Normally, I’m a pretty environmentally minded dude.
That’s why you may be surprised at what I think of this new policy condemning the cooling system used at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
It’s a bunch of hooey.
The policy handed down by the state Water Resources Control Board declares that so-called once-through cooling — in which seawater is pumped continually through the plant’s two electrical generators — is too damaging to marine life and must be replaced or modified by 2024, when Diablo’s license is up for renewal.
What that means is, unless PG&E embarks on some kind of expensive refurbishment of the plant, the company may not be able to continue operating this vital provider to California’s electrical grid.
How important is Diablo Canyon? The energy provided by it and our one other nuclear plant, San Onofre, meet 20 percent of the state’s electricity needs.
And they do so without damming rivers or pumping tons of pollutants into the air or even spreading solar panels across acres of open space, as gentle a use as that may be.
The tradeoff for creating this amount of energy is twofold:
One, we get left with an ever-growing amount of radioactive waste, which must be entombed in steel and concrete and stored on site until a federal storage facility opens or hell freezes over, whichever comes first.
Yes, spent nuclear fuel is nasty stuff, but volume-wise, it’s exceedingly easy to deal with. One capsule no bigger than the tip of your pinky can produce as much energy as an a full ton of coal, which means you can basically fuel the plant for years and years without producing more than a few RVs’ worth of nuclear detritus.
The other impact is on the nearby ocean environment, which provides an unlimited source of water for the cooling process.
I used to always think they needed that water to keep the nuclear reaction from going Three Mile Island, like if they didn’t blast a constant rush of water over the uranium it would melt a hole in the earth, but apparently it’s far more simple and old school, instead being used to condense steam after it has passed through the generators.
Shows you what I know about nuclear physics and power generation.
Anyhow, so to do so, the plant sucks in some 2.5 billion gallons of seawater a day, passes it through the plant and spits it out on the other side.
A few of us here had the pleasure of touring the plant a couple weeks ago to see the operation up close.
The water enters gently through this filter system in a quiet cove inhabited by sea otters and exits somewhat less so (and a bit warmer) in another cove to the north. All of this takes place in an area no bigger than a few city blocks in length.
Yes, some little fishies meet their demise in this process, as do untold larvae, and the ecosystem in the outfall area has changed thanks to the the water temperatures being higher than normal, but when you look at the footprint of the facility and the small stretch of coastline it occupies in relation to the vast ocean beyond, Diablo Canyon’s presence and negative physical impacts seem minute in the grand scheme of things.
The PG&E guy leading our tour said they lose about one — that’s ONE — dinner-sized fish a day to the intake pumps. In all the vast ocean, one mature fish a day sacrifices its life so millions of people can have power.
Honestly, it is a very small price to pay for the benefit we receive.
That’s why I say the water board should rethink it’s mandate and use a little common sense, especially when some of the solutions are idiotically expensive and onerous.
Any kind of new system using cooling towers or giant radiators would require PG&E to gouge out huge portions of the hillside, a proposition you know the Coastal Commission will never go for.
Estimates for the retrofit reach as high as $4.5 billion, and just take a guess where that money would come from.
Your electric bill, most likely.
Frankly, I just don’t see what’s wrong with the way they are doing it.
PG&E, to its credit, sounds amenable to making upgrades to the plant to decrease its environmental impact. They can also apply for a variance if the project proves too costly.
The question at this point is, just how far will the water board require them to go?
Here’s hoping the board is practical and reasonable in its enforcement of the new policy and recognizes that a certain amount of sacrifice is acceptable in pursuit of the greater good.
Diablo Canyon — as it is operating today — already meets that threshold.
What do you think? Share your thoughts here.
Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s outfall cove, above. Tribune photo by David Middlecamp
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