City council asks governor to close unsafe nuclear power plants

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In a nearly unanimous vote, the Berkeley City Council has decided to urge Gov. Jerry Brown to decommission two of the state’s nuclear power plants, which some say pose a hazard if allowed to operate.

The council voted eight to one to call on the governor to ask the state’s Public Utilities Commission to replace aging reactors at the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre power plants in Southern California with renewable energy by the time the current licences expire.

Almost 80 people gathered outside of the council chambers prior to the 7 p.m. meeting for a rally against the two reactors, as well as nuclear power in general. Speakers talked about transitioning to other forms of energy in light of the tragic events in Fukushima, Japan last year.

“The nuclear industry is built on fraud, lies, deception and cutting corners,” said Bob Meola, commissioner of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission. “People practice safe sex … we demand that our state practice safe energy policies.”

The council heard from President of the Committee to Bridge the Gap and UC Santa Cruz Nuclear Policy Lecturer Dan Hirsch, who addressed what he sees as “a pretty substantial crisis” in the state. According to Hirsch, Monday’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting revealed long-established issues with both Diablo Canyon and San Onofre.

The latter — located in San Diego county — has been shut down since December due to a radioactive leak in one of its steam generators which released a small amount of radioactive gas due to unusually fast degradation of recently-installed steam generator tubes. Hirsch cited the nuclear plant’s “troubled safety culture,” giving several examples of the flaws which compromise its safety. For five years, the plant had not been carrying out hourly fire watches, a practice mandated around 30 years ago when inspectors discovered fire vulnerability issues. The plant was supposed to conduct the fire watches while the problem was being addressed.

“The company has created an environment in which workers are frightened to bring up safety complaints,” Hirsch said. “(The plant) is number one in the nation for the number of safety complaints.”

Diablo Canyon — located in San Luis Obispo county — is currently operating and also has its share of problems. According to Hirsch, before the construction of the reactor around 40 years ago, it was not determined whether or not there was a nearby offshore fault. A fault was, in fact, found during construction, which significantly increased the price of the project and poses an earthquake risk.

“I think it is very reasonable to urge this state to rapidly move to phase out those reactors,” Hirsch said at the meeting.

Hirsch, as well as Mayor Tom Bates, pointed out that Brown spoke out against nuclear power plants at the beginning of his career, and should be reminded of his past stance.

Although the council agreed they did not have the ability to make Brown shut down the reactors, there was a general consensus to urge the governor to direct the state commission which oversees nuclear power.

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak was the only dissenting member, cautioning the council that eliminating nuclear power in favor of other fuels may not be the best solution.

“There is an argument for nuclear power in the grand scheme of things,” Wozniak said. “It’s not correct to say that radioactivity isn’t organic. The way you tell something is organic is by looking for Carbon-14, which is radioactive. We live with radioactivity.”

Woznaik’s comments were met with loud dissent from the audience, many of whom warned the council that the tragic events of Fukushima could occur in California.

Wozniak said he objected to the fact that only one, non-technical commission has weighed in on the issue.

“Evaluating whether a reactor is going to survive (an earthquake) is a very complex technical problem,” Wozniak said. “Burning biofuels does not solve your problems. If you get rid of nuclear power … you’re going to make greenhouse gas emissions worse.”

Councilmember Max Anderson supported Wozniak’s comments, but maintained that nuclear energy “needs to be fazed out in a responsible way so that it is not replaced by coal and gas.”

The proposal also urges President Barack Obama to discontinue support for nuclear power by stopping loan guarantees to the nuclear energy industry, shutting down plants located in seismically-active areas and investing in clean energy. In addition, the council will also ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to “withhold license renewal” for the two power plants “until seismic issues and offsite permanent storage are resolved,” according to the resolution.