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Devil Of A Dilemma: Nuclear Safety vs. Marine Mammal Safety

November 14, 2012

Sometimes decisions made years ago end up leading us into blind alleys that have no safe or easy way out. A perfect example is California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant (whose idea was it to build a nuclear reactor in a place called Diablo Canyon?).

The nuclear power plant opened in 1985, and generates electricity for more than 2 million homes. Here’s the thing, though: it turns out that Diablo Canyon was built on not just one geological fault, but two (the second discovered in 2008). The risk of building a nuclear power plant anywhere in earthquake country has always been controversial, but in the wake of the Fukushima Disaster, fears about what might happen at Diablo Canyon are suddenly very acute. That has prompted licensing authorities to want to know a lot more about the earthquake risks attached to Diablo Canyon. Which in turn has led California’s PG&E utility, which owns and operates the plant to propose an intensive program of seismic airgun testing right off the coast of Diablo Canyon. And that, in turn, could be a disaster for the marine mammals who thrive in those waters.

Here’s what the testing could mean for marine mammal life, according to an editorial in the Los Angeles Times:

But what if the research itself causes terrible environmental harm? That’s what the staff of the California Coastal Commission says would happen if plant owner Pacific Gas & Electric Co. is allowed to proceed with its proposal to blast underwater air cannons every 15 seconds in Morro Bay, for about 12 days a year over four years, to produce three-dimensional images of geologic faults. PG&E needs the commission’s permission to carry out the sonic imaging, but the staff is recommending against it.

Thousands of marine mammals, with their sensitivity to underwater sounds, would be affected in unknown ways by the disturbance, a staff report says. Of special concern are Morro Bay’s 2,000 harbor porpoises, a distinct population that remains in that area and doesn’t interbreed with other harbor porpoises. If they were driven from the bay by the cannons, their ability to survive would be uncertain. In addition, the blasts would kill millions of fish and other forms of sea life.

The editorial hopes that PG&E will be able to do other testing and surveys that will minimize the need for seismic airgun work, but in the end argues that the risk of a nuclear disaster is so terrible that some seismic testing may have to go forward. Somehow, the question of shutting down a nuclear power plant that almost certainly should never have been built, doesn’t seem to come up. Which is odd, because the very fact that there is a felt need to survey two geological faults suggests that there is a non-trivial earthquake risk. So it is hard to imagine how anyone could ever feel reassured about the risks the plant poses, no matter what the testing shows.

Point Buchon State Marine Reserve and Marine Conservation Area

Sea Shepherd has mobilized against the testing, and has a much more dire view of what it would mean:

According to a PG&E representative at an informational meeting, “the proposal calls for a 240-foot ship to tow a quarter-mile wide array of twenty 250 decibel “air cannons,” along a 90-mile stretch of California’s Central Coast. The cannons will shoot deafening underwater explosions once every twenty seconds, day and night, for 42 days and nights.  The region where this devastating assault on wildlife is expected to take place includes the “protected” Point Buchon State Marine Reserve.

The decision occurs at a time when humpback and blue whales have appeared in shockingly large numbers off the California coast to feed on krill. The seismic testing will kill great blue whales, gray whales and others, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, otters, and fishes. PG&E has offered to buy-off commercial fishermen in the area to compensate for anticipated losses if the plan is allowed to go forth.

PG&E plans to produce a 3-D map of the shoreline fault’s deeper regions. Hydrophones in the water and geophones on the seafloor would collect data on the sound as it resonates through sea and earth, and the resulting data is expected to help geologists map the fault. Nothing of this scope and power has ever been done in California waters before and according to the Environmental Impact Report, the toll on marine life from this kind of testing is staggering. In regions where this sort of testing has been done, countless dead marine animals wash ashore for weeks during and after testing, blood dripping from areas such as their eyes, nose, ears or mouth — a sign they have suffered catastrophic internal hemorrhaging.

This seismic testing is expected to yield only moderate mapping results and, according to Fish and Game Commissioner Richard Rogers, would “cleanse the Point Buchon State Marine Reserve of all living marine organisms” including Sperm, Pygmy Sperm, Humpback, California Gray and Great Blue Whales, and many other species of fish and marine mammals, right down to the plankton.

For anyone who lives near California’s Central Coast, there will be a public hearing tonight to discuss the dilemmas over Diablo Canyon.

Here’s what I would say, if I were there:

1)  Testing will, without question, harm or kill thousands of marine mammals. The only question is how many, and how many will die or be permanently disabled.

2) In the best case scenario, the testing might reveal a reduced risk of earthquake danger. But Diablo Canyon will still be located in a zone that carries earthquake risk.

3) In the worst case, testing might reveal a serious danger from earthquake.

4) Either way, decommissioning is really the only way to eliminate the risk of a serious nuclear tragedy.

5) Seismic testing won’t really change, or shouldn’t really change, the fact that decommissioning is the only way to make Diablo Canyon safe (and in fact it might simply emphasize that point if the testing reveals serious earthquake risk), so why kill and injure thousands of marine mammals when we already know this is the reality?

6) A Meta-Point: the decision to build Diablo Canyon despite the earthquake risk was a human decision. The electricity Diablo Canyon produces is consumed by humans. Why should marine mammals pay the price of human folly and consumption? (I know, that is a question that could be applied globally to almost any number of issues, but that only makes it THE critical question). In the end, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is entirely a human construct. Whatever costs are attached to dealing with the risks and dangers it poses should be borne not by marine mammals that had nothing to do with it, but by humans. It’s called taking responsibility.

Picture via Lady Blue Productions

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