Latest Silicon Valley trend: Crowdfunding nuclear startups in earthquake-prone state as Fukushima radiation bombards California

Friday, December 11, 2015 by

California is the state that birthed a generation of environmental activists dedicated to opposing nuclear energy. It is, therefore, ironic that the golden state is now a safe haven for a new generation of power plants, even as radiation from the 2011 Fukushima disaster begins to plague its coast.

Nuclear power is at the crux of the Obama administration’s strategy to combat global warming, and has attracted some investors with deep pockets. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, for instance, have invested $2 billion in startups sprinkled throughout the West. Entrepreneurs behind these startups are in a race to make power plants seem no more menacing than a state museum.(1)

Jacob DeWitte, chief executive of UPower, for instance, has promised that his firm can build a nuclear power plant that runs on nuclear waste, is meltdown proof and immune to terrorist attacks.

Nuclear industry offers more than they can promise

While this sounds good in theory, the nuclear industry has a history of exaggerating the benefits of nuclear energy, while underplaying the risks. Building nuclear power plants is a slow and tedious process, which requires hundreds of millions of dollars. And even if a new generation of power plants do burgeon on California’s coast, they will only make a minor impact on the so called “climate crisis.”

This doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that nuclear power plants increase the risk of cancer, are a major target for terrorists, produce hazardous waste to the environment for hundreds of thousands of years, and are in opposition to the desires of most Californians.

Nevertheless, proponents of nuclear energy remain dedicated to their cause, like Leslie Dewan, the 31-year-old co-founder of Transatomic, who launched her company a mere week after the Fukushima accident in 2011. Ironically, the opening of the company also fell on the 25th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine. If that’s not a bad omen, what is?(1)

Have these nuclear energy proponents learned nothing from the Fukushima disaster? After an earthquake triggered a tsunami that sandblasted the Fukushima Daiichi site more than four years ago, approximately 300 tons of nuclear waste have been bleeding into the ocean every single day.

It has taken four years for the waste to make an appearance across the ocean, and it’s just now becoming manifest on the shores of California. The sunshine state has experienced a spike in beached whales, sea lions and other marine organisms, which can be attributed in part to the toxic radiation infesting the waters.

Furthermore, California is susceptible to the same kind of natural disaster which caused the Fukushima catastrophe – earthquakes. In fact, California has more earthquakes than any other state in the country. Both California and Japan sit along the Ring of Fire, an area in the basin of the Pacific Ocean where a large number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.

The Big One

Many scientists predict that a major earthquake – 8.0 or higher on the Richter scale – will plague California in the next 30 years. This is widely dubbed as the “Big One,” which will devastate urban areas like Palm Springs, Los Angeles and San Francisco.(2)

Nuclear power plants have an average lifespan of about 40 years, though the United States is pushing its reactors to last 80 years – twice the expected life expectancy. If California does breed a new generation of nuclear reactors, these reactors will be active during the same window of time that the “Big One” is expected to occur. It will be Fukushima all over again. History really does repeat itself.(2)

Most Californians would prefer the Obama administration to invest in renewable energy, like solar and wind power, instead of nuclear power. Regardless, that is not the direction in which the White House is heading. The administration announced its budget plan, which included $900 million towards the advancement of nuclear technologies. And just this year, the House passed a resolution pushing regulators to foster the nuclear industry.(2)

The golden state is now a golden opportunity for another Fukushima disaster. While the nuclear industry combats climate change – a concept which remains speculative and uncertain – they’re increasing the risk of a catastrophe that can, has and will happen.

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