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Seismic danger: Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant – a geological saga

Lori Dengler | Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant: a geologic saga, Times Standard LORI DENGLER |November 6, 2021   The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is about to accept PG&E’s application to terminate the license for Humboldt Bay Power Plant nuclear facility, Unit #3. It’s been a long time coming.

The nuclear facility ceased operations in 1976 for maintenance and refueling. It never produced power again and PG&E decided to permanently shut down the reactor in 1983. Dismantling began in 2009 and unused fuel rods, spent fuel, and contaminated parts of the facility were put into casks and buried on the site.

Here’s the Unit #3 bare-bones history: planning in the late 1950s, groundbreaking January 1961, commissioned August 1963, shut down July 1976, PG&E notice of permanent closure 1983, a license for storage of waste on site 1988, and active decommissioning and waste storage 2009- 2018. But between those points, there are many stories, and the geologic one traverses some of the biggest milestones in Earth Sciences.

Nuclear power was considered a solution to energy needs in the 1950s. PG&E was looking at three potential sites: Point Arena, Bodega Bay, and Humboldt. Proximity to the San Andreas fault and local activist outcry at the time took the first two off the list and they moved forward on the Humboldt Bay site.

How could they build a reactor in one of the most seismically active areas of the contiguous forty-eight states and only a few miles above the only U.S. fault outside of Alaska capable of producing a M9 earthquake? The simple answer is what they didn’t know; they had no clue that such a large earthquake could occur………………………………………..

Thus began the geologic scrutiny of the North Coast. For geologists, Unit #3 was an unexpected boon. The seismic network was only the first step. A few years later, PG&E brought on Woodward Clyde consultants (now URS) to study surface faulting potential and do the detailed analysis that an environmental impact study should routinely uncover today. Even after the decision was made to permanently close the reactor, studies continued on the storage site and the tsunami potential.

The saga of #3 reminds me of what Donald Rumsfeld (DOD Secretary) said in 2002 “… But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Ah yes, those unknown unknowns. So much that we didn’t know when the plant was designed and constructed, and, in hindsight, were important to know. I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface on the geologic story of nuclear power on the North Coast. More next week.

November 8, 2021 - Posted by | safety, USA

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