Daily Archives: March 17, 2011

It Can’t Happen Here

It could be my independent nature or maybe a genetic streak of isolationism – or maybe simple fear – but when news of a an epic crisis crosses my computer screen, sometimes my first reaction is to find a way to mentally wall myself off from the event, and convince myself that, while it’s undeniably horrible, ultimately it’s TNMPM (Totally Not My Problem, Man).

But the six-way nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, half a world away and 140 miles north of Tokyo, is my problem, man. It’s everyone’s problem, because it’s melting down one of the world’s great societies and economies and because the likes of Cesium-137, a radioactive element with a half-life of 30 years that possesses the ability to generate cancers, burns and death, is probably about to spew forth into the atmosphere (if it hasn’t already), in a giant cloud that could devastate the Japanese, and/or blow right on over Hawaii and into the air and food chain of the U.S. West Coast.

It’s everyone’s problem because it turns out we’re all connected.

Even the hardcore solar homesteader living off the grid still suffers the ill effects of mass electrical generation, whether it’s mercury air pollution or water fouled via hydrofracking or radiation poisoning every three or four decades.

As Japan’s nuclear tragedy unfolded, I was struck by how quickly U.S. nuclear power interests were able to muster their corporate congressional representatives to talk up how much safer and better-managed our nuclear plants are than the ones in the process of melting down.

“The nuclear energy industry believes that existing seismic design criteria are adequate. Every U.S. nuclear power plant has an in-depth seismic analysis and is designed and constructed to withstand the maximum projected earthquake that could occur in its area without any breach of safety systems,” declares the Nuclear Energy Institute, the organization that funnels money to lobbies Congress on behalf of power plant owners.

This reminded me that the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station is operating a two-unit nuclear plant a couple of counties away on the Gulf Coast, with plans to expand to four units.

If I were concerned about this proximity, South Texas Project CEO Ed Halpin had already acted, via the business partnership’s web site, to allay my concerns:

The tragic events unfolding in Japan underscore nature’s immense force and power. Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan. This is a devastating tragedy.

You can be assured that the safety of our community is our highest priority. We never take this for granted.

Our community has given us a special trust. It’s a responsibility we take very seriously – every minute of every day. The safe and reliable operation of our units is our primary responsibility. Our commitment and focus is always on putting safety first in every action we take.

Our facility was designed and constructed to be robust with multiple, redundant safety features. STP’s safety features are unique – we are the only commercial nuclear facility in the nation to have three separate safety trains. These safety systems – electric power, pumps, valves, instrumentation – are available in each unit for redundancy.

These safety systems are located in water-tight, concrete buildings designed to withstand earthquakes and flooding. STP Units 3 and 4 will have equivalent redundancy and are equally superior in design.

In addition, our containment is four feet thick and lined with steel to mitigate any potential worst-case scenario.

Results of a Gulf Coast Category 5 hurricaneThat’s a good thing, because the worst-case scenario in the case of the South Texas Nuclear Generating Station is a Category 5 hurricane.

I have to confess that I find assurances from Ed Halpin and the nuclear lobby insufficient. I have felt this insufficiency in my gut as I read each day’s news of the Japan tragedy, and in my brain as I refresh my memory on the South Texas nuke operation.

According to Wikipedia (whose accuracy and mileage may vary), the generating station was built 23 years ago. Texas’ first nuclear plant, it consists of two pressurized water reactors cooled by a water reservoir instead of cooling towers. It is operated by STP Nuclear Operating Co., which is owned 44% by NRG Energy, 40% by CPS Energy (the San Antonio municipal utility) and 16% by Austin Energy, owned by the city of Austin.

In 2007, NRG decided it wanted to buy and install two more nuclear units, Toshiba Advanced Boiling Water Reactors, at a cost estimated at $13 billion including financing. San Antonio’s CPS was going to be a 50% partner in the new units, but then Toshiba informed the players the units might cost a lot more – maybe $4 billion more. CPS pulled out of the deal.

But five months ago NRG announced it had found a new partner to replace CPS, contingent upon the U.S. Department of Energy guaranteeing a construction loan.

The partner? Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, now under fire for essentially stonewalling the Japanese people as that plant’s nuclear fuel slowly melts into the sky.

Remember now, I’m just some guy trying his best to fend for himself and his family, and not the Shell Answer Man. But it seems to me mankind took a step in the wrong direction with nuclear power, and we have the ability to step back and go another direction. Like solar, and wind. The sun can generate electricity on a mass scale, and solar power plants won’t rain Cesium-137 down on the planet. And in a transition from now to then, natural gas. Cleaner, cheaper, not perfect, but a better all-around way to get the job done than coal or nukes.

Ultimately, though, I’m with the hardcore homesteaders. Get the price of solar cells down, and you can generate your own power needs, with no 100 miles of grid wires required.

Meanwhile, please pray for Japan. And the rest of us.

Disclosure: I own First Solar Inc. stock, less than $5,000 worth, because sometimes I put my money where my mouth is.