Save Diablo Canyon so it can continue to supply massive quantities of clean power

dcpp_without_textCalifornia has one of the most confusing energy policies in the country. Though it loudly proclaims itself as an environmental leader, with some of the most strict air and water pollution regulations in the world, it has a state law that prevents consideration of new nuclear power plants. It has forced the early closure of 5 completed and operable reactors, replacing their output with additional electricity imports or with local natural gas combustion plants.

It heavily subsidizes or mandates wind and solar energy, giving the impression that it is replacing clean nuclear power with other forms of clean power, but the numbers show that those sources are not providing anything close to the same total amount of electricity as the shuttered nuclear units. They are certainly not providing the other forms of grid stabilization services provided by moderate to large thermal power generation systems like nuclear energy.

My studies into the history of the state’s schizophrenic energy policies has led me to the conclusion that they have been strongly influenced by the fact that California has a long tradition as a natural resource state and as the home of several major oil and gas producers. They have always known that abundant nuclear energy threatens their business model.

Now that Diablo Canyon is the last remaining nuclear power plant operating in California, the organizations, individual citizens and political leaders that have made nuclear energy opposition one of their significant activities have been forced to concentrate their efforts. We’ve covered some of the pressures being applied to force the plant owners to give up and shut the plant down in previous articles.

Fortunately for people who care about rational thinking and clean air, the pressure to protect Diablo Canyon and enable it to continue providing safe, clean, affordable, and reliable power is also growing. Many well-informed, experienced people are realizing that good decision making in a democracy requires their input and actions.

Californians for Green Nuclear Power (CGNP) is an outstanding group that has been working hard to publish op-ed pieces, participate in public meetings, provide docketed comments to policy actions, and speak to community groups all with the goal of helping their fellow Californians understand the importance of nuclear technology. Headquartered on the central coast, they have focused much of their effort on one of their most productive neighbors, Diablo Canyon.

There are other groups that have been focusing their efforts on helping the enormous “tech” industry in Silicon Valley and San Francisco remember that not all technology is based on silicon. They are working to generate excitement about technologies that use thorium, uranium, and plutonium in new and powerful ways to make life better for humanity. At least one of the advanced reactor start-up companies – Oklo – has chosen to locate in Silicon Valley so they they can more easily tap the tech industry’s resources, both human and financial.

Michael Shellenberger, one of the co-founders of the Oakland, California based Breakthrough Institute, has been supportive of efforts to improve public knowledge and acceptance of nuclear energy for several years. He was one of the converted former antinuclear environmentalists who were the main characters in Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise. He’s still an environmentalist and an ecomodernist who fully supports what Breakthrough is doing, but at the end of 2015, he decided it was time for a new challenge.

He left the Breakthrough Institute and began raising money for a new venture to build an organization that can focus on clean, reliable, affordable energy. The new group, named Environmental Progress, has chosen to Save Diablo Canyon as one of their first campaigns.

Shellenberger has a strong network. He is a professionally trained and experienced campaign organizer who is passionately committed to making a positive impact. Even though Environmental Progress is so new that I was unable to locate its home page, its effort to SaveDiabloCanyon has already been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle with both a front page article titled Yes nukes! Conservationists rally to save state’s nuclear plant and an op-ed by Shellenberger and Peter Raven titled Diablo Canyon is needed to save the climate, coasts.

The news story that helped attract the attention of the SF Chronicle writer was the publication of an open letter to elected state officials and heads of state agencies with assigned areas of responsibility affecting Diablo Canyon informing them of the importance of the plant and petitioning them to take actions to keep it open.

The letter was initially signed by an “international group of scientists, conservationists, and philanthropists”; the campaign also established a capability to add additional signers who want their voices to be heard.

Steven Weissman — Lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy and Director of the American Jobs Project, and a former administrative law judge at the California Public Utility Commission — published a rather piqued reaction to the Chronicle’s decision to cover the open letter with a front page article. Here is a quote from his post on Berkeley Law’s Legal Planet blog titled The Future of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant.

The role that nuclear power could or should play in helping to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is worthy of serious debate, but the latest nuclear-related front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle is a head-scratcher. Above the fold, the headline reads “Nuclear plant’s surprise backers,” followed by the following subheading: “Environmentalists push for Diablo Canyon to stay open.” The accompanying article reports on a letter sent by a new coalition identifying itself as “Save Diablo Canyon,” calling on regulators to relicense the plant. The stated concern is that a closed nuclear plant would make it harder to meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. Constructed on a cliff along the central California coast, Diablo is the last remaining commercial reactor in the state and it soon must either receive a new license, or cease operation.

