This is bad news and good news, but mostly good news. No matter what you think of nuclear energy (and I’m one of those people who give it a stern look and remain suspicious), it does tend to produce electricity with the addition of much less fossil carbon into the atmosphere than, say, burning coal. So, we probably don’t want to see a wholesale reduction in the use of nuclear energy too quickly, and we may even want to see some new plants built.
The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is the only working nuke plant in California, and it is famously located in an earthquake-rich locality. The plant was upgraded to withstand a 7.5 earthquake, but earthquakes occasionally happen that are stronger than that. There has only been one earthquake of that magnitude in Southern California since good records have been kept, and that was in 1952. But still….
Diablo Canyon is historically important because the whole idea of building a major nuclear plant in an earthquake zone catalyzed the anti-nuclear movement, and that reaction probably helped to avoid further such construction, and helped nudge the plant operators to upgrade the earthquake readiness of this plant from handling a 6.75 magnitude quake to a 7.5 magnitude quake. There have been six quakes in that range of magnitude in the region in the historic record.
A quick word about earthquakes. Really large earthquakes are actually pretty uncommon in Southern California; other areas, such as the Pacific Northwest have very few quakes but when they happen they can be huge, easily enough to Fuki up a plant like Diablo Canyon. See Earthquake Time Bombs by Robert Yeats for more on that. Nonetheless, being built to withstand a 7.5 earthquake doesn’t necessarily mean that a smaller quake won’t cause problems, or weaken structures that are then more vulnerable to subsequent strong quakes.
Anyway, the following is from a press release from Friends of the Earth, describing how the plan is to replace the energy coming from Diablo Canyon with non fossil carbon fuels. And that, of course, is the extra good news.
BERKELEY, CALIF. – An historic agreement has been reached between Pacific Gas and Electric, Friends of the Earth, and other environmental and labor organizations to replace the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors with greenhouse-gas-free renewable energy, efficiency and energy storage resources. Friends of the Earth says the agreement provides a clear blueprint for fighting climate change by replacing nuclear and fossil fuel energy with safe, clean, cost-competitive renewable energy.
The agreement, announced today in California, says that PG&E will renounce plans to seek renewed operating licenses for Diablo Canyon’s two reactors — the operating licenses for which expire in 2024 and 2025 respectively. In the intervening years, the parties will seek Public Utility Commission approval of the plan which will replace power from the plant with renewable energy, efficiency and energy storage resources. Base load power resources like Diablo Canyon are becoming increasingly burdensome as renewable energy resources ramp up. Flexible generation options and demand-response are the energy systems of the future.
By setting a certain end date for the reactors, the nuclear phase out plan provides for an orderly transition. In the agreement, PG&E commits to renewable energy providing 55 percent of its total retail power sales by 2031, voluntarily exceeding the California standard of 50 percent renewables by 2030.
“This is an historic agreement,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. “It sets a date for the certain end of nuclear power in California and assures replacement with clean, safe, cost-competitive, renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy storage. It lays out an effective roadmap for a nuclear phase-out in the world’s sixth largest economy, while assuring a green energy replacement plan to make California a global leader in fighting climate change.”
A robust technical and economic report commissioned by Friends of the Earth served as a critical underpinning for the negotiations. The report, known as “Plan B,” provided a detailed analysis of how power from the Diablo Canyon reactors could be replaced with renewable, efficiency and energy storage resources which would be both less expensive and greenhouse gas free. With the report in hand, Friends of the Earth’s Damon Moglen and Dave Freeman engaged in discussions with the utility about the phase-out plan for Diablo Canyon. NRDC was quickly invited to join. Subsequently, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, Coalition of California Utility Employees, Environment California and Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility partnered in reaching the final agreement. The detailed phase out proposal will now go to the California Public Utility Commission for consideration. Friends of the Earth (and other NGO parties to the agreement) reserve the right to continue to monitor Diablo Canyon and, should there be safety concerns, challenge continued operation.
The agreement also contains provisions for the Diablo Canyon workforce and the community of San Luis Obispo. “We are pleased that the parties considered the impact of this agreement on the plant employees and the nearby community,” said Pica. “The agreement provides funding necessary to ease the transition to a clean energy economy.”
Diablo Canyon is the nuclear plant that catalyzed the formation of Friends of the Earth in 1969. When David Brower founded Friends of the Earth the Diablo Canyon was the first issue on the organization’s agenda and Friends of the Earth has been fighting the plant ever since. This agreement is not only a milestone for renewable energy, but for Friends of the Earth as an organization.
On October 8th, 1865, the “Great San Francisco Earthquake” hit south of the city of San Francisco, magnitude 6.3.
