Twilight of the Zombie Nukes – US Attempts to Keep Rickety Reactors Running Viewed in Geostrategic Perspective

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California’s Diablo Canyon –                                             Michigan’s Palisades –

By James Heddle and Marybeth Brangan – EON       Updated         Also posted on Substack    

Diablo and Palisades As Microcosms

A growing coalition of citizen groups is forming to contest extension of Diablo Canyon’s reactor operating licenses beyond their agreed-upon shutdown dates in 2024 and 2025. This is also happening at the national level to oppose resuscitating Michigan’s flat-lined Palisades nuclear generating station, and nuclear revivalist efforts in other states, as a moribund nuclear industry desperately fights, like a cornered rat, for its survival.

We believe it will be helpful to view these related nuclear revivalist efforts in the widest possible relevant geopolitical, constitutional and regulatory contexts.

Informed citizen resistance to the local California nuclear revivalist coup attempts in California, Michigan and elsewhere could well prove ineffective without committed citizen activists being conscious of these seemingly isolated microcosmic – but actually integrally related – ploys in their larger national, international and transnational perspective.

Foundational Inconvenient Fact: In rigorously demonstrable economic, technological and safety terms, the US nuclear power industry has been on its ass for some time.

Without massive tax-payer and rate-payer economic subsidies, and sacrifices – coupled with industry-captured regulatory agency malfeasance and misfeasance – it in danger of not surviving what Amory Lovins long ago termed “an overdose of market forces.”

Despite new construction projects – many typically far behind schedule and way over budget – the international picture is not much better.

Each year, The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2021 (WNISR) , edited by Mycle Schneider, gives an extensive assessment of the status and trends of the international nuclear industry.

Some key conclusions of the 2021 World Nuclear Industry Status Report included:

  • In 2020, nuclear power generation plunged by an unprecedented margin (>100 TWh), … while operational nuclear capacity has reached a new peak in mid-2021. More capacity, less output.
  • Non-hydro renewables—mainly wind, solar and biomass—out-performed nuclear plants in electricity generation on a global scale. Hydro alone has been generating more power than nuclear for most of the past three decades.
  • For the first time, non-hydro renewables generated more power in the European Union than nuclear, and renewables including hydro generated more power than all fossil fuels combined.
  • Net nuclear capacity addition—new startups minus closures—declined to 0.4 GW, compared to >250 GW for renewables alone. Nuclear is irrelevant in today’s electricity capacity newbuild market.
  • Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) get a lot of media coverage, some public money, but are so far unavailable commercially and will not be for another 10–15 years—if ever. Pilot projects in Argentina, China, and Russia have been disappointing.
  • The situation at Fukushima, onsite/offsite, remains unstable. Effects on health and well-being are significant. Cost estimates have risen, currently ranging from US$223.1 billion (Gov.) to US$322–758 billion (independent). Japanese courts have acquitted Government/TEPCO officials over disaster responsibility, but ruled against reactor operation in some cases elsewhere in Japan.
  • A first analysis shows that nuclear power has a low resilience against the most common climate change effects. Nuclear power’s resilience will likely further decline.
  • There is a real question about the exposure of the nuclear power sector to criminal activities including bribery and corruption, counterfeiting and other falsification, as well as infiltration by organized crime.

Zombie Nukes

Nevertheless, this year in the US and elsewhere, a zombie nuclear industry appears to be clawing its way out of its grave by cleverly using:

  • Climate change fears to advocate for ‘clean, green’ nukes;
  • The NATO-Russia proxy war in Ukraine and blockage of Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipeline to Europe as a reason to keep German nuclear plants going;
  • Fears of rolling blackouts in California to keep Diablo Canyon reactors operating past their agreed upon shutdown date;
  • Feared power shortages and the protection of “600 high-paying jobs at the plant and 1,100 additional jobs throughout the community,” as reason to reboot Michigan’s already shutdown Palisades plant.

