Sunday, April 30, 2006

Church Commemorates 20th Anniversary of Chernobyl

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“I was in Ukraine six months before Chernobyl, and I returned there in September 2005,” anti-nuclear activist Rochelle Becker told a meeting of the Peace and Democracy Action Group at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest on April 26, the 20th anniversary of the worst nuclear power disaster in history. “Six months before Chernobyl, no one in the Soviet Union worried about nuclear power. I met the head of the nuclear engineering department in Leningrad [now St. Petersburg] and he said people who worked in the nuclear industry made the most money and lived in the best houses. They’d heard of the Three Mile Island accident but were convinced nothing like that would ever happen in the Soviet Union because they didn’t have the profit motive.”

The 1986 nuclear reactor meltdown at Chernobyl is frequently referred to as an “accident,” but it really wasn’t, Becker said. It was actually an experiment conducted by the nuclear plant workers to see how much they could lower the power input into their controls and still run the facility. To make the experiment work, they had to disable the normal safety systems that would have stopped a meltdown — and the reactor duly crashed. What’s more, when the incident occurred the Soviet authorities didn’t bother to tell anybody. The release of radiation from the Chernobyl site wasn’t discovered until some of it drifted to Sweden and that country’s monitors began picking up unusually high radiation levels in the Swedish atmosphere. Instead, the authorities in Kiev, Ukraine’s largest city, went ahead with their big May Day parade five days later — and a light drizzle delivered radioactive fallout to parade marchers and spectators alike.

The church’s commemoration of Chernobyl featured two speakers: Becker to deliver the critique of nuclear power and Angelina Galiteva, head of the World Council for Renewable Energy (WCRE) and former official at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, to deliver the positive message that already existing renewable technologies can totally eliminate our need for fossil fuels and nuclear energy alike. What’s needed, Galiteva said, is the proper mix of government subsidies and economic incentives to make renewables cost-effective and encourage their use.

“I grew up in Tanzania, and I grew up on renewable energy,” Galiteva said. “We want not only a worldwide target of 100 percent renewable energy,” she added, not only because of the limited supply of both fossil and nuclear fuels and the heavy pollution associated with them but also because elimination of nuclear power worldwide would also make it easier to abolish nuclear weapons. If the world gave up the so-called “peaceful atom,” she explained, there wouldn’t be controversies like the current one involving Iran, which claims to be developing nuclear energy but which is being accused by the U.S. and other countries of seeking atomic weapons.

Galiteva pointed out that, as a signatory to the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has a perfect right under international law to build nuclear energy plants and enrich uranium to create fuel for them. She also said that the U.S. has allowed India and Pakistan, neither of them IAEA signatories, to develop nuclear weapons without threatening them with war or sanctions. “What makes us think Iran or North Korea is after a bomb?,” she said. “The real danger is the nuclear technology itself. If a terrorist flew a plane into the San Onofre reactors, the containment wouldn’t hold it and the entire San Diego region would become uninhabitable.”

According to Galiteva, there are two models worldwide for financing the transition from finite to renewable energy — and, typically, the U.S. has chosen the wrong one while at least some of the European Union countries have picked correctly. The model she likes — on which her group worked with the government of Germany to implement there — simply allows individuals and businesses to generate their own energy from renewable sources, pump what they don’t use back into the power grid, and receive money back from their utility for every unused kilowatt-hour they pump back into the overall grid.

The model Galiteva opposes is called the “portfolio standard,” in which renewable technologies would have to compete in today’s energy marketplace not only with each other but also with the already highly subsidized, established industries of fossil fuels and nuclear power. She doesn’t like this model both because it would cost a lot more to implement — it would require a marketing and regulating infrastructure that would cost billions of dollars and take years to set up — and because it would put renewables at a permanent disadvantage as long as the accounting didn’t factor in the “environmental externalities” of fossil and nuclear fuels — economist-speak for the cost of cleaning up the pollution, radiation and global warming that result from the use of nonrenewables.

“Why do we even play around with portfolio standards? I think it’s a conspiracy not to do renewables while making it look like they’re being developed,” Galiteva charged. She argued that today’s energy companies and the government bureaucracies that supposedly “regulate” them, but actually serve their agenda, don’t want people to know how practical renewables are because renewables are what people really want.

“If you ask people what energy sources they want in their backyards, they say solar first, wind second, natural gas third and coal fourth,” Galiteva said. “Nuclear power is always last. Yet we have a campaign to bring back nuclear power. Nuclear power cannot be safe. Even if we could trust ourselves to run a nuclear reactor properly, we can’t necessarily trust China, or Iran, or Afghanistan if they decide they want to go nuclear. Besides, nuclear power plants take years to build, while you can build a state-of-the-art solar-power system in a Third World village in a few days and give them electricity in weeks instead of decades.”

Galileva drew a parallel to the decision of some Third World countries to go straight from no phone service at all to cell-phone networks, bypassing the stage of a large network of land-based phone lines. She suggested that such countries should also bypass the stage of large-scale energy production with fossil or nuclear fuels and go straight from no electricity in their rural areas to electricity through photovoltaic solar panels. Galileva also pointed out that, through the successful incentive program her group worked out and got the government of Germany to implement, Germany is becoming the world’s leader in solar power technology even though their country gets only about one-fourth the sun the U.S. does.

Becker, who previously appeared at the church in March 2004 to try to enlist support for her effort to deny the Southern California Edison (SCE) utility a license to replace the steam generators at San Onofre, discussed what that repair will mean not only in terms of cost — an estimated $680 million, paid for out of SCE customers’ electric bills — but also radiation danger. To make the repair, the utility will have to cut a 28-foot hole in the reactor’s concrete containment vessel — the dome-like shell familiar to drivers on Interstate 5 — then hoist the old, brittle, crippled and probably radioactive steam generator out of there and put a new one in. She also pointed out that $680 million is more than the original cost estimate for building the entire San Onofre plant — though, as is typical with the nuclear power industry, costs ballooned to $5.3 billion to construct San Onofre and $5.7 billion for the similar Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo.

According to Becker, the real reason the California utilities are working so hard to keep their old nukes in operation is because in 1978 the California legislature had the good sense to pass a bill forbidding any more construction of new nuclear power plants until somebody came up with a permanent solution for disposing of the radioactive waste from the reactors. What her group, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, is pushing for now is to close the loophole the legislature left in that bill which allows old nukes to continue operating even without a waste solution.