Wednesday, March 16, 2011

To React or Not To React?

My dad piloted small planes. Once an elderly in-law said to him, “If God had meant for us to fly, He would have put wings on our backs.”

“Yes,” my dad replied with measured courtesy, his irritation showing only a little, “and if He’d meant for us to hurtle down the highways, He would have put wheels on our backsides.”

Perhaps we casually careen down concrete freeways where so many die in crashes because not everyone who’s in a car crash dies. Many people survive. But plane crashes? Chances are, you’re gonna die.

And so it goes with our virtual indifference to the plethora of dangers surrounding us as we go about our daily business: hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, oil refineries, coal burning generators, reality TV. Yet we harbor what some call an irrational fear of nuclear power plants. Things go wrong and people sometimes die (or get kicked off the island) in the former. But if things go wrong with the latter, forgetaboutit.

As events unfold in Japan, we watch with disbelief and dread. Multiple nuclear reactors teeter on the brink of meltdown; we shrink away; say our prayers for the Japanese people, and for ourselves. Thank God for putting us in the position of being helpful instead of needing help.

At home we’re hearing the familiar refrain that the epic disaster in Japan is a wakeup call for the United States. OK, but is anybody listening?

PG&E assures us that the nuclear power plant they run on the beach and atop a fault line at San Onofre is safe and secure for an earthquake measuring up to 7.0 on the Richter scale. That is the largest quake likely to occur in that area, they say; and they’ve taken every precaution to ensure Californians’ safety.

This sounds more like a bureaucracy defending the status quo and placating the concerned citizens it should serve, than the response of an organization awake to the call of the largest nuclear power facility failure since Chernobyl.

How can they say that 7.0 is the largest quake that will occur along the fault lines close to that site? Put simply, they can’t. They don’t know what the largest quake will be. They know only what the largest quake has been so far.

If asked last Thursday, Japanese operators of the Fukushima plant at Dai-ichi likely would have voiced confidence in the ability of their systems to withstand the largest quake likely to occur at that location. But until a structure endures a 9.0 scale earthquake, none of us can know with certainty what a 9.0 scale earthquake will do. In truth, we are only prepared for what has happened in the past, not for what could happen in the future.

And hey, isn’t that the same thing PG&E told us about their gas pipelines in Alameda? It’s all good…don’t worry ‘bout a thing?

My rational side says we must not have an unthinking, knee-jerk freak out, and shut down the entire nuclear operation in our country. The 104 operating nuclear power plants here function safely, delivering 20% of the electricity needed to keep us running. Nuclear power provides a key component in our diversification away from oil dependency. We must keep our eyes on that prize.

Once we’ve learned from the events in Japan, let’s review and upgrade all our fail-safe systems, and doubly fortify our existing plants, especially those we so cavalierly situated on oceanfront fault lines.

Thirty-one of our plants have the same design as Reactor #4 at Dai-ichi. They house spent reactor rods within the reactor, but outside the radiation containment walls. We’re awake now. Let’s revamp that obsolete design and store our spent rods according to current science, within containment walls offsite and underground.

Any new construction must be distant from sea level and the underground labyrinth of faults comprising the Pacific Ring of Fire. Quit building reactors in clusters. Reassess, triple, and diversify our back-up power sources. Train and retrain operating personnel so they understand and manage routine and emergency protocol with precision.

That’s the rational side of me. It says, “Learn, Adapt, Press On.”

The other side? The limbic scaredy cat side with the jerking knees? It says, “Strap on your parachute and shout ‘Geronimo!’ What are you doing up here anyway? You can’t fly!”