Thomas Elias: This could be the most threatening Trump move yet
As president, Donald Trump has spurred many actions that could eventually threaten the health of this planet and his own American people.
He has cut down the size of national monuments and opened new lands to oil drilling, he’s trying to eliminate California’s longstanding authority to regulate its own air quality, he’s encouraged more coal-fired power, while pulling this nation out of the Paris climate change accords, to name only a few moves.
But the harm from all those things will likely be long term, measured in rising sea levels, thicker smog pollution and more radical shifts in weather patterns.
Now comes a move that could directly threaten the health — even the survival — of millions of Americans at completely unpredictable times, including a goodly share of California’s populace.
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This takes the form of a proposed plan by Trump’s federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to cut back on inspections at atomic power plants, including the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Clemente and the Diablo Canyon Power Plant on a bluff near San Luis Obispo, which now produces about 9% of California electricity.
Trump has filled four seats on the NRC with choices including former lobbyists for the nuclear industry and other backers of atomic deregulation.
So it came as no surprise when the commission proposed a plan to let nuclear power plant operators like Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the Southern California Edison Co. essentially police themselves.
The recent history of natural gas explosions and wildfires in California demonstrates just how well these utilities have done in taking care of business safely while virtually unsupervised. Not very.
Just now, NRC inspections seem most vital at San Onofre, where 45-ton canisters of spent fuel with atomic half-lives in the eon-length category are being stored on shelves in a facility 108 feet from a state beach popular with surfers.
Edison, the plant operator, tried to keep a lid on news of one canister almost falling off a shelf and plummeting 18 feet to the floor of the utility’s “temporary” waste storage facility. The 2018 incident only came to light when a plant worker mentioned it in a public meeting.
Essentially, the nuclear industry backs that secretive approach by Edison. Scaling back disclosure of problems at nuclear plants, top executives say, is “more responsible than to put out a headline on the web to the world.”
Maybe some residents near nuclear plants agree, even if they live in the 50-mile-range that radioactive fallout could conceivably cover in a power plant accident on the scale of Russia’s failed Chernobyl plant.
Consumer groups demur. “The deregulatory agenda at (the Trump administration) is a significant concern,” said Geoffrey Fettus of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “For an industry that is increasingly under financial decline to take regulatory authority away from the NRC puts us on a collision course with a nuclear accident,” adds the anti-nuclear group Beyond Nuclear.
In short, the industry and its advocates in today’s government recommend a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil attitude toward possible radiation dangers.
But the history of California’s atomic plant operators — from the “mirror-image” problem that saw Diablo Canyon initially built backward to the Edison blunder that led to San Onofre’s 2012 shutdown — indicates they need all the supervision they can get.
Yet, the industry worries that when the NRC makes problems public, they “get pretty rapid calls from the press …” and rate increase requests can also be adversely affected, said Greg Halnon, an executive of Ohio-based FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co.
Certainly the reputations of Edison and PG&E have been affected by their responsibility for wildfires, a multi-fatal explosion, gas leaks and other accidents. So far, their rates have not suffered for any of this.
But there is no way Congress or Americans in general should tolerate deregulating nuclear power plants and their potential dangers just so the companies can make more money and enjoy better public images.
That would without doubt make public policy, as a rookie congresswoman infamously put it recently while discussing another subject, “all about the Benjamins.”
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit http://www.californiafocus.net
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