By the end of last Thursday, State Senator Sam Blakeslee was fit to be tied. After subjecting Troy Pruett, a high-ranking administrator with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), to an hour on the hot seat, Blakeslee couldn’t get Pruett to concede that, where seismic safety of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was concerned, the NRC had put the cart dangerously before the horse. Blakeslee is a conservative Republican who happens to have a PhD in the geology of California’s offshore earthquake faults. His district happens to include Diablo Canyon’s twin towers.
While Blakeslee took pains to say he’s not saying the plant is unsafe per se, he did say the safety procedures were decidedly inadequate. He accused Pruett and the NRC of viewing the seismic safety issues surrounding the plant “through rose-colored glasses.” Even in light of Japan’s recent nuclear catastrophe, Blakeslee charged, the NRC was operating “according to business as usual.” Blakeslee focused most of his remarks on the critical scientific information that still remains unknown about the new fault line discovered 300 yards off the coast from Diablo Canyon in 2008. Blakeslee repeatedly challenged Pruett on how the NRC could plan to release a safety report on Diablo Canyon this June — as part of the plant’s relicensing application — long before new seismic studies on the “Shoreline Fault” could be conducted. The high-impact back-and-forth between Blakeslee and Pruett came during an informational hearing held by the Senate Energy, Utilities, and Communications Committee, chaired by Senator Alex Padilla.
While Blakeslee became surly and, on occasion, sarcastic, Pruett quietly repeated that Diablo Canyon was operating safely and assured the committee members that the plant was engineered to absorb far greater ground acceleration than the longer-known and better-understood Hosgri Fault — or the Shoreline Fault — could unleash. And if new information came to light, he said, casting doubt that Diablo Canyon could be safely operated, the NRC would take “immediate action.” Pruett stressed that Diablo Canyon was required by its permit to continuously update the NRC on new seismic information, and that such information should not be shoehorned into a relicensing permit application. In the past year alone, he said, the NRC dispatched two full-time inspectors, who logged in 8,200 hours ensuring plant safety.
Blakeslee countered that in light of Japan’s nuclear nightmare, extraordinary measures should be taken to ensure the NRC had all the relevant information before decreeing the plant is sufficiently safe to be relicensed. In an interview afterward, he said the relicensing process enjoyed a quasi-judicial status that would force the NRC to focus more rigorously on the question of seismic safety. The burden of proof, he contended, for submitting safety concerns outside of the relicensing process was “substantially more difficult.” Even so, Blakeslee conceded, the NRC has never rejected or suspended the relicensing application of any nuclear operator.
Blakeslee charged that the NRC, to a dangerous degree, relied upon the nuclear-power-plant operator for information regarding the safety of that plant. He faulted a report issued this January by geologists hired by PG&E — which owns Diablo Canyon — stating that the seismic capacity of the new fault, 6.5, falls well below the 7.5 magnitude for which the plant was built. Blakeslee objected that, absent high-tech 3-d seismic studies, which have yet to be conducted, it’s impossible to know exactly where the new fault is located, how far down it goes, and whether it connects to other faults in the area, like the Hosgri Fault. If it did, he suggested, the magnitude of the quake Shoreline could generate could exceed PG&E’s predictions. And the NRC, he stated, lacks the geologic experts needed to conduct an independent analysis. “TEPCO made similar assertions about the offshore fault system,” Blakeslee said about the owners of the now imperiled nuclear reactors at Fukushima. But in 2007, a TEPCO reactor was seriously damaged because of an earthquake registering twice what company geologists said could be expected from a fault line 18 kilometers away. The recent Japanese quake registered 9.0, even though, he said, experts had stated the offshore geology was capable of nothing more than a 7.9.
Blakeslee has been pressing for the new seismic studies for the past six years; three years ago, the Legislature passed a bill calling for such studies. The California Energy Commission has likewise weighed in. But after all that — and a “Chernobyl-level nuclear accident” — he complained, “We still can’t get the NRC’s attention.” Joining Blakeslee in demanding that the NRC suspend PG&E’s relicensing application are Congressmember Lois Capps and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. PG&E has rejected calls for suspension but has asked the NRC to hold off making a final recommendation, pending results of the newest seismic studies. The operating licenses for Diablo Canyon don’t expire for 13 years. It typically takes 22-30 months to process such an application.
Where Blakelee was hot, committee chair Alex Padilla was cool in his questioning. Padilla focused on problems with the state’s other nuclear power plant, also along the coast, at San Onofre. When Padilla pressed Pruett for specific concerns the NRC had with San Onofre, Pruett described them as “Tier 1 safety concerns,” like not tightening down a bolt according to specifications. Padilla responded, noting that San Onofre employees had falsified certain records for five years, that the plant’s backup diesel generators had failed, and that wiring problems may have rendered the plant’s backup energy system inoperative for at least five years. “These are Tier 1?” he asked. Pruett answered that his remarks had been intended to apply only to the plant’s performance in 2010.