By Sage Ertman, Policy Intern
With many still reeling in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), one of the largest natural gas and electric utilities based out of California, announced it will not be renewing its operating licenses for California’s last two nuclear reactors located at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. The current licenses will expire in 2024 and 2025. Here, I will explore the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster as well as PG&E’s reasons for closing the reactors.
Lessons From Fukushima
Back in 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami ravaged the Fukushima plant, causing a nuclear meltdown. Following the disaster, because the plant lost electricity (including its back-up power), the pumps responsible for bringing water to the reactors to keep them cool stopped functioning. Though Japanese crews spent weeks trying to keep the reactors’ temperatures down, primarily by injecting seawater, evacuations became more widespread as the extent of the true damage was uncovered. Eventually, workers discovered radioactive water was leaking from the plant. Nearby groundwater having flowed through the flooded basements and tunnels at the plant became radiated before emptying into the ocean at a rate of 400 tons per day. Today, though that number has been reduced significantly, Fukushima is still leaking radioactive water into the ocean. Exactly how wide-spread the latent effects of this disaster are is still unknown. It didn’t take long before the plants and animals surrounding Fukushima began showing signs of defects. And because people were evacuated so quickly from the lands adjacent to the plant, many family pets and farm animals were left behind. Some of the locals returned months after the meltdown to find many of these animals dead or dying. This led a number of farmers to return to the “exclusion” zone to open animal sanctuaries for the contaminated animals, most of which the Japanese government planned to slaughter since they could not be sold to market.
The Japanese government puts damage estimates for the Fukushima meltdown at around $300 billion. In early 2014, low levels of radiated water from the plant were even detected off the coast of Canada. Estimates on how long the clean-up is expected to take range anywhere from 40 years to 100 years. Even today, the clean-up crew still faces major problems containing what remains of the plant and its radioactive fuel. One thing we can take away from the Fukushima incident is that the proximity of these plants to the ocean and local ecosystems presents a major threat to public safety and the safety of our environment.
From Nuclear to Renewables
For those concerned that a meltdown like Fukushima could happen in earthquake-prone California, home to the infamous San Andreas Fault, PG&E’s announcement should trigger a sigh of relief. However, though still a major victory for the environment, the decision to close the Diablo Canyon reactors is still a business decision in the end. A number of nuclear operators have begun to shut down reactors as U.S. power prices have dropped with the price of gasoline; in fact, it will actually cost less to close the Diablo Canyon reactors than to keep them open. Additionally, this will help PG&E comply with California’s ambitious energy policies because it plans to replace the power produced by the two nuclear reactors with investment in a greenhouse-gas-free portfolio of renewables and energy storage. California established its Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) program in 2002. The program has been accelerated numerous times, and most recently, a 2015 Senate Bill established, among other requirements, a mandate to obtain 50% of California’s electricity generation from renewable energy sources by 2030.
The Diablo Canyon plant sparked controversy since its inception. After construction began, the Hosgri Fault line was discovered in 1971, just three miles from the plant. Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, lawmakers called for immediate reviews of the Diablo Canyon plant as well as the San Onofre nuclear plant near San Diego, California. Due to rising expenses, falling power prices, and heated controversy, the San Onofre plant was closed in 2013. And now, California is planning to say goodbye once and for all (in 2025) to its final nuclear plant.