The mystery about the article is that it only mentions three of those who signed the letter, and each of those three has been on the public record for years as favoring nuclear power. So, where is the surprise? Where is the news item?

After challenging the newsworthiness of the letter, Weissman questions the credibility of claims that the people signing the letter because they care about clean air and water are environmentalists. He seems to believe they are simply good at getting attention as people who have donned the easy-to-assume moniker of “environmentalist” and then challenged environmental orthodoxy.

Weissman ends with a litany of reasons that he opposes the plant, including what he considers to be a poor siting choice, mistakes during construction and a series of “reported incidents.” There are several lengthy comments attached to the article, including an exchange between Shellenberger and Weissman that is worth reviewing for civil expression of differences of opinion. Here is the comment that I contributed to the discussion.

February 4, 2016 at 4:49 pm #

I’d like to challenge some of the points you asserted and for which you can probably find plenty of supporters. Nuclear energy has been controversial in CA since the early 1960s, when two of California’s largest companies (Chevron and Gulf) recognized that it was going to threaten their dominance of the state’s energy production and take market share. Shell Oil, though headquartered in Europe, also played a role as did several smaller oil companies, notably ARCO.

You assert that a new nuclear plant being built in CA today wouldn’t be located at Diablo Canyon, but you stated that judgement as if it was a known fact with which “everyone” would agree. I can guess the basis for your assertion, but did you know that the Sierra Club specifically worked with PG&E to select the Diablo Canyon site as preferable to several others under consideration? The “cliff” that you mention is a safety feature, it is what puts the plant’s safety related systems, structures and components out of reach of any conceivable tsunami.

Since the site is already the location of nuclear power plants, it is probably the best place in CA to site new ones. There is a supportive local community — outside of the Mother’s for Peace — and there are knowledgable professionals who can train a new generation of plant operators. There are transmission corridors that could be expanded, and readily available cooling water.

There is a good bit of controversy in the scientific community about the overall environmental effect of once through cooling versus other ways to dissipate the heat from a thermal power plant. The volume of ocean that is affected is minute compared to the size of the body of water, so the effect on living creatures is equally minute. Many other nations have made no attempt to regulate the long established practice of once through cooling out of existence.

There has been plenty of ink spilled in opposition to Diablo Canyon and in an effort to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about its performance in an earthquake. I’ve been suspicious of that heavily promoted earthquake risk ever since I learned that the Hosgri fault was discovered and named by two Shell Oil geologists who delayed promoting their findings until after PG&E had already completed much of the facility. That seems to have been calculated to impose huge costs on a competitor but no one seems to have batted an eyelash at the time.

I don’t claim to be a converted former anti-nuclear activist. I’ve been in favor of the technology ever since I was 8 and my dad explained how his company’s new power plants didn’t need smokestacks. I know a bit about transmission lines, unreliable power sources, and power generation and believe that Jacobson’s studies are build on dreams or mirages, not reality. His employer at Stanford is named the Precourt Institute for Energy. It’s named after a generous alumni donor named Jay Precourt, who has given the institute at least $80 million since it was formed in 2006.

No surprise to me, but Jay Precourt earned his BS and MS degrees in Petroleum Engineering and made his fortune in a variety of positions in the oil and gas industry. He probably knows full well that wind and solar projects are really gas projects with nice PR and signage.

I encourage all readers to recognize the importance of full participation in what is going to become a rather loud and contentious discussion about whether or not Diablo Canyon should continue to operate. Like Shellenberger, I believe that this is a great opportunity for people who favor the use of nuclear energy to clearly explain their reasons. Including a bit of passion and honest concerns for current and future generations in that explanation will likely help strengthen the statements.

Bill Sacks – Radon abatement contractor giving poor advice in syndicated column

By Bill Sacks

This is in response to Rosie Romero’s article in the January 27 issue of the GV News (p. B8), What you need to know about radon.

It is wrong, just plain wrong. In the low concentrations encountered in homes, radon is not a cause of lung cancer, let alone “the second leading cause,” as claimed by the EPA. On the contrary, in this setting radon acts like a vaccination and is actually protective against lung cancer, even though in a few uranium mines, where the concentration of radon in the air can be hundreds and thousands of times higher than that found in homes, it can indeed contribute to causing lung cancer.