On October 21st, 1868, the ‘Great San Francisco Earthquake” hit near Haywards, east of the city, across the bay, magnitude 6.8.
On April 18th, 1906, the “Great San Francisco Earthquake” hit the Bay Area, magnitude 7.6.
The death tolls were unknown (but small), 30, and about 3,000, respectively.
Eighteen significant earthquakes happened after that (and five or so had happened between the first “great quakes”) before February 9th, 1971, when the Sylmar earthquake (magnitude 6.7, death toll 65) occurred in the San Fernando Valley. So, about 25 major earthquakes happened in California, of varying degrees of significance with respect to property damage and loss of life, since the earliest influx of immigrants associated with the Gold Rush, which is how California got permanently and meaningfully populated by Europeans.
Right after the Sylmar earthquake, a law was passed that required that earthquake hazard be considered as part of the approval process for new development.
One hundred and six years of time during which a significant earthquake occurred about every four years, passed before the first meaningful response by the civilization living on top of these active faults. Civilization does, indeed, have its faults. As it were.
Will Seattle and Portland Suffer Cataclysmic Earthquakes Any Time Soon?
Meanwhile, to the north, in British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon and parts of northern California, earthquakes were not recognized as a problem. They hardly ever happened. Buildings, homes, bridges, gas-lines, and other infrastructure were deployed without consideration of earthquake hazard for decades.
However, the earthquake hazard in that region is probably much greater in some ways than the earthquake hazard around Los Angeles and San Francisco, which are regularly rocked by fault-line activity. Here, the great plates that make up our planet’s surface do something different than they do in the southern California.
In southern California, the plates are mainly grinding past each other. Fragments of the plates separated by fault lines are squishing past each other like an eraser rubbing against paper. It is not a smooth process, but rather one in which pressure builds up and is released at numerous locations, with each of those release events resulting in some sort of earthquake.
To the north, the main interaction between the plates is the subduction of one plate beneath the other. The subducting (going under) plate moves steadily under the continent, with little fanfare other than slowly elevating that part of the continent, tilting of the land upward to the west and downward to the east (relatively speaking). Then, every now and then, there is an adjustment. The top plate drops all at once, causing a major change in elevation that results in coastal areas being suddenly under the sea, and also resulting in a major earthquake, perhaps magnitude 9.
(Remember, each whole number on the scale used to measure earthquakes is one order of magnitude, so a magnitude 9 earthquake is 100 times stronger than a magnitude 7 earthquake).
It appears that the nearly 700 mile long zone of subduction has suffered 19 “subduction zone earthquakes” over the last 10,000 years, with many more affecting a smaller length of this zone. So, long term, a major earthquake affecting an area hundreds of miles long and who knows how wide, and by major earthquake I mean as never seen before by living humans in the region, and hardly ever observed in recent times anywhere on the planet, affects an area larger than many countries.
Can earthquakes be predicted?
It is said that earthquakes can’t be predicted, but from the point of view of regular humans (as opposed, say, to geologists or statisticians) they can be. Many people think weather can be predicted, right? Well, not really. We can make long term predictions of months or even years about overall changes in the climate, and we can predict what the weather will be like in several hours from now. But anything in between is largely guess work except in a few rare cases (the track of hurricanes can sometimes be predicted pretty well several days out, even before they exist, at least roughly).
Same with earthquakes. Sort of. The short term with earthquakes is, unfortunately very very short. We know when an earthquake starts that there will be an earthquake over the next several seconds or minutes. That is a little like predicting that it is going to be raining over the next little while when the first drops fall from the sky. You’ve heard of predicting earthquakes longer term, like over days. Every now and then someone observes something that seems to be associated with the geological processes that produce earthquakes, then there is an earthquake, and bingo, we’ve got a method of prediction. But so far every time this has happened, that method of prediction has been invalidated by reality, when it fails to predict subsequent quakes, or produces false positives.
(An interesting example of this happened just yesterday when a scientist — but not a geologist — happen to observe the presence of huge amounts of various gasses appearing along the coast of California, and thought this might be the indicator of an impending earthquake. This prediction was supported by a several years old research project that suggested that gas outflows might predict earthquakes. I’m pretty sure the gas outflow idea has not developed. And, it turns out that the scientist who observed the California gas was simply looking at a common meteorological phenomenon that involved normal human pollution combined with certain atmospheric conditions. Nothing to see here!)