The Hill reports that these moves follow, “…last September’s vote by the Illinois legislature to appropriate some $700 million to subsidize the continued operation of the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants in that state. Thus, over the past 12 months, four nuclear plants that were slated for permanent closure have been rescued from the wrecking ball.”

The Power-Weapons, Civil-Military Connections

Finally, in desperation – after decades of adamant denial – nuclear revivalists are now openly citing commercial nuclear power’s vital symbiotic, co-dependent connection with nuclear weapons production as their excuse to keep it going.

This is the long-declared American economic and military ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ supremacy agenda in action.

The Energy Futures Initiative (EFI), presided over by former US Energy Secretary Edward Moniz, issued a 2017 report titled, The U.S. Nuclear Energy Enterprise: A Key National Security Enabler, making clear the joined-at-the-hip symbiosis of the nuclear power and weapons industries. Moniz and the EFI are currently touting the nuclear-industry-friendly Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), signed into law last month by President Biden.

All this is in the context of the looming threat of nuclear war resulting from the escalating NATO-Russia confrontation in Ukraine.

As we noted in a previous post:

Another key aspect of the U.S. military’s Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine is the growing belief in some circles that “space nuclear is going to be the future.”

That statement comes from Alex Gilbert, Director of Space & Planetary Regulation at the Washington, D.C.- based Zeno Power. Karl Grossman reports that, in an August 4th webinar of the American Nuclear Society, Gilbert announced, “we are at a unique moment. I call it a space opportunity.” He went on, ““we could actually see exponential growth. Right now the space economy is around $400 billion globally. By the middle of the century it could be $4 trillion.”

His view was echoed by Kate Kelly, director for Space and Emerging programs at the Lynchburg, Virginia-based company BWXT Advanced Technologies. Kelly said that the use of nuclear power in space has arrived at an “inflection point.” She explained, ““Over the last several years there’s been this re-emerging interest and investment by the government in fission systems for in-space power and propulsion.”

In a prescient 2014 article titled The Pentagon’s Strategy for World Domination: Full Spectrum Dominance, from Asia to Africa, Bruce Gagnon, the Coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space, described the likely outcome of the NATO strategy of encircling Russia and infiltrating Ukraine.

He wrote, “The entire US military empire is tied together using space technology. With military satellites in space the US can see virtually everything on the Earth, can intercept all communications on the planet, and can target virtually any place at any time. Russia and China understand that the US military goal is to achieve “full spectrum dominance” on behalf of corporate capital.

“Using new space technologies to coordinate and direct modern warfare also enables the military industrial complex to reap massive profits as it constructs the architecture for what the aerospace industry claims will be the “largest industrial project” in Earth history.”

Ukraine’s Reactor Fleet –

The Zaporizhzhia Syndrome

Ukraine, now a hot battlespace, has 15 nuclear reactors with an average age of 32.9 years.

For comparison, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), “At the end of 2021, the United States had 93 operating commercial nuclear reactors at 55 nuclear power plants in 28 states. The average age of these nuclear reactors is about 40 years old. The oldest operating reactor, Nine Mile Point Unit 1 in New York, began commercial operation in December 1969 [52 years].”

Ukraine’s 54 year old Zaporizhzhia power plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, has recently come under shelling, with both Ukraine and Russia blaming each other for what may even have been a false flag by a third party.

As Linda Pence Gunter points out in a recent article, “The extreme risks around Ukraine’s massive nuclear plant are the strongest argument yet for an end to the use of nuclear power.”

Gunter concludes, “Nuclear power is also a liability beyond the war zone. Study after study has shown that it is too slow and too uneconomic to contribute to climate mitigation and in fact gets in the way of needed action to minimize the worst effects.

The argument to keep reactors operating is contradicted by the reality that currently operating reactors now cost more to run than providing the same services by building and operating new renewables, or by using electricity more efficiently. Renewable energy can also reduce the same amount of carbon emissions faster and more cheaply than nuclear power.”

