Friday, May 27, 2011

Buchon Trail Revisited, Diablo Canyon, Power, and Six Billion Bears

The two little domes just right of center are the reactor buildings.
A while back we took a hike on the Buchon Trail which offers a view the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Most folks living in the San Luis Obispo area are aware of the power plant, and more than a few work for Pacific Gas and Electric some at the plant itself. The power plant is on a rather secluded patch of coast line and it is hidden from view unless you work there or take time for the hike. Being out of sight it's easy to forget about. At the time of our hike the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting radiation leaks at Fukushima were all in the future. None the less seeing the Diablo Canyon power plant made me think about how close we live to it. I've wondered about the domes of nuclear power plants since I was a kid. When we would drive past San Onofre I'd stare out the car window at the off-white globes until they disappeared over a slight rise in the freeway. When we'd visit my Aunt and Uncle in Atascadero I would imagine I could squint and see the Diablo Canyon plant from highway 101 where it darts inland just south of Avila Beach. I knew it was there and had seen pictures of the red brown domes but I never laid eyes on it.

Since the earthquake in Japan I have toyed with writing something about our local reactor. A brief internet search brings up many articles and gobs of angry comments regarding Diablo Canyon from both sides. There's the shut-it-down-now-it's-too-dangerous camp and there's the we-need-the-electricity-and-jobs camp. Before the earthquake the plant was already facing an uncertain future. Pacific Gas and Electric was applying to renew the plant's licence to operate for the next twenty years, and the debate was already heated. In the aftermath of the Japan's earthquake even more divisive attention has been heaped on Diablo Canyon. The safety of the plant's location has been in question since before it was built and each new fault discovered and each temblor in the local hills renews the issue. I can't add much to the debate over the new license and I won't try to add links to any articles as it would necessitate showing some kind of bias in what articles to choose. If you are interested I am sure you will have an easy time finding lots of articles on your own.

The opinions of seismologists working for Pacific Gas and Electric versus those outside the company will likely never agree. Predicting the volatility of any fault line is a difficult game. Nuclear disasters are still a rare thing and our history with the atomic stuff is still rather short. How much risk we are taking with any nuclear power plant I'm afraid will only be accurately judged in hindsight... but by then the mess is made and what's the point of judging. Keeping the plant operating seems to come down to how bad do we need the electricity and can we live with the worst if it arrives.

I'm in no position to figure that one out. It'll suck pretty bad for me and my neighbors if the worst arrives, but it isn't driving me to move away. As part of the emergency warning system for the power plant the air raid sirens around town are tested regularly. Hearing the tests is chilling, but again it isn't driving me to move away. Having electricity without burning anything is swell, but then there's all that nasty spent fuel that will far out live me. Nope, I have no answer.

Then a thing occurs to me. It's the same thing that comes to mind when ever I'm in a worrying mood. We fuss over nuclear power, oil, pollution, critters disappearing, illegal immigration, water rights, pesticides..... but one thing doesn't seem to have much voice. Population. There really are so damn many of us, and more and more of us want to have a car and electric lights. Can't say I blame anyone, it seems only right that anyone should be allowed to pursue these things. I suppose nuclear power along with every other form of power will have to be in play if everyone here is going to get to have some toys.

With population too I'm in no position to figure and point. I can't claim that we'd necessarily be better off if the population of the planet was cut in half... or a third... or less. And how does one go about arguing who stays and who goes.  Whoo boy... that leads down a dark hole, don't it?

Are we stuck with this? It kinda looks like we really don't need a nuclear war to wipe us out. Steady population growth will do the job... either through pestilence, shortage of water, or famine... slow and easy compared to nuclear disaster. Population growth scares me more than most things, and even with out our eating habits and toys we would eventually be a problem for ourselves. Heck, six billion bears would wreck the place about as fast as six billion people. It's getting close to seven billion by the way.

Ok, gotta go out and smell the flowers now. Sorry for the bummer folks. Just had to get it out.

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