However, long term, earthquakes can be “predicted” using the term “predicted” in modern vernacular parlance. What I mean by that is that the earthquake hazard for a given region can be estimated over longish periods of time with reasonable certainty. We can say, for example, that there is a 63% probability of there being one or more earthquakes of 6.7 magnitude or greater between the years of 2007 and 2036 in certain clearly defined parts of California around San Francisco. This is based on a combination of empirical observation of earthquake frequency and an understanding of how earthquakes happen. According to one study, there is about a one in three chance of a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake (magnitude 8 or 9 or so) over the next fifty years.
So, when planning development or putting together emergency systems, it is possible to know two things. One, what kinds of earthquakes are going to happen (in terms of location, overall range, and magnitude, etc.) and what is the chance of something like this happening.
How do we adapt to earthquakes?
From this emerges something rather counter-intuitive. It turns out that the magnitude of the largest likely quake is more important than the likelihood that it will happen during any medium length time period. It does not matter if a magnitude 9 earthquake is 10% or 1% likely to happen over the next 20 years when you are building a major interstate highway bridge or a skyscraper. What matters is that you build the thing to handle a magnitude 9 earthquake (or, I suppose, prepare yourselves for total destruction of the thing, and have a backup plan of some kind). Development in southern California has to deal with magnitude 7-point-something quakes during the lifespan of a major long-lived structure, while development in Washington and Oregon has to deal with magnitude 8 or 9 quakes during the lifespan of a major long-lived structure. The truth is, your highway bridge near San Francisco has a good chance of being shaken by a magnitude 7 quake, while a highway bridge near Seattle may well outlive its usefulness and be replaced or retrofitted before the once in 500 year trans-Cascadia 9+ quake hits. But you still have to build it to handle the quake because you don’t want to be that guy. (Who didn’t, and then everyone died, and it was your fault.)
There is an interesting historical pattern in the recognition of, and in addressing, earthquakes both in the US an around the world. That century plus time period between what should have been a clue that San Francisco was a quake zone and the first meaningful safety conscious zoning regulation happened initially because developers covered up the first few quakes. They pretended they didn’t happen, downplayed, lied, etc. The 1906 quake was too big to really cover up, of course. Covering up switched to lobbying and lobbying kept regulations off the table for many more decades. Then several dozen suburbanites, voters, taxpayers, whatever got wiped out by a quake that really wasn’t all that bad compared to some of the earlier ones, and a law got passed. So this part of the pattern is denial, followed by different kinds of denial, then some more denial.
Denial of what? Science, of course.
The second part of the historical pattern is science progressing. While most early and mid 20th century construction went along blind to earthquake hazard in southern California because people were being willfully stupid, earthquake unsafe construction proceeded in the northern regions because science had not yet figured it out. Then the denial vs. science thing happened, and is still going on. Decisions have been made at various levels of government in the Cascade subduction zone area that will doom people of the future (one year from now, one century from now, we can’t say) to disaster.
A great new book on earthquakes: “Earthquake Time Bomb” by Robert Yeats
Do you find any of this interesting or important? Then you need to read Earthquake Time Bombs by Robert Yeats.
Yeats explains what earthquakes are. Then he discussed the development of earthquake science, and the politics, cultural response, and technological response to earthquakes, starting with the examples I gave above plus the Haiti earthquake. Then he goes around the world to most of the major earthquake zones and examines the same processes — the geology, the geological science, the engineering and political responses, etc. — in each area.
Yeats is an expert on this, and in fact, has been involved in what he refers to, I think correctly, as the “paradigm shift” in understanding earthquake hazard and risk. This is a shift that happens both within the science and the regulatory and social systems that necessarily address the hazards and risks. He also explains the difference between hazards and risks. Yeats is the go to guy when you want to find out about what to do about earthquakes.
How do we know about the 19 subduction zone earthquakes in the Pacific Northeast that happened over thousands of years? What went wrong at Fukushima, and how do the Japanese deal with earthquakes? What about that New Madrid fault in the middle of the US? What about the Rift Valleys of Africa (where I worked)? What are we doing to do next, what is undone, and how do we do it? These are all addressed in the book.
I came away from Yeats book feeling better about earthquakes. I already knew about the Cascadia quakes and a bunch of other stuff, having done research that required an understanding of tectonic processes myself (though this is not my area). What made me feel better is the simple fact that we can adapt to earthquake hazards by first understanding what they are locally, then applying the proper technology and other systems.
The problem is bad, of course, in regions where earthquake hazard is high, and pre-adaptation is not done for any of a number of reasons, including political or economic ones. Yeats contrasts Japan, the most earthquake ready country in the world, with Haiti, one of the least.
Geology is fun. Earthquakes are one place where the rubber hits the road in geology. This book is a great overview and an important analysis of earthquake hazard and risk worldwide. I highly recommend Earthquake Time Bombs by Robert Yeats.
