Reporting on the nuclear power industry is a bit like reporting on crime — you usually only read about or see video clips of the really bad stuff.
Most Americans have come to consider just about anything nuclear to be a threat to their health and welfare. What else would we think after years of living under the threat of nuclear war, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima?
Thoughts of those disasters and potential disasters seem to permeate most discussions about nuclear power, even though bombs and reactor meltdowns are separate issues from nuclear power as an energy source.
There are many benefits of nuclear power-generated electricity, mainly that such power generation reduces mankind’s carbon footprint to zero, or nearly zero. Another benefit is that nuclear power involves little or no use of fossil fuels, a finite resource the human race is consuming faster than it can be found and processed for use.
Nuclear power-generated electricity is constant, unlike renewable sources such as solar and wind, which depend on the availability of sunlight and wind currents strong enough to propel turbine blades.
Among the disadvantages of nuclear power is what to do with the waste, a question still in search of a reasonable answer. Another disadvantage is that, as reliable as nuclear power can be, it is vulnerable to human operator error and to natural disasters.
That last part is one of the concerns voiced by opponents of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, and the potential natural disaster that causes the greatest fear is the fact that the plant sits dangerously close to earthquake fault lines. It’s not a question of if, only when the Big One arrives, without notice.
This concern came up at a recent public meeting regarding PG&E’s proposal to shutter operations at Diablo Canyon. It was the final gathering at which the public could speak out, and many did, voicing concerns about plant safety, and others about the economic consequences of closing the plant in a few years.
It is interesting that the conversation has shifted somewhat since PG&E announced plans for a phased shutting down of its reactors. At first there were shouts of joy from anti-nuclear activists, followed by dismay as Central Coast communities realized how much the plant has meant to local economies.
Our concern early on was what was to become of the spent radioactive materials from the plant, a problem that is still in search of a solution.
Some readers interpreted our concerns about the disposition of waste as a condemnation of nuclear power generation, which it most definitely was not. Nuclear power plants have contributed a significant percentage of cleanly-generated electricity in California for many years. The concerns about waste are real, and while there are proposals to deal with it, no real solutions to the problem have been offered.
Regular readers of our editorials know we are long-time advocates of renewable energy sources, mainly solar and wind. We still believe that, in the long run, those are the keys to the future of our energy supply.
Meanwhile, all signs point to an eventual closing of the Diablo Canyon plant, removing about $1 billion a year from the regional economy, leaving California with primarily fossil-fuel-generated electricity. That is the reverse of energy progress, no matter what the oil and coal industries tell you.
But Diablo’s eventual closure does force the issue of where California goes next to generate electric power. It would be pure folly to rely on fossil fuels that have a definite expiration date.