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Dancing on the Hum Nuke's Grave is Strictly Prohibited

Lessons learned during decades covering nuclear power and, now, its aftermath

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I'm a busy little atom!
I split myself in two!
I multiply as many times
As I have jobs to do!
In summer, winter, spring or fall
I'm ready every hour:
Just push as switch
And watch me zip
With light or heat or power.

Reddy Kilowatt, a nuclear industry mascot, who first appeared in 1926.

Bob, the elderly armed guard at Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant's reactor building, sealed the oval air-lock hatch with a hard twist of both shaky hands on the big wheel. Bob was outside. I was inside with a utility public relations flack. The top of the sunken reactor itself was on the floor, with a cap on it about 20 feet wide. Next to the reactor, the wildly toxic spent fuel pool shimmered.

The public relations guy kept talking about how benign the whole set up was. He declared that much of the radioactivity had cooled down. You could practically swim in the spent fuel pool, he said, and if all that water suddenly drained, there would be no chain reaction. No fire. No meltdown. It was all perfectly safe, he said. I began to get nervous. I started slowly back up the metal stairs to where the submarine portal beckoned. I mentioned to the public relations guy that I really, really do have claustrophobia. He ignored me. He kept talking. I inched my way up the stairs. I pleaded, "I'm claustrophobic. Can't we get out of here?" (I am, in fact, claustrophobic, but what I am more is radiation-phobic.) The PR guy kept talking. He had me locked in and wasn't about to let me out until he was damn well ready. I started whimpering. He kept talking. After another 10 minutes, the PR guy called Bob to unscrew the portal and let us out. With clammy hands, I signed out and stood in a phone booth-sized box that was supposed to read out my radioactive exposure. I was trembling.

The PR guy kept talking as we headed to the main office. There, I signed some government paperwork and handed over my radiation-detection badge. Six months later I got a letter from the federal government reporting I had not been unduly exposed.

That was two decades ago but the memory is vivid. It was like being locked inside a submarine. Exactly like being locked inside a submarine, actually, because the power plant was built like an old sub, vertically inserted at the edge of the bay at King Salmon.

I was in that claustrophobic steel sausage to report on the progress of decommissioning the nuke for another publication. The sideways sub, along with the cooling tower that used to dominate the waterfront at the south end of Eureka, and that leaking spent fuel pool, are now demolished, and the old nuclear plant finally made new news. PG&E officially declared an end to its decades-long plant clean up Oct. 22, when it filed for a license transfer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

PG&E deemed the area ready to pass federal muster, yet the radioactive detritus accumulated over its 13 years of operation in the middle of the last century are still here, stuffed in concrete casks. The site will pose an ongoing threat to Humboldt Bay. It will likely never be clean.

Some other decommissioned nukes, like Rancho Seco in Sacramento and Trojan in Oregon, advertise their post clean-up use as "family fun" for visitors. Rancho Seco, for instance, offers camping. But Humboldt's will remain closed to the public for the foreseeable future. "The desired state" for the former reactor site is for "post-industrial residential farming use," PG&E spokesperson Carina Corral said in an email to the Journal, but that would be after "meeting an extensive set of standards."

The Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant was shut down in 1976 because, suddenly, 13 years after it came online, seismologists found it was built practically on top of the Little Salmon earthquake fault. Its design was not nearly strong enough to be retrofitted against potential shaking and if an earthquake broke open any critical part of the plant, the results could have been catastrophic.

Built in the early 1960s at 63 megawatts, the Humboldt nuke is a runt by today's power plant standards, but it produced comparatively prodigious amounts of waste.

Why be concerned about nuclear waste? Because it's one of the most toxic substances on earth. On a basic physiological level, when radioactivity is absorbed by a body, the radioactivity becomes part of living tissue. It can be breathed in, swallowed or assimilated just by exposing some skin. Scientists report that once inside the body, different types of radioactive elements that appear as a result of nuclear fission behave like calcium in bones, potassium in muscles. There, they emit alpha, beta and gamma particles. That, in turn, ionizes molecules and starts breaking up chemical bonds, damaging a body's cells. It wreaks havoc, particularly, on DNA molecules and studies show it leads to increase risk of cancers, such as leukemia.

While some radioactive elements degrade over mere decades, one — plutonium — lasts basically forever. Scientists estimate it would take about 240,000 years for the thorniest nuclear waste to be rendered harmless.

Like a genie bottle, all those horrid, toxic, contaminated pieces are now sealed up tight in storage at the edge of Humboldt Bay. The idea was those casks wouldn't be opened until, with the wave of a newer magic wand, the federal government transports them to a permanent waste disposal site where the radioactive genie will be stored in a bigger, more powerfully built bottle until a long, long time from now, when the contamination will be degraded into nothing but bottle rust. That's the theory.