It seems that oil executives, possibly in concert with the Oklahoma University administration, may have pressured scientists to downplay the link between fracking and earthquakes, according to EnergyWire. It is a long and complicates story and you should go to the source to learn more. Briefly,
Oklahoma’s state scientists have suspected for years that oil and gas operations in the state were causing a swarm of earthquakes, but in public they rejected such a connection.
When the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS) did cautiously agree with other scientists about such a link, emails obtained by EnergyWire show the state seismologist was called into meetings with his boss, University of Oklahoma President David Boren, and oil executives “concerned” about the acknowledgement.
One of the oilmen was Continental Resources Chairman Harold Hamm, a leading donor to the university.
The seismologist, Austin Holland, told a senior U.S. Geological Survey official that as far back as 2010, OGS officials believed an earthquake swarm near Oklahoma City might have been triggered by the “Hunton dewatering,” an oil and gas project east of the city.
“Since early 2010 we have recognized the potential for the Jones earthquake swarm to be due to the Hunton dewatering,” Holland wrote to USGS science adviser Bill Leith in 2013. “But until we can demonstrate that scientifically or not we were not going to discuss that publicly.”
Instead, he pointed to changing lake levels.
And when USGS officials linked a “remarkable” surge in earthquakes in Oklahoma and other states to drilling waste disposal in 2012, OGS criticized their “rush to judgment.”
Holland told EnergyWire the intense personal interest shown by Boren, Hamm and other leaders hasn’t affected his scientific findings or those of OGS.
“None of these conversations affect the science that we are working on producing,” Holland told EnergyWire. “We have the academic freedoms necessary for university employees doing research.”
But Holland and OGS have been the voice of skepticism in the scientific community about connections between oil production activities and the hundreds of earthquakes that have shaken the state.
… zero carbon emissions is what the times require, for carbon emissions are dangerously altering the global climate and the chemistry and temperature of oceans and lakes, endangering almost every living thing.
Which is why I, a 70-year-old grandfather, along with thousands of other citizens, have pledged that if the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline is approved, we will peacefully contest every foot of its construction across the heart of America.
Pipelines like Keystone XL would mainly carry costly crude
One of the costs of that crude is the side effects of mining and fracking. And, a new cost is being added to fracking; liability for earthquakes caused by it.
In a case expected to set a precedent for future earthquake claims in Oklahoma, the state Supreme Court will consider whether two oil companies can be held liable in state court for injuries a Prague woman suffered during the 2011 earthquake.
An attorney for one of the companies has said the lawsuit, if successful, would cause energy companies to abandon wastewater disposal wells across the state.
“These wells will become economic and legal-liability pariahs,” attorney Robert Gum told a Lincoln County judge during an October hearing in the case. Gum represents New Dominion LLC, a Tulsa-based oil and gas company, in the lawsuit.
Here’s an update on a North Dakota salt water pipeline spill:
More than 4 million gallons of a mixture of fresh water, brine and oil have been pumped from the area affected by the largest saltwater spill of North Dakota’s current energy boom, according to a report issued Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency.
…brine, is an unwanted byproduct of oil and natural gas production that is much saltier than sea water and may also contain petroleum and residue from hydraulic fracturing operations. Some previous saltwater spills have taken years to clean up….
The mixture of fresh water… is being transported to a well site to be injected underground. Saltwater is usually pumped underground for permanent storage …
…The latest spill is almost three times larger than one that fouled a portion of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in July. Another million-gallon saltwater spill in 2006, near Alexander, is still being cleaned up nearly a decade later.
Democratic state lawmakers have promised to file legislation that would mandate additional monitoring and safeguards for pipelines that carry briny oilfield wastewater…
Meanwhile, in the US Senate, the current Keystone XL pipeline debate has continued, moving a likely vote to next week. The reason is that several Democrats who actually support the pipeline wanted to continue the debate, joining the majority of Democrats who also want to see the debate continue. This may reflect a strategy to be to get as many pro-Carbon fuel advocates on record as being on the wrong side of an issue many expect to turn over during the next two years. This is largely done through the amendment process, which requires Senators (if the amendments come to a vote) to put their position on record. This record, in turn, can make or break later election bids. From The Hill:
“We don’t want Sen. McConnell especially after all the hop-de-do about an open process, open amendments, to shut it down at his whim. We are not ready to do that yet, there are more amendments pending,” [Democrat Chuck] Schumer said….
Schumer wouldn’t say how many more amendment votes Democrats would like to see. Over 150 amendments have been filed to the Keystone bill.
Ahead of Monday’s vote, McConnell laughed at Democrats for wanting more amendments, arguing they have had more opportunities to add measures to the underlying bill than Republicans had all of last year.