In response to growing concern sparked by Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, PG&E — owner of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant outside Avila Beach — has become the political piñata of choice for elected officials throughout coastal California. This Tuesday, Representative Lois Capps testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — chaired by California Democrat Barbara Boxer — demanding that PG&E’s application to relicense the Diablo Canyon plant be stopped until advanced underwater seismic studies are first completed to determine just how jittery the faults located within 300 yards of Diablo Canyon really are.
Just one day before the Senate hearing, PG&E announced it had asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to hold off making a final recommendation on relicensing the plant until such studies could be conducted. But that, said Capps and State Senator Sam Blakeslee — who also testified before Boxer’s committee — was not enough. Those studies need to be finished and peer reviewed by an independent panel of experts, Capps insisted, before the NRC even considers granting Diablo Canyon an extra 20 years of life. Given that the licenses for Diablo Canyon’s twin reactors don’t expire until 2023 and 2024, Capps argued, there’s no compelling need to initiate the relicensing now and no real harm in delaying. Capps stressed she was not demanding that Diablo Canyon be shut down but said that many urgent questions remain unanswered about the plant’s ability to withstand seismic ground acceleration, given the discovery of a new fault located 300 yards offshore from the plant just two years ago.
“The chance of such a bizarre concatenation of events occurring is extremely small. Not only is this conclusion well supported by the record evidence, it accords most eminently with notions of statistical probability,” it read. “Yet the unthinkable did happen in Japan — an earthquake, tsunami, and a nuclear accident sequence,” said Capps.
Capps said such studies should document how much energy the new fault — dubbed the Shoreline Fault — could reasonably release. “Can the plant, including the spent fuel pools, withstand an earthquake and a nuclear accident?” she asked. “How long would a plant be self-sustaining in the event of such damage? And is Diablo Canyon’s evacuation plan during an incident workable?” She derided the NRC’s insistence over the years that the chance of an earthquake and nuclear accident occurring at the plant simultaneously was too statistically remote to safeguard against. At one point, she quoted an NRC finding on emergency planning requirements for Diablo Canyon: “The chance of such a bizarre concatenation of events occurring is extremely small. Not only is this conclusion well supported by the record evidence, it accords most eminently with notions of statistical probability,” it read. “Yet the unthinkable did happen in Japan — an earthquake, tsunami, and a nuclear accident sequence,” said Capps.
Testifying at the same hearing was NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who took exception to Senator Boxer’s assertion that both Diablo Canyon and San Onofre — California’s other nuclear power plant — faced the highest seismic risk of any American reactor. Jaczko insisted that the threat of earthquakes for any American plant was small and that all plants were designed to withstand the maximum quake. Diablo Canyon, for example, was designed to withstand a 7.5 earthquake from the Hosgri fault, located nearly three miles offshore, even though geologists believe Hosgri is equipped to deliver only a 6.5. PG&E geologists contend that the Shoreline fault is capable of far less, and insist that the plant is engineered to withstand anything Shoreline can deliver. Scientists with the United States Geological Survey, who discovered the Shoreline fault in November 2008, contend much remains unknown about how active the fault has moved in the past and how fast it can move.
To find out, Sam Blakeslee — a geologist who got his PhD in earthquakes off California’s Pacific Coast — sponsored a bill requiring that advanced seismic studies be conducted. PG&E lobbied to block that bill but, once it was passed, agreed to do the studies. Last August, it secured approval from the California Public Utilities Commission to bill ratepayers up to $17 million to pay for them and began work on some late last year. (Capps noted that SoCal Edison has yet to apply for a new license for its San Onofre nuclear plants, even though its reactor permits expire sooner than Diablo Canyon’s.)
PG&E has yet to secure permits, however, for some of the more energy-intensive high-tech seismic explorations. Until this week, PG&E has refused to link such seismic research with its relicensing application and has been backed up by the NRC. Both entities insist that seismic research around Diablo Canyon is ongoing and too important to be included in a relicensing application, which typically is designed to determine if the plant and its component parts have enough life left in them to be allowed an additional 20 years. Diablo Canyon watchdogs — like Mothers for Peace and Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility — contend PG&E had hoped to secure a new license before the results of any new seismic study could be released. PG&E insists it moved as quickly as it did in deference to California energy regulators’ need to have an accurate inventory of future electricity supplies.
Before the Japanese disaster, PG&E had groups like the Alliance and Mothers for Peace to contend with. But in the month since Fukushima Daiichi blew — which Japanese nuclear experts now equate with the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 — political concern about the seismic assumptions underlying Diablo Canyon has intensified considerably. Not only are Capps and Blakeslee sounding the alarm, but this Tuesday the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the NRC to suspend PG&E’s application, not merely to hold its final recommendation in abeyance.
Senators Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have gotten in on the act, and this Thursday, a subcommittee of the State Senate in Sacramento will hold similar hearings about the seismic safety of the state’s two nukes. At the end of the day, it might not be up to the NRC — or any federal agency — to make the call. PG&E estimates it will cost $85 million to secure a new license at Diablo Canyon and has sought permission to bill ratepayers from the Public Utility Commission (PUC). Two weeks ago, the PUC was scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter but, in response to the Japanese crisis, postponed it indefinitely. Without PUC clearance to recoup such costs, it’s questionable how vigorously PG&E can or will pursue relicensing.