California’s San Andreas Fault Line – File image

California’s Fukushimas-in-Waiting – Double Jeopardy Squared

Potentially just as disaster-prone as nuclear reactors and waste storage facilities in war zones are nuclear reactors and waste storage facilities in earthquake and tsunami zones.

That description fits virtually all California’s reactor locations – including the long-shuttered Humboldt Bay with its aged waste storage facility – and especially both California’s Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear sites.

California’s network of faults – Google earth image

San Onofre – located between San Diego and LA on what was once called Earthquake Bay – was shut down in 2013 after replacement steam generators failed. It is currently in the process of decommissioning, and still hosts a precarious seaside waste dump containing 123 canisters, each of which holds as much radioactivity as was released at Chernobyl.

San Onofre sits on the beach on land leased from Camp Pendleton, a geostrategic Marine Base that would predictably be a prime target in the nuclear war now being rumored as NATO and Russia are now being identified as the primary combatants in the escalating Ukraine conflict. The proud motto of the Pendleton Marine base, “No Beach is Out of Reach,” ironically points to the fact the site combines both military and seismic vulnerabilities. You don’t have to be a RAND war planning analyst to realize that even a ‘surgical nuclear strike’ on that target could wipe out California and prevailing wind patterns would blow the resulting fallout cloud across the United States and beyond.

Graphic: San Onofre

According to a recent LA Times report, a new Harvard study shows the network of San Onofre faults could produce a quake as strong as 7.8. The article notes, “The difference may be only a few decimal points, but an earthquake’s energy is measured exponentially. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a magnitude 7.8 quake produces quadruple the energy of a magnitude 7.4.”

Though previously thought to be a ‘segmented fault,’ according to the Times, the new study, “suggests the system is connected, stretching 68 miles and running under southwestern Los Angeles County and the ports of L.A. and Long Beach and along the Los Angeles and Orange county coasts.” They also lie along the San Andreas fault line pictured above.

Equally worrisome is the fact that Diablo Canyon, the Golden State’s sister nuclear facility – now slated for an indefinite extended period of operation – also sits on a bay over an interlocking network of earthquake faults in a tsunami zone.

This slide, provided by Dan Hirsch of Committee to Bridge the Gap, gives the regional Diablo Canyon picture:


Redundant, Undependable Diablo

The California Energy Commission’s climate change-related blackout panic projections being used as the justification for extending Diablo’s operation are, like all computer projections highly dubious. A model is only as good as its hypothetical base assumptions. As the old cyber-geek aphorism goes, “GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out.”

For one thing, energy consultant Robert Freehling’s extensive data shows that, with efficiency, renewables, battery storage, rooftop solar and demand response, California has already added 3 to 5 times more available power than Diablo can produce. As the Mothers for Peace explain in detail, CA Doesn’t Need Diablo. This is because of three main factors: load reduction, expansion of renewables and improvements in energy efficiency. See: Media Briefing with Robert Freehling

Furthermore, systems analyst Donna Gilmore’s investigative research has shown that, with scheduled as well as unscheduled shutdowns, Nuclear Regulatory Commission reactor status data reveals that one or both of Diablo’s reactors were down 40% of the days in each of the last four years.

Graphic: Donna Gilmore – San Onofre

Though touted as advantages in the face of climate chaos, nuclear plants are actually seriously vulnerable to its effects. A case in point is the fact that this July a heat wave sweeping across Europe boosted river temperatures, restricting the ability to cool France’s nuclear plants. Output was reduced to just 46%, which pushed up electricity prices.

And prices are still rising. The cause is the troublesome phenomenon of stress corrosion cracking.

As former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, Peter Bradford explains, “Stress corrosion cracking is the same sort of cracking that has been found on one of the Diablo Canyon’s reactor pressure vessels. And it’s the same sort of cracking which plagues the entire nuclear industry.”