The casks now holding the irradiated parts of Humboldt's old nuke are "heavy, cylindrical, multilayered steel vessel[s]," according to their manufacturer, Holtec, a New Jersey company that designs and manufactures both parts for nuclear reactors and the equipment used to decommission them. These vessels serve as both "a missile barrier" for terrorist targets and a "radiation shield" to keep the toxics inside, according to the company.

The casks are made up of three shells. An inner shell for containment, a series of thick steel intermediate shells for gamma shielding and an outer enclosure shell that houses the neutron shielding material, according to Holtec. The casks, in turn, are tucked inside a vault made of reinforced concrete between 3-feet and 7-feet thick. Holtec contends they are not only safe, but scenic. According to the company, "Humboldt Bay became the first plant to feature subterranean storage, which is so unobtrusive and produces such a negligible [radiation] dose that the path to the beach runs in close proximity to the [storage site]!"

The casks are meant to "temporarily" hold the waste for 100 years or so. If the scientists who predict a 240,000-year toxicity are correct, that would leave 239,900 years, and for that, there's no plan. Yet, some local environmentalists are laying the groundwork to plan for site protection at least into the next century. They foresee a drowning bluff and an unsuspecting future generation.

Before we get to those future steps, let's catch up on a few decades of history. The discovery of the Little Salmon fault in the 1970s that derailed PG&E's plans for nuclear power on the North Coast presented a unique and barely explored problem: a dead nuke. Turns out, no one knew quite what to do with it.

While some staffers in state offices were aware of the nuke's situation, Humboldt County was politically more remote than it is today. A dead and potential deadly nuclear power plant was not urban policy makers' immediate problem and it would have been ignored if it weren't for Humboldt's activists. In this case, locals made all the difference — first making sure a problematic plant didn't restart, then setting up a pension fund for its burial.

"This is a story of how persistent opposition from local communities can prevail over some of the most powerful economic and political forces," Carl Zichella, veteran Sierra Club, Natural Resource Defense Council and Redwood Alliance activist, wrote in an email to the Journal. The Arcata-based Redwood Alliance was slapped together at the time for the sole purpose of figuring out what to do with the nuke and how to get it done. (Full disclosure: Before becoming a full-time journalist, I was a Redwood Alliance member.)

While other anti-nuclear activists around the country were trying to prevent new nukes and shut down old ones, Humboldt was faced with the next problem: cleaning one up. Decommissioning a nuclear plant of any size had never really been accomplished before. And as unsophisticated, scruffy and stoney as Humboldt's activists were, they knew whatever the engineers figured would be needed to make Humboldt Bay relatively safe again, it would cost money.

The Redwood Alliance scraped up donations (likely from the then-illegal pot industry, no questions asked) for trips to the San Francisco-based California Public Utilities Commission to create the first decommissioning fund with commission staff. The fruit of this local intervention was a template for a decommissioning fund that would be paid into over time through monthly bills, with the proceeds controlled not by the utility but an outside trust committee appointed by the state. The cost of decommissioning the state's nuclear plants began as a surcharge on monthly bills of a few cents. If you check the small print on your bill today, it might be $1 or more a month, as those few cents grew over time as the scope and difficulty of decommissioning even a small nuke became evident.

PG&E initially estimated it would cost $500,000 to sweep up the mess in Humboldt County, according to Scott Fielder, Redwood Alliance's attorney, but when the utility announced in late October it was finally finished, that cost had ballooned to $1.1 billion — 17 times the power plant's original construction cost of $65 million.

Decommissioning's spiraling cost is only part of the history of the Humboldt nuke. There was a near meltdown. There were leaks. There was missing spent fuel. There were financial misdeeds.

When it was still operating, the Humboldt nuke got scarily close to a meltdown. According to federal documents, in July of 1970, an operator error caused a sudden loss of power to the cooling water, prompting the water level above the active fuel to plummet to just over 6 inches. The normal water level was 9 feet above fuel. Radioactive steam filled up to bursting when the operators were ordered to "close the vent valves, fearing the discharge could uncover the reactor core." Seven minutes later, the pumps started up again. The radioactive steam was vented into the building but not into the environment, according to PG&E at the time. The fuel rods were damaged but not "severely," according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports.

It was a close call because when the fuel isn't cooled, it starts uncontrolled fission and extreme heat, hence the term "meltdown."

