring of fire," which stretches round the Pacific plate, from Australia, north past Japan, to Russia, round to Alaska, down America's West Coast to Chile. 90 percent of the world's earthquakes happen round the ring.
The late great environmentalist David Brower used to tell audiences, " Nuclear plants are incredibly complex technological devices for locating earthquake faults."
Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles is the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, planned in 1968 when no one knew about the Hosgri fault, part of the ring of fire, a few miles offshore. Further inquiry established that there'd been a 7.1 earthquake 40 years earlier, offshore from the plant, completed in 1973. The power company -- Pacific Gas and Electric -- said it would beef up defenses. In their haste, the site managers reversed the blueprints for the new earthquake proofing of the two reactors, and so the retrofit wasn't a total success.
They recently discovered yet another fault and are now worried about "ground liquefaction" in the event of a big quake. In 2008, there was a terrorist attack by jellyfish, which blocked the cold water intake, and the plant was shut down for a couple of days.
Head south another 150 miles, and we get to the San Onofre plant, right on the shoreline. In fact, I've swum in its shadow, in waters highly esteemed by anglers because fish gather there, enjoying the elevated water temp; some also claim the fish there get bigger, faster. There are storage ponds for spent fuel in a decommissioned unit in a spherical containment of concrete and steel with the smallest wall being 6 feet thick, just about the same as the ruptured containment at one of the Fukushima units.
The power company says San Onofre is built to withstand a 7.0 quake. There is a 25-foot sea wall, which is just over half the height of the walls that crumbled like sand last week along Japan's northeast coast. San Onofre is seawater cooled. Environmentalists don't care for that, so they plan to build two cooling towers the other side of Interstate 5, California's main north-south road, thus immune to jellyfish attack, but open to other methods of assault.
The Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast figures the probability of an earthquake 6.7 or higher is 67 percent for Los Angeles, 63 percent for San Francisco. Up where I live, in the Cascadia subduction zone, we have a 10 percent possibility of an 8- or 9-force quake.
There are robust souls who look on the bright side. Some of them are in the pay of the nuclear industry -- President Obama for example, who took plenty of money from the nuclear industry for his presidential campaign, and in his State of the Union address last January reaffirmed his commitment to "clean, safe" nuclear power, about as insane a statement as pledging commitment to a nice clean form of syphilis. This week, Obama's press spokesman confirmed that nuclear energy "remains a part of the President's overall energy plan."
The United States produces more nuclear energy than any other nations. It has 104 nuclear plants, many of them old, many prone to endless shutdowns, all of them dangerous.
The benchmark catastrophe amid peacetime nuclear disasters remains the explosion in the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station on April 26, 1986, in the Ukraine. In 2009, the New York Academy of Sciences published "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment," a 327-page volume by three scientists -- Alexey Yablokov and Vassily and Alexey Nesterenko -- the definitive study to date. In the summary of his chapter "Mortality After the Chernobyl Catastrophe," Yablokov says flatly, "The calculations suggest that the Chernobyl catastrophe has already killed several hundred thousand human beings in a population of several hundred million that was unfortunate enough to live in territories affected by the fallout."
Set Fukushima next to Chernobyl and its ongoing lethal aftermath. Think of Southern California or North Carolina. Nuclear expert Robert Alvarez, who advised President Clinton on nuclear matters, writes this week that a single spent fuel rod pool -- as in Fukushima (or Diablo Canyon or San Onofre) -- holds more cesium-137 than was deposited by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Northern Hemisphere combined, and an explosion in that pool could blast "perhaps three to nine times as much of these materials into the air as was released by the Chernobyl reactor disaster."
In the past few years, there's been an explicit political trade-off here in the U.S. and in Europe, too, between the nuclear industry and many green organizations and prominent environmentalists, fixated solely on the increasingly disheveled hypothesis of humanly caused global warming. When the House of Representatives (though not the U.S. Senate) voted for a climate bill in 2009, the inclusion of a clean-energy bank to provide financial backing for new energy production, including nuclear, was part of the bargain.
This shameful pact has got to end. Nuclear power is over, or should be. Look at the false predictions, the blunders, the elemental truth that Nature bats last and that human folly and greed are ineluctable ingredients of man's condition. There's no middle ground.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com.
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