All Those Little Nuclear Reactors In The San Francisco Bay Area

After the earthquake and tsunami damaged the nuclear reactors in Japan, the safety of the nuclear reactors at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in California became an immediate concern. KGO Radio had Dr. Bill Wattenburg and other leading nuclear experts on the air for one hour in the mornings, afternoons and evenings for the first several weeks of the crises to reassure listeners that what happened in Japan couldn’t happen in here in California. I’m not sure if that reassured anyone or not. No one cares about nuclear power when its produces electrical power without incident. But once an accident happens because of an unexpected eventuality—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima—everyone goes into knee jerk reaction mode and run screaming for the hills. What many people don’t know is that there are many smaller test nuclear reactors tucked away in plain sight, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Indeed, the most common type of test reactor – called TRIGA, for Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics – was designed to be safe enough that university students couldn’t screw it up. Nuclear engineering students often train on the small reactors before landing jobs at big commercial power plants.

When I was attending San Jose State University in Fall 1994, I took an introduction to chemistry class and the instructor gave us a tour of the science building. Down in the basement behind these locked doors, we were told, was a small nuclear test reactor. We joked about the possibility of the nuclear reactor blowing up or melting down. The instructor reassured us that the test reactor would shut down long before reaching dangerous conditions.

Terrorism wasn’t a consideration back then as it is now to worry about the 500 or so pounds of spent nuclear fuel being used for a “dirty” nuclear bomb. For many of us who grew up during the Cold War, we had long lived with the fact that Silicon Valley was a secondary target for a nuclear strike by the Soviet Union, either for a ground burst to physically destroy military infrastructure and/or an air burst to fry out the electronic industry with an EMP blast.

During the introduction to chemistry class, I learned about half life and isotopes. I never got far enough in chemistry to conduct nuclear experiments with the test reactor. I made the mistake of enrolling in general chemistry the following semester. Everything I knew about chemistry was reviewed on the first day. I was totally lost within six weeks and eventually kicked out of the university for having a lousy semester. (If you’re junior or senior, you are not allowed to have a lousy semester; the university changed this policy a year later when 20% of the student body was at risk and threaten to significantly reduce the university’s income.) When it came to mathematics and the sciences, I could only go so far before hitting a wall that prevented me from going further.

I had a friend who worked in 13 years at the General Electric plant at Monterey Road and Curtner Avenue in San Jose (now the location of The Plant shopping center) in the nuclear division. He never did say what he worked on, or if he had a government security clearance. When pressed on the subject, he would say nuclear medicine and leave it at that. He might have been telling the truth—or maybe not.

Another friend told me he was hiking through the Mount Diablo area in the east bay when he stumbled upon a top secret government nuclear research facility. He noticed that the radar equipment was oriented differently to track intruders on the ground, and wasn’t surprised that a squad of soldiers showed up to escort him off the premises under  gunpoint. He might have been telling the truth—or maybe not.

Military installations are everywhere in Silicon Valley. Besides the more obvious Moffet Airfield and the Cold War-era radar building on top of Mount Umunhum, the famous Blue Cube (an Air Force satellite tracking facility) was visible from the 101.

When I worked in construction with my father in 1989, we built some block walls at a building next door to the Blue Cube. It was a very tense work environment. We were searched at the gate under gunpoint and armed military police with German shepherds patrolled the perimeter a dozen feet from where we were working. My father, a former Army captain who babysat tanks in West Germany in the early 1950s (the engines had to be turned over every four hours in the winter to avoid freezing over), thought building sound walls on the 280 with cars whizzing by two feet away was safer in comparison. A recruiter told me last year when I interviewed for a Lockheed position in that same area that the military was long gone after the base was decommissioned in 2007.

What’s the going to happen to nuclear technology after the disaster in Japan?

Probably the same thing that happened for the last 30 years: the nuclear industry will stay at standstill with no new major design breakthroughs for smaller, safer and efficient nuclear reactors. The environmentalists will scream, the politicians will knee jerk, the people will worry. Within 30 years there will be another crisis point when gas becomes too expensive to import and non-nuclear electricity won’t keep up with the demand to power electric cars. Don’t be surprised if Hollywood remakes all the disaster movies from the 1970s. The only reason that nuclear power is unsafe is because the electrical utilities and government regulators allowed safety to be compromised to save money in the short term. Until safety becomes the cornerstone for nuclear technology, accidents will continue to happen.