Any attempt to mitigate the concentration in homes lowers that protective feature, and leads to a greater, not lesser, probability of developing lung cancer.

Sounds absurd? Perhaps an analogy will help. To claim that the low concentration of radon found in homes causes lung cancer, based on the fact that it has been found to contribute to lung cancer at very much higher concentrations, is like claiming that taking one aspirin a day (for cardiovascular protection) is deadly, based on the fact that swallowing an entire bottle will kill you. Or worse, that one aspirin a day is possibly “the second leading cause” of heart attacks. The fact is that small doses of radon and aspirin are beneficial to most people, while large doses can kill. This is true of most agents, from oxygen to water, from vitamins to sunshine.

In the early 1990s, University of Pittsburgh physics professor Bernard Cohen did a study of radon, examining homes in over 1,700 counties containing over 90% of the US population. He had hoped to measure how quickly lung cancer rates increase with higher home radon levels.

Much to his surprise and consternation, he found that the higher the average county radon levels the lower the lung cancer rates and, reciprocally, the lower the radon the higher the lung cancer rates. He enlisted the aid of a statistician to find possible confounding influences, such as smoking or other carcinogens, that might explain this unexpected and very strong inverse relationship. Together they examined hundreds of possible combinations of confounders but were unable to explain the result in that fashion.

At first Cohen was reluctant to conclude that it was the radon that was tending to protect, even smokers, from lung cancer, since it was so counterintuitive at the time. But eventually he grew to accept that explanation, since there was none other that arose. A number of scientists have repeatedly tried to refute Cohen’s conclusion, but the best that their arguments could do was explain half the discrepancy between the expected positive correlation and the observed negative one, and even that required them to invoke an implausible and highly improbable coincidence of high smoking rates with low radon levels, and vice versa.

Furthermore, Cohen’s discovery of radon’s protective effect at low levels of exposure has been corroborated by dozens of studies since then. Still regulatory agencies like the EPA and the Arizona Radiation Regulation Agency, whose administrators have a stake in maintaining the status quo – as well as companies who profit from home foundation repairs – refuse to credit the science.

Indeed exemplifying the pragmatic, rather than scientific, basis of radiation regulations, one of my colleagues at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the FDA told me that he is well aware that low levels of radiation are beneficial but that it would be a nightmare to change the regulations. Furthermore, many scientists continue to seek, and obtain, funding to attempt to refute the science.

Two other researchers and I have just submitted to a scientific journal a paper– one of hundreds of ongoing attempts to inject reality into the field of radiation science – showing that all studies concluding that low doses of radiation are harmful either ignore biological reality (experimentally and observationally confirmed in countless studies) or distort and/or dismiss it.

Furthermore, we show that all such studies contain hidden circular reasoning, in which the authors start by assuming that which is to be proven. The “all radiation is harmful” paradigm, along with its extra-scientific reward system, is a powerful hindrance to scientific objectivity. It has justifiably been called “the greatest scientific scandal of the 20th century” by the former director of the Swedish Radiobiology Society, Gunnar Walinder.

As we said in our September 30 opinion piece (p. 7), Why low-dose radiation exposure is not to be feared – published also as a letter in the January 2016 issue of Physics Today – Low dose radiation exposure should not be feared.

In conclusion, contrary to Rosie’s advice, spending money to test for, much less lower, the radon concentration in your home will not lower your probability of developing lung cancer, but rather will increase it. If you want to lessen your chances of developing lung cancer, quit smoking, which will also save you money.

I hasten to add that I do not attribute Rosie’s assertions to any dishonesty on his part, but rather to the official paradigm that has us all trapped in its clutches – until we find an escape route. Escape ultimately requires our own investigation, for which there is no substitute.

About the author:

Bill Sacks is a physicist turned radiologist who is now retired. He has spent the past few years studying global warming, nuclear energy, and the beneficial biological responses to low level ionizing radiation. He has coauthored a number of articles including Nuclear Energy: The Only Solution to the Energy Problem and Global Warming. His following pieces have appeared on Atomic Insights: Why does conventional wisdom ignore hormesis? , The Left Needs to Reconsider its Automatic Position Against Nuclear Energy and Physics Today Reader’s Forum: Low-dose radiation exposure should not be feared

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