Home > California, Environment, Nuclear Energy > When the Big One Hits: Diablo Plume Effect on Central Valley

When the Big One Hits: Diablo Plume Effect on Central Valley

March 19, 2011


As California goes, so goes the nation.

There are two nuclear power plants in California: (i) San Onofre in San Clemente, between Los Angeles and San Diego located in Southern California; (ii) Diablo Canyon in Avila Beach near San Luis Obispo located in the Central Coast area of California. Both are situated on beachfronts. Both are located near the San Andreas faultline.

Diablo Canyon was originally designed to withstand a 6.75 magnitude earthquake from four faults, including the nearby San Andreas and Hosgri faults., but was later upgraded to withstand a 7.5 magnitude quake. It has seismic monitoring and safety systems, designed to shut it down promptly in the event of significant ground motion. (Source: Wikipedia)

Photo of Diablo Canyon Power Plant
My parents lived in San Luis Obispo known as SLO, in the 70s. The adjacent coastal areas are stunningly beautiful. Imagining a nuclear catastrophe is almost unthinkable. What is even more unthinkable is the proximity of the Diablo Power Plant to the inland Central Valley, home of our nations major agricultural producers.

The Central Valley, with its Mediterranean climate of mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers, has more than 81,000 farms and ranches on 14.5 million acres of agricultural land that produces fully one-fourth of the varieties of food items we place on our tables. More than 300 crops are grown here, from lemons, asparagus, and bell peppers to olives, almonds, and spinach. (Source: Big Picture Agriculture)

If we have a major earthquake on the San Andreas fault as predicted by many experts, the Diablo Nuclear Power plant could find itself in a similar situation as the Fukushima power plant in Japan. A power failure would precipitate complications of cooling reactors, fuel rods, and spent fuel pools. If there were cracks in the structure or explosions there may be a release of radiation or radioactive particles into the lower atmosphere.

I have driven all over that area and been to many of the towns and beach areas and one thing I can state with good authority is the wind blows from West to East a good portion of the time. Playing out a similar scenario as is unfolding right now in Japan, we would see a plume waft right over the Central Valley. That would be catastrophic as a major portion of our nations food supply would become contaminated within days. Waterways – contaminated. Soil contaminated.

If ever there was a reason to shut down the Diablo Power Plant and the San Onofre plants, it is the irreversible consequences of nuclear radiation contamination of our food supply, water and land.

Safety Information
Pacific Gas & Electric Company went through six years of hearings, referenda and litigation to have the Diablo Canyon plant approved. A principal concern about the plant is whether it can be sufficiently earthquake-proof. The site was deemed safe when construction started in 1968.

However, by the time of the plant’s completion in 1973, a seismic fault, the Hosgri fault, had been discovered several miles offshore. This fault had a 7.1 magnitude quake 10 miles offshore on November 4, 1927, and thus was capable of generating forces equivalent to approximately 1/16 of those felt in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The company updated its plans and added structural supports designed to reinforce stability in case of earthquake. In September 1981, PG&E discovered that a single set of blueprints was used for these structural supports; workers were supposed to have reversed the plans when switching to the second reactor, but did not. Nonetheless, on March 19, 1982 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided not to review its 1978 decision approving the plant’s safety, despite these and other design errors.

There had been historically this and another fault until recent months in which the Shoreline Fault was discovered by the U.S. Geological Survey. In turn, PG&E was directed to commence seismic studies regarding that fault and contingencies regarding several areas of concern. Notable is the phenomenon of ground liquefaction which can occur in connection with seismic activity, rupture which is the opening of fissures and ground acceleration, or shaking. Some have voiced concern that the latter effect could cause spillage of submerged fuel rod assemblies which, upon exposure to air, could ignite. PG&E and NRC regulators insist that the foregoing scenario is anticipated and controlled for, and that there is no basis to anticipate spillage. Additional seismic studies are in process, however completion of those studies is not a condition precedent to reissuance of the operating licenses for the two onsite units.

