Evaluate Before Acting on California Reactor Risk

From what I have read in the local papers, there is much concern locally about earthquakes, tsunamis and other problems at the SONGS nuclear reactors in San Onofre, California.  There have been city council meetings in Laguna Beach and Irvine about this, with either a council member or a council acting or intending to ask SONGS to shut down.  It wasn’t clear from the articles whether they had scientists or engineers presenting at these meetings.  Since the questions raised concern earthquake geology, nuclear engineering, legal control at the Federal level, California public utility power resources and costs,  local communities, desert communities, and beach communities, it is precipitous for the city councils to act immediately in response to heated partisan crowds or council members.  To think that they can even gather enough information using city non-expert resources in a few weeks to respond is really irresponsible to the public trust placed in them.  They also are not polling the city public, the ratepayers to SC Edison and all cities that would be affected by a shutdown, or waiting for an actual informed debate and proposition placed on public ballots in all affected cities.  They also are not evaluating shutdown and disposal costs and how much the ratepayers would have to pay for alternate power sources and disposal costs.  Since the SONGS plant is not in Irvine or Laguna Beach itself, it is not clear that the local cities have any power in this matter.  Also, the nuclear plants are regulated at the federal level by the nuclear regulatory commission (NRC) and not by local communities.  The SONGS output and other energy sources are regulated by the State of California Public Utility Commission (PUC).  Also, the citizens of Irvine and Laguna Beach have never given their city councils the power to act in their names on such issues.  It should also be noted that SC Edison serves 14 million people, and over 180 cities in 11 counties.  I will add and be adding more comments on some of the issues below.  As usual, I disavow being an expert in any of these areas, but I have been following them in the press and general scientific magazines, and at talks on campus and in lifelong learning courses. Also, should I be caught on this mission, the University of California and the State of California will deny any knowledge of it.

Earthquake and tsunami risk, and engineering assessment.  My understanding is that the NRC has given a three year period starting from about June of 2011 for US reactors to reevaluate earthquake, flood and other natural disaster risks, and to prepare plans or perhaps complete plans to protect against them.  Before we decide or consider an action we ought to wait for the best scientific and engineering evaluations to come in.  We should get these perhaps even before planned repairs are underway.  It should be pointed out that the Japanese 9.0 earthquake was tied for the fourth largest in the 110 years since accurate magnitudes have been recorded.

Press Reporting should be accurate and handled by science writers.  In the Register I saw an article perhaps quoting someone at one of the meetings pointing out that SONGS is strengthened for a 7.0 earthquake, but the San Andreas fault could have an 8.0 earthquake.  That is irresponsible reporting, since the 7.0 is considered to be the strongest needed for a fault next to the power plant  The San Andreas fault is 50 miles away, and even an 8.0 there would cause only a 0.2 g acceleration at SONGS.  The nuclear plant is strengthened for a 0.67 g acceleration.  I recently figured out that the 0.67 g acceleration is equivalent to accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in a car in 4.1 seconds.

Tsunamis are far more deadly to people than are the power plants.  The great tragedy of the Japanese earthquake was the loss of the lives of 20,000 people who were living in low lying coastal areas.  The Japanese were well prepared for tsunamis, having tsunami barriers, early warning systems, and training to go uphill even after just feeling an earthquake.  This undoubtedly saved many lives.  The failure was that the earthquake threat maps that controlled risk assessments were from 1945.  One professor looked at the Jogan earthquake of 869 AD in the same region which killed a thousand people, and found that the ocean layer was deposited two and a half miles inland. He informed the nuclear company, but they did not carry out upgrades at Fukushima.  However, we live in California with an earthquake history that only goes back a few hundred years, and we are still learning more from more complete trenching surveys.  My main point here is that we should first worry about saving our own lives in the case of a large, locally caused tsunami.  We could get a few minutes warning from a tsunami started by subduction at Catalina, or from a landslide along a coastal fault.  It would probably cost a few million dollars, and Irvine, with no coast, would probably not be interested in paying for it.  The coastal cities, while wealthy, do not have a large enough population to pay for it, and most of the population does not live below 30 feet or so above sea level, and wouldn’t be interested.  As we showed in an earlier posting, Huntington Beach would be most affected by sea level and storm surge rise, and that also applies to a tsunami.  Along with the early warning we need a set of sirens, and a cell phone call up system, and a tv and radio alert system.  This is proving even expensive for the San Andreas fault system being set up.  If such a system were developed, the state or federal government would have to pay for it — good luck there.  In any case, people would have to be trained to even respond to an earthquake to seek higher ground.  That would mean fleeing a beach without your stuff, running from a restaurant without paying, leaving a theatre in the middle of a movie (which actually happened to me for a quake felt in Laguna Beach, but I was too unprepared to go up hill), and not getting in your car.  Southern Californians who aren’t trained will immediately head for their cars, and in a minute, won’t even be able to pull out of their parking spaces, or will be stuck in traffic and lost.  Even people from Irvine are at risk if they dine in Laguna Beach or go to the beach there, or go to the Newport Peninsula, or perhaps even to Balboa Island.  Also, in the Newport Peninsula or Huntington beach, they either need accessible second or third floor shelters, or specially built emergency platforms.  What happened in Japan, was that the tragic loss of life in the first hours became overshadowed by the months of the Fukushima reactor crises dragging out.  Only one person was killed at the reactors, and it was by falling debris from the initial earthquake.