Bradford continues. “One key fact about stress corrosion cracking is that it is difficult to find, even more difficult to repair, and almost impossible to predict how quickly it will spread from a small problem to a catastrophic one.”

He adds, “Stress corrosion cracking also affects the thin-walled spent fuel canisters Diablo Canyon uses — the same kind used throughout the nuclear industry in America.”

France 24 reported this week that the “French electricity group EDF said Thursday that shutdowns of four nuclear reactors would be extended for several weeks because of corrosion problems, potentially putting more upward pressure on prices as winter approaches.”

Then There’s the Small Matter of Constitutionality

The rushed and ill-considered extension of Diablo’s operation approved by the California Legislature just after midnight on Sept. 1 in response to Governor Newsom’s request violates a 2016 contract agreement arrived at between citizen groups and PG&E. Friends of the Earth, Environment California and the National Resources Defense Council were among the signatories to that Agreement to shutdown Diablo Canyons two reactors in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

In an August 18, 2022 letter to the California Energy Commission, attorneys for those three organizations asserted that abrogation of that Agreement constitutes a violation of the US Constitution.

Their letter read in part:

The lawyers stated that, “…the Joint Proposal is a legally binding contract among PG&E and the other Signatory Parties – including NRDC, FOE and Environment California. All of these Parties have rights and obligations under this ongoing contract. The Contract Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the State of California from impairing these rights and obligations by unilaterally imposing a material deviation from the terms of the Joint Proposal – namely, an extension of the Diablo Canyon operating licenses beyond 2024-2025.”

They pointed out that the joint proposal is an enforceable contract under familiar legal principles and went on to assert, “There is no reasonable basis for doubt that the Joint Proposal is a valid, binding contract, and that it is fully enforceable as among its Signatories. The subsequent history of the Joint Proposal, [which they summarized], …confirms that it remains an enforceable legal agreement under familiar principles of contract law.”

This clearly opens the extension to serious litigation challenge, especially by parties with standing.

Serious Regulatory and Logistical Hurdles

Notwithstanding the Legislature’s approved Bill SB 846’s illegal attempts to sideline several regulatory agency’s statutory oversight authority, as well as exempt the plant’s operating extension from review under the rigorous California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), expert witness Arnold Gundersen, Chief Nuclear Engineer at Fairewinds Energy Education, has presented a litany of regulatory and logistical impediments to the Bill’s successful execution.

Diablo was designed, says the seventy-two-year-old Gundersen, when he was in high school and engineers still used slide rules.

A PDF of Gundersen’s full presentation outline is here. Some salient points that complete the picture sketched out here include:

  • NRC does not issue 5-year licenses – approving a new license means that Diablo Canyon would be issued another 20-year operating license;
  • Most importantly, this new 40-60 year license is not a commitment to make the plant meet modern criteria, nor is it a commitment to replace aging Instead, this license would only be a commitment to establishing monitoring programs to determine the degradation of the facility;
  • Buying fuel for continued operation has to be budgeted ahead and ordered ahead with a potential long order fulfillment lag-time. [Since this has not been done, lack of fuel could long delay Diablo’s unplanned extended operation.];
  • The 8” thick solid metal vessel can shatter like glass because its metal is so embrittled;
  • After all, they used the wrong The nuke industry discovered Vessel Embrittlement in the 1970s while Diablo Canyon was still under construction;
  • PG&E could have fixed the issue before Diablo was started in 1986 and chose not to;
  • Any earthquake that would hit the Diablo Canyon area would be so significant that all infrastructure – roads, bridges, gas lines, electric lights, , and hospitals in San Luis Obispo and outward would fail…;
  • The current design of Diablo radioactive spent fuel storage has no room for more highly radioactive fuel onsite, which is where it must stay until it cools

Any questions?


James Heddle and Mary Beth Brangan co-direct EON, the Ecological Options Network a tax-exempt, non-profit organization.  The EON feature documentary SOS The San Onofre Syndrome is now in post-production and will be released later this year.