A PG&E request to extend the life of the plant by 20 years has been postponed from April 2011 pending the resolution of the nuclear emergencies in Japan. (Source: Wikipedia)

The highway just behind San Onofre power plant is Interstate 5, the North-South route between San Diego and Los Angeles. 80% of all goods are trucked in to San Diego. The two main routes are Interstate 5, the North-South Route, and Interstate 8, the East-West route. Traffic volume on Interstate 5 is estimated at 350,000 vehicles per day.

The foothills behind the plant are home to Camp Pendleton, the Marine base and home to 70,000 marines and their families. More information, click here.

Related: March 20, 2011 North County Times, Excerpt:
San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station’s plan to extend its operating license to keep the plant running past 2022 could face new hurdles in light of the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan.

To get the license extension, plant owner Southern California Edison needs approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as various permits and approvals from state agencies such as the California Coastal Commission and Public Utilities Commission.

According to the NRC, nuclear plants must undergo a rigorous 22-month process, which includes new studies aimed at making sure the plant’s materials and procedures are robust enough to continue operating for an additional 20 years.

Agriculture is an important sector in California’s economy. Farming-related sales more than quadrupled over the past three decades, from $7.3 billion in 1974 to nearly $31 billion in 2004. This increase has occurred despite a 15 percent decline in acreage devoted to farming during the period, and water supply suffering from chronic instability. Factors contributing to the growth in sales-per-acre include more intensive use of active farmlands and technological improvements in crop production. In 2008, California’s 81,500 farms and ranches generated $36.2 billion products revenue. (Source: Wikipedia)

  1. Margaret Kittelson
    March 20, 2011 at 11:55 am

    A Stanford professor spoke of scientists’ focus on two factors: probability and consequences.

    Probability involves likelihood of something happening. Consequences involves both known and projected outcomes.

    Probability. We might count all the existing nuclear power plants. Then we count negative incidents. Finding only 3 that made much news, we may conclude that the probability of negative incidents is only a small percentage.

    Probability also identifies factors that could precipitate a problem. Earthquakes could precipitate a problem for a nuclear energy facility, so Japan constructed nuclear plants that could withstand a magnitude 7 earthquake. Their March 2011 quake was a magnitude 9.

    A magnitude 9 earthquake would also exceed the planned probability of California’s nuclear power plants. They stand near fault lines, in an area where residents speak of waiting for “the big one.” How big?

    Probabilities must additionally examine spent fuel rods, that remain radioactive…lethal. What is the probability of some cache of these fuel rods poisoning land? air? water?…people?…or being used by terrorists for some nasty purpose? The storage issue is a huge one. And it is, as yet, an unsolved problem that could have horrible consequences.

    Consequences. There are some known consequences from experiences at Chernoble, at Three Mile Island, and now Japan (although the full extent of consequences here won’t be known for another 20 years or so).

    Projected consequences are easy to imagine. So you imagined consequences of contaminated water, contaminated land. California land, vital for agriculture, would be ruined, basically forever.

    Now, imagine one of those nuclear facilities getting washed into the sea. Ocean water radioactive. Massive fish kill. Beaches radioactive. Forever?

    Another consequence is radioactive air, and it travels. After the earthquake in Japan, it took about one week for mildly radioactive air to be detected in California. From a nuclear explosion in California, deadly plumes could sweep across multiple states. From a total nuclear meltdown in California, plumes could travel through the jet stream all across the United States and on to Europe, even encircling the globe.

    Just one nuclear catastrophe could become a global catastrophe. All in the blink of an eye, it would begin. This may not be a high probability. But it IS a possibility.

    Fear of nuclear power’s consequences was initiated last week, following Japan’s earthquake. For those who care about the future of the earth and people on it, both fear and sanity would lead us to say NO to nuclear power.

  2. March 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    M. with your permission, I would like to make this a separate post. Let me know.

  3. Margaret Kittelson
    March 21, 2011 at 3:48 am

    You have my permission. I was regretting that I could not identify the Stanford professor, who spoke of the focus on probabilities and consequences in a book that he wrote related to climate change. But I still cannot surface his name.

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