Alternative Energy Sources.  We are actually going to find out this summer how available alternate energy sources are, since both SONGS reactors are shut down to check out the plumbing, where vibrations in the initial heat exchanger have caused a leak and wear on the pipes.  I didn’t abandon my house for good when I had vibrations and when I had a leak, so I don’t think that is an acceptable reason to do so with SONGS, as long as it can be fixed.   The immediate fix might be to reinstate natural gas generators in Huntington beach, which is being rushed for the summer.  However, as a long term solution, people nearby the plants were complaining of noise and air pollution from the plants, although the air pollution is now being lessened with new controls.  If Irvine wants to shut SONGS and get energy elsewhere, have they checked with the residents of elsewhere yet?  Is Irvine willing to build natural gas plants in Irvine that generate 2.2 GigaWatts of power with resulting noise and pollution?  Are SC Edison ratepayers willing to pay for them?  In a earlier article I showed that scaling up the Brightsource solar tower plant to give as much year-round energy as SONGS would require twice 57 square miles of mirrors and towers, or 114 square miles, and would cost $46 billion.  For comparison, the Great Park at 1300 acres equals 2.0 square miles.  One needs the area of almost 60 Great Parks to replace the SONGS reactors.  Would Irvine want to dedicate its Great Park and three quarters of a billion dollars as a starting contribution?

Fossil Fuel Emissions.  We want to evaluate the emissions from natural gas combustion at 2,200 MegaWatts for say 7,000 hours a year of emissions, like the two SONGS reactors together.  Greenhouse CO2 is 1135 lbs / MWh (megawatt hour) giving by multiplying these numbers 17.5 billion lbs or 8.8 million tons of CO2 per year.  Acid rain causing SO2 is 0.1 lbs / MWh giving 1.54 million pounds or 770 tons of SO2.  Smog causing nitrogen oxides are 1.7 lbs / MWh giving 26.2 million pounds or 13,000 tons of nitrogen oxides.  High level nuclear waste is about 20 tons a year per reactor, or 40 tons a year for the SONGS pair.  As I recall, only about 10% of that represents radioactive elements.  There is the fuel cladding, and the unused U238.  The ratio of about a million in emission reduction is one of the strength of nuclear reactors.  The typical nuclear fission produces a few million electron volts of energy per atom, while the typical chemical reaction produces only about an electron volt of energy per reaction.  The waste from a nuclear reactor is packaged and contained, whereas that from an old fossil fuel plant is freed to the atmosphere, never to be recovered.

Huntington Beach Replacement Power.  The AES natural gas plant in Huntington Beach had four gas units of 226 megaWatts each.  The total power was 904 megaWatts.  Units 3 and 4 were closed to allow them to build plants in the City of Industry.  The units had large holes cut into them.  The older dirtier units 1 and 2 were replaced by modern units that remove nitrous oxides.  Bringing back units 3 and 4 will restore 452 megaWatts power, and the new steam boilers will contain most of the smog causing chemicals.  They need repair and approval by the State of California, and may take at least two months to bring back on line.  They represent only 21% of the power of the two SONGS nuclear reactors.  News stories that these can be “replacements” for SONGS don’t mention that they are only a small amount of the power of SONGS.  San Diego will be especially affected, losing almost 30% of imported power, until their new power line is completed.  The news does not say where their replacement power will come from.

Global Warming.  If California has to lose two or all four of its reactors due to real or perceived earthquake or tsunami risk, it will be a loss to California’s clean initiatives, but not much relative to the nation as a whole, which has 104 nuclear power plants.  There are also 440 nuclear plants worldwide in thirty countries.  The loss of all 54 nuclear plants in Japan would be a great loss, and only one is currently running.  Germany has 9 nuclear plants that will be closed, and Switzerland has 5.  Oddly enough, there aren’t any strong earthquakes in Germany.

Disposal Costs.  Clearly I don’t have an accurate number for this.  However, for other nuclear plants whose closing is being considered, there is a significant cost problem.  The utilities have been investing some money over the years to accumulate more than a billion dollars needed for dismantling and disposal.  The plan is to accumulate that over a forty year lifetime I guess, but the present SONGS reactors have only been operating for about 30 years.  Also, for the other reactors, their investments have suffered considerable losses, as have all of our investments.  Estimates from other reactors being considered for premature closing are that it will take them 60 more years to earn the funds needed for disposal.  So the customers of SC Edison will not only have to come up with billions to replace the power generation of SONGS, but also a billion plus if they want the disposal and real or perceived risk to disappear soon.



About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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