After being shutdown in 1976, the nuke continued to pose a thorny and expensive problem because of its geriatric design as a boiling water reactor. "The radiation extended farther than in newer designs. It contaminated concrete and rebar," said Fielder. Newer plants use pressurized water to turn turbines and generate electricity. Humboldt did it the old-fashioned way, the equivalent of a giant teakettle powered by fission. A "heavily leaking" teakettle, added Fielder.

In 1993, for instance, radioactive water was seeping underneath the spent fuel pool. By 1996, it had become a real problem. PG&E maintained that the radioactivity discharged into Humboldt Bay was below the 50 millirem/year federal limit. But PG&E installed a liner between the bay and the still very hot fuel pool.

Spent fuel itself became an issue in the mysterious missing fuel case revealed in 2005. One set of PG&E records accounted for three 18-inch fuel rods in a storage pool back in 1968, when another set of the utility's records showed the same rods shipped to an out-of-state waste dump. Was plutonium lurking somewhere in between? Federal regulators still weren't certain after looking into it but found it "reasonable" that deteriorated fragments recovered from the bottom of the spent fuel pool were the remains of the missing fuel rods. A dim consolation was that the fuel was not missing, but had apparently been busted up and lying around unaccounted for.

Along with the leaks and the near meltdown, there was PG&E financial duplicity. When the company stored its public documents in the dank basement of the Humboldt County Courthouse, I spent more than a few afternoons dusting off files to get a clearer picture for the Redwood Alliance about what PG&E had been up to over time with the nuke. I found one memo revealing the company was still charging customers for the nuclear plant years after it was shut down, as if it was still producing electricity, which state law forbade. The state only allows utilities to charge for power and accrue profits if electricity is actually being delivered.

That discovery instigated new hearings in San Francisco. Zichella and I raided thrift shops for clothes that would look presentable to appear in the California Public Utilities Commission administrative court in downtown San Francisco. Surprising, both to us and the slick utility company attorneys, the commission's judges took us seriously as pseudo lawyers and expert witnesses, despite our attire, and fined the utility $37 million. Thirty-seven million may sound tiny by today's standards but, back then, PG&E was rarely questioned and even more infrequently fined.

Despite all that history, and with decommissioning now official, the saga of the old nuke is hardly over. The long-lived radioisotopes are only in temporary storage. The federal government is supposed to create a long-term waste dump for all the nuclear power plants in the nation, but that is unlikely to occur. The plan to dump the nation's waste in Nevada was nixed in 2009 and there hasn't been a peep about any new national dumping ground since. So, while "temporarily" on the bay's edge for a century, environmentalists warn Humboldt's waste casks are going to be subject to sea level rise and other hazards.

"If the bay is our region's most important resource, the future integrity of the [storage] site, which sits 115 feet from the shoreline, across the mouth of the entrance to the bay, is a big deal," noted Jennifer Marlow, an assistant professor in Humboldt State University's Department of Environmental Science and Management. "For example, with 2 meters of sea level rise in Humboldt Bay, monthly and annual high tides could overtop the protective revetment wall protecting the bluff."

What would happen then? There appears to be no credible data to determine whether the casks would sink but stay intact, corrode into seawater or do something completely unexpected.

Researchers like Marlow are busy trying to give long-term waste storage on the bay context.

"Already, the riprap berm constructed to offset coastal wave erosion of the bluff has undergone emergency repair twice," she said. "According to the Ocean Protection Council's 2018 sea level rise projections, 2 meters of sea level rise could occur 'as early as 2076 under the extreme scenario, or by 2093 under the high-risk projection.' If either scenario comes true, it is likely that the spent nuclear waste will still be onsite. The California Coastal Commission has stated that, given the lack of an alternative permanent storage site, it 'must presume' that the spent nuclear waste will remain on site 'in perpetuity.'"

That phrase, "in perpetuity," underscores a heavy responsibility.

"It's unlikely that there will ever be a permanent national repository," said Humboldt Baykeeper Director Jennifer Kalt. "Waiting for that is not realistic. Ultimately, there's no safe place for the waste. Moving it will be dangerous and controversial and expensive, but it needs to be moved farther from the bay, out of the sea level rise hazard area. We need to start figuring out a real plan. Otherwise, we're just leaving the problem for future generations to deal with."

If the site meets federal criteria for "residential farming," as noted above, "there is no long-term monitoring required," according to PG&E' spokesperson Corral. As far as sea level rise and extreme tides go, she said the utility "will continue to monitor and evaluate credible natural events to assure the health and safety of the public is maintained."

In the event of a tsunami, she said PG&E has a "response [plan] in place."

J.A. Savage (she/her) specialized in California energy policy as a journalist.

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