Going to the dump

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is scheduled to close. The first reactor will shut down by 2024, the second reactor goes offline by 2025. Since events in Fukushima on March 11, 2011 concerns a tsunami could deliver a knockout blow and scatter radioactive contamination across the coast of Central California is all too real. Earthquake faults and nuclear power are a match made in probability hell. There is no win, lose or draw. Consequences of a catastrophic event are unimaginable.

Fully decommissioning Diablo Canyon will demand eye watering sums of money and a span of time even Chaplin’s Great Dictator failed to grasp. Moving the spent fuel rods to a safer storage site will be litigious, expensive and one of the most hazardous engineering feats ever attempted. Containers with spent fuel rods will be hoisted onto trucks, reloaded onto trains then unloaded into an underground storage vault where the radioactive waste will slowly decay for the next one quarter of a million years.

The twin reactor buildings at Diablo Canyon will be sealed and guarded by security officers and monitored by technicians for decades. Radiation levels will drop over time and then the removal of the reactors will come at the end of this century.

Closing Diablo Canyon is pegged at $3.9 billion, a phantom number, a sprawling untethered guess. How and if PG&E, California, or humanity completes this job remains unanswered. Ratepayers should have been warned.  

In 1981 in Nevada the Department of Energy began studying a remote and isolated Yucca Mountain, then scientists described underground aquifers and seismic activities that after 27 years rendered the proposed storage site unworkable. Seventy miles south 2.3 million mortal Nevadans and one pugnacious former senate majority leader Harry Reid all breathed a sigh of relief. Las Vegas residents wouldn’t be subjected to being an experimental randomized statistical study on the incidence of cancers caused by a leaky radioactive storage facility.

A second repository has been proposed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a facility between Carlsbad and Hobbs, New Mexico. Locating a suitable underground storage vault where all North America’s nuclear waste can be safely stored for the next 250,000 years exceeds the limits of any previous human endeavor.  

Nuclear waste disposal is a complex yet to be solved problem. Keeping track of the materials, making sure storage containers remain sealed, monitoring the site for earthquakes, guarding against a fluke fiery meteorite plunging into the atmosphere and like a tsunami striking the disposal site, a cosmic bullseye of all bullseyes, worries of this kind are on the short list of what might go wrong and could go wrong.

Plate tectonics, continental drift, or an earth in a bad mood might trigger unforeseen radioactive extinction events. Unimagined flooding such as happened when Hurricane Harvey stalled over Houston is followed by drought, what was thought to be a stable underground vault might become plagued by swarms of earthquakes, a vent opens and there is a volcanic eruption where none had been anticipated. Scenarios such as these sound as if they were found on the pages of comic books. Setting aside all the ways a storage containment site could be breached there is the technological challenge of building a warning sign that could hold up to howling wind, sun, rain, snow, and ice over the course of tens of thousands of years. Experts have created a short list of languages and universal symbols to be placed on the mother of all sign’s that must hold up to the father of all tests of time.

The National Energy Laboratory in Idaho has cooked up a plan to build what are called miniature nuclear reactors. Utah, Montana, and Wyoming with coal going the way of the dodo bird are all considering deploying the 5-megawatt reactors across their states. Nuclear power interests who believe in this technology know that even small miniature nuclear reactors are by the billions and billions of dollars too expensive, their costs make the technology uncompetitive, even still the industry can’t seem to stop trying.     

Failure is not an option and so it has become a feature. Plutonium contamination at Rocky Flats near Denver haunts the former bomb making facility. Radiation at Nevada’s Atomic Test Site isn’t going away anytime soon. Atomic waste at the Hanford site where our nuclear arsenal was built is a mess wrapped in a riddle inside of an unsolvable conundrum. Politics, science, and journalism have no words to describe the severity of this situation. There is every reason to be concerned that a radioactive spill could work its way into the Columbia River, spread downstream to Portland, beyond to Anacortes, out into Pacific and then by ocean currents the remains of our atomic bomb making materials could be swept around the world.

The debate over whether the climate is changing is over. Dismantling last century’s fossil fuel energy system and replacing it with this new century’s decarbonized energy system is under enormous time pressure. The world must move faster than has ever been done before. It is as fantastical as sending a man to the moon, but this time, we are all going, and if it doesn’t work out, none of us will be coming back.     

In Las Vegas, the honorable Peter Guzman of the Latin Chamber of Commerce makes the case we must continue heating our homes with natural gas, that to do otherwise would damage the economy and the pocketbooks of the people he represents. Guzman took on the work of being a leader for this organization, for the people he’s been elected to speak for. The responsibility of how to respond to the climate emergency hasn’t made it into his job description, but that is going to change. All of us will be asked to participate in the solution. Deploying the new energy system is the responsibility of leaders higher up the chain of command. Powerful storms, floods and wildfire have changed minds. A sizable majority, not all but most support efforts to fight climate change.

Trust what this change means to our survival, embrace the challenges, volunteer to be part of a citizens brigade willing to try new things. Raise your hand, sign up to go work elsewhere, be a willing participant, hold up your end of the bargain, there is no free lunch, no easy way out.

Building Confidence thru Play

A path to a better world, a more whole and healthier American West, walking this trail doesn’t happen by accident. A moral compass is made of hearts and minds, understanding there is an opportunity in making a measure of sacrifice, acknowledging the journey is difficult, that our prevailing against the odds is- good trouble, that this inner guidance system, the climate challenge we face, the path we walk, asks of us that we give the best of who we are. To plant a tree, start a family, mend the roof, cook a tasty wholesome meal, remind the children by deed and word, how you believe that in their hearts, between what they trust and know and doubt and fear, that you have confidence in their power to steer their fate, that this power to imagine animates the path they will choose, it is their story that our children are creating, with their magic pen, it is the story of their life. If only we have the willingness to nurture in this new generation the most renewable of renewable energies, the power to have faith in who we truly are.  

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