Petroleum pigs underreporting pipeline decay

“San Onofre? You betcha, I know all about it!”

Palast believes the emergency generators at San Onofre would likely fail in the event of a possible meltdown.
  • Palast believes the emergency generators at San Onofre would likely fail in the event of a possible meltdown.

Greg Palast is a corporate fraud investigator turned investigative journalist. In his new book, Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores, he and his team crisscross the globe in a quest to report on disasters caused by oil giant British Petroleum.

Palast, a California native headquartered in New York, does most of his reporting for British media, including BBC, The Guardian, and the Channel Four network. He gained notoriety for uncovering the move to purge thousands of African-Americans from Florida voter rolls in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, documented in The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.

Nuclear power for profit is simply impossible if profit comes first.

Nuclear power for profit is simply impossible if profit comes first.

I had a chance to speak with Palast in early November about some ongoing investigations, the state of American media, and a few chapters of his book particularly pertinent to a San Diego audience.

“San Onofre? You betcha, I know all about it!” exclaims Palast when I bring up the nuclear plant on San Diego County’s northern coast. I’ve steered the conversation to a disturbing chapter in Vultures’ Picnic regarding a plant in Shoreham, Long Island, where inspectors faked test results concerning the ability of the facility to withstand an earthquake. In the past, Palast worked with the California Public Utilities Commission as a nuclear plant investigator.

“Okay, here’s the thing, I don’t want to scare anyone, but...” he begins before launching into a lecture on the lax earthquake-proofing standards and faked test results at nuclear facilities across the country. Particularly disturbing are his comments regarding the diesel backup generators that are supposed to come online in order to prevent a nuclear meltdown in the case of an outage.

Diesel engines take time to warm up before they reach full power-generating capacity. But these massive engines, with base horsepower ratings well into the thousands (and subsequently doubled by strapping on a turbocharger), need to be online and running at full capacity in 10–12 seconds after a failure occurs in order to avert disaster. Frequently harvested from retired cruise ships, the engines simply aren’t capable of firing up as required. In the Shoreham test, two of the three backup generators failed almost immediately after being put under load — the third blew up as soon as it was turned on.

Palast believes the backup systems suggest to the public that safety precautions are being taken, but they’re about as effective for any purpose beyond appeasing the public as wrapping them in garland and a giant Christmas bow.

“Fraud is as much a part of a nuclear plant as the steel and cement,” says Palast, implying the plant operators are well aware of their safety devices’ shortcomings. “Nuclear power for profit is simply impossible if safety comes first.”

Greg Palast

Greg Palast

We switch topics to “smart pigs,” or pipeline inspection gauges, robotic devices that scan the inside of oil and gas pipelines to identify weak spots caused by corrosion or faulty connections. Palast conducted an interview with an industry insider he refers to only as “Pig Man,” who discovered a programming error that causes the devices to underreport the level of decay pipelines may be suffering, in direct violation of federal accuracy standards. His engineering team offered management a fix for the glitch, and he was promptly fired.

It turns out that making repairs to pipe whenever federal law says repairs should be made is a costly endeavor — to the tune of $31.25 million per mile for a project like Alyeska’s Trans Alaska Pipeline, which burst in 2006, spilling over 6300 barrels of oil and requiring a $500 million project to replace 16 miles of corroded pipe. Alyeska is a conglomerate of British Petroleum, ExxonMobil, and other big players in the oil industry. The pig manufacturers feared that correcting the errors in the program would alert client companies to the need for even more pipe replacement, thus leading to further costs, which the clients wished to avoid.

“It’s just better to pay off if it blows. It may blow, it may not blow, you know? But if it blows, well, gee — okay, then it’s an accident,” Palast says, describing another pipeline blowout in Chicago that cost a gas company there about $40 million in settlements and legal fees after 18 people died. “It’s just too expensive to do it right.”

On October 12, the Reader’s Dorian Hargrove reported on a Navy pipeline transporting diesel and jet fuel from San Diego Bay to MCAS Miramar. The line was installed in 1954. Jim Gilhooly, a Point Loma resident with 40 years’ experience in pipeline maintenance (including work on Trans Alaska), then stated, “Average life of pipelines without life-extension programs is 20 to 30 years.”

The Navy says it sends a smart pig through the line every five years to ensure safety, with the last test being performed in 2008.

“I bet they do,” Palast replied. “It’s kabuki — pretend. They pretend that it’s safe.”

We also touched on the state of investigative journalism in America.

“What I’m doing is very expensive news. And there’s cheaper ways to make news.” Palast goes on to point out that major news organizations in the United States tend to rely on others to conduct research, jumping in to report a story only after it’s nearly complete. When does news media spring into action stateside? “Once in a while the New York Times, the Washington Post, when they want to do their annual Pulitzer story....”

Greg Palast visits The Center in Hillcrest (3039 Centre Street) on Thursday, November 17, at 7 p.m. Visit activistsandiego.com for more information on his appearance. Admission is free. ■

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“It’s just too expensive to do it right.”

This sounds a whole lot like the complaints you keep hearing about California being "toxic" for business:

"It’s just too expensive to [operate a business] right."

"It's kabuki"

An apt description of much of what goes on in America today, especially in the modern "public meeting" where residents views are aired, only to vanish in a cloud of lobbyist cigar smoke...

Seems Jefferson was right, and American got the government it deserves...hubris always meets nemesis eventually.

I think I'd rather leave pretty Point Loma than gamble against an explosive blow out, and I guess being downwind of San Onofre is rather bad planning too...our paradise has indeed been plundered.

Perhaps the biggest gap in public education these days is the lack of a course (at ever grade level if I had my way) in skepticism. Instead, gullibility in insinuated into their dear little ears.

Trouble is, it usually sticks for life.

Skepticism is equated with cynicism, when they are really polar opposites. Nobody likes being called a cynic. It is tiring and draining to always look for flaws and holes and conflicts of interest. Much easier to keep a sunny outlook and just accept whatever the government bureaucracy feeds you. After all, they are there to care for you and look out for your best interests, aren't they? Aren't they? AREN'T THEY?

Yes, people should be skeptical of Mr. Palast. If you are not skeptical of a person who presents make-believe as fact, then who should you be skeptical of.

Mr. Palast's comments about nuclear power plant emergency diesel generators is absolutely false; twice. He claimed that such diesel generators are "frequently harvested from retired cruise ships". He provided no examples because his claim is false. Mr. Palast then claimed that it was not possible for a diesel generator to provide power within 10 to 12 seconds. That is false, also. Diesel generators in nuclear power plants have heaters and oil distribution systems which keep the diesel lubricating oil at about 130 degrees F while circulating the lube oil throughout the engine. That temperature is continuously monitoried and the diesels are inspected several times a day by plant operators. In addition, the diesels have to be test started and loaded monthly. The San Diego reader should hire some fact-checkers.

Follow the Money is sage advice from Greg P. and also Deep Throat!

The truth is that Nature can destroy any land based nuclear reactor, any place anytime 24/7/365!

If the big one comes along the reactors will fail and then we will have one or more Trillion Dollar Eco-Disasters like Japan...

It's only through the conduit of public interest & outrage that corporate plunderers will be called to account by their lackeys, who also double as our trusted government officials. Only that way will they ever be held accountable for devastating the environment and gobbling resources out of pure greed. The people must find their voice.

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