GODZILLA, CALL HOME: When it’s come to end-of-the-world prophesies, I’ve always considered myself a strict atheist. But my faith has been shaken in recent months, and I’ve been reluctantly forced to hug my inner agnostic when contemplating the planet’s future. Catastrophes that odds-makers once deemed too remote to contemplate even in isolation are now happening simultaneously: an earthquake so powerful it shortened the day and moved Japan eight inches closer to the United States, an insatiable tsunami, four nuclear reactors threatening to go postal, and a volcanic eruption thrown in for good measure. About the only thing missing — aside from about 10,000 missing people — is Godzilla. But these days, even Godzilla has reason to fear.
Naturally, during disasters such as these, all eyes turn 85 miles up the coast to the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, just outside Avila Beach. I wish I could say I like what I see. Spokespeople for PG&E — the utility giant that owns Diablo Canyon — are quick to point out the facility was engineered to withstand a 7.5 earthquake, 10 times more than the likely “worst-case” scenario posed by the Hosgri Fault that runs three miles off the coast. Given that the plant sits on a bluff 85 feet above sea level, the threat of a tsunami seems farfetched. Even so, Diablo Canyon, we are told, was designed to withstand 45-foot-high waves to ensure the safety of the seawater intake valves so crucial for keeping the plant’s two core reactors cool. And as far as back-up energy supplies, Diablo Canyon has enough diesel generators for a week. If they were to fail, Diablo Canyon has two gravity-fed reservoirs above the plant to prevent meltdown.
I’d find such assertions of technological infallibility reassuring if I didn’t remember how a massive infestation of jellyfish choked the seawater intake valves just a few years ago. Despite the obvious professionalism of many plant employees, PG&E has a long history of duplicity and incompetence when it comes to Diablo Canyon. Longtime critics of the plant are quick to point out how the existence of the Hosgri Fault — three miles offshore from the plant — was conveniently not “discovered” until just a few months after federal regulators could approve plans for the plant back in the late 1960s. These skeptics still wonder how geologists for PG&E — and the precursor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — didn’t know about the fault when geologists working for the oil industry clearly did. These concerns were hardly put to rest during plant construction in the 1980s. When it was discovered that construction supervisors had been misreading their blueprints, PG&E was forced to start over, generating cost overruns of $4.4 billion. In another universe, I might be inclined to dismiss all this as ancient history. But in 2008, geologists discovered the existence of yet another offshore fault near Diablo Canyon, this one much closer to the coast. PG&E and the NRC have repeatedly stated there’s nothing to be alarmed about. The maximum-sized quakes the new fault line can deliver, they say, are 10 times smaller than what the plant is already built to withstand. I hope they’re right. But the geologist who discovered what’s been dubbed as the Shoreline Fault — Tom Brocher with the United States Geological Survey — told me no one knows for sure exactly where the new fault line is relative to the coast. Given the margin of error used in such calculations, he said it’s within the realm of both possibility and plausibility that the fault could actually dip under the plant site itself. In other words, there’s a lot we don’t know and a lot we need to find out.
The $17-million question — that’s what PG&E estimates it will cost to conduct the sort of 3-d seismic surveys that oil companies commonly use — is, when? Given recent events in Japan, it would seem obvious that sooner makes infinitely more sense than later. But PG&E and the NRC are insisting that later is better. It turns out that PG&E is now in the process of relicensing Diablo Canyon with the NRC for another 20 years, an exhaustive process that will cost ratepayers $85 million to underwrite. If all goes according to PG&E’s timeline, that process should be completed within the next two years. But members of the California Energy Commission, Congressmember Lois Capps, and Republican State Senator Sam Blakeslee — who happens to have a PhD in offshore seismic geology — have insisted that the 3-d seismic study should be completed before the NRC even contemplates relicensing. However, for their concerns to have any teeth, the California Public Utilities Commission — which controls how much money utility companies can charge ratepayers and for what projects — would have to jump in. But to date, that powerful agency has been conspicuously missing in action.
The NRC and PG&E have vigorously resisted any efforts to link relicensing with new seismic studies of the new fault. For the record, NRC officials have insisted the issue of seismic safety is so paramount that it’s considered all the time. As such, it’s not appropriate to be relegated to a relicensing application. Naturally, PG&E is singing the same song when it comes to Diablo Canyon. Again, I would find such reassurances more convincing if there was evidence to suggest utility executives were operating in good faith. Blakeslee began clamoring for 3-d tests back in 2005 after a significant quake hit the Central Coast. When he introduced legislation requiring such a study, PG&E lobbyists attacked the bill. When the Energy Commission prepared to release a report agreeing with Blakeslee, PG&E tried to get the report killed, arguing that three-dimensional tests amounted to “overkill.” On October 22, 2008, PG&E honcho Mark Krausse told the world that PG&E already understood everything that anyone needed to know about Diablo Canyon’s seismic issues. But on November 14 — just 23 days later — PG&E would notify the NRC of the existence of the new fault. Was Krausse lying on October 22? Or did he merely not know what he was talking about? For those of us waiting for Godzilla’s footsteps, neither interpretation gives much hope. One might think the enormity of Japan’s nuclear nightmare would make even the NRC require the new seismic studies first. But I wouldn’t hold your breath. In the meantime, I’ll be in the check-out line buying potassium iodide pills in case of radiation. Experts may question their effectiveness in preventing thyroid cancer, but at least it’s something to do.
MELTDOWN ADDENDUM: Since writing this week’s column I have become aware of some things I should have known beforehand or that have happened since that might color how one regards the relative risk posed by the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. For starters, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and PG&E, which owns Diablo Canyon, have conducted new geologic surveys that more accurately show where the new Shoreline fault is located.
It is no longer accurate to state that the possibility exists, as Thomas Brocher with the United States Geologic Survey indicated in a previous interview, that the fault could run under the plant given the margin of error involved in calculating the location of the fault line. According to the new surveys, the fault line is 300-to-600 meters from the nuclear power plant, depending where along the coast the measurement is taken. There is no evidence, Brocher now asserts, to indicate the fault might go under the plant.
It turns out that the same studies—initiated to better understand the Shoreline Fault—have shed new light on the potential seismic punch packed by the Hosgri Fault, which has been known about since the late 1960s and is located just a little over two miles off the coast. According to new modeling techniques, PG&E and the NRC have concluded that the Hosgri Fault poses less of a potential threat than initially understood. Initial estimates suggested the Hosgri Fault was capable of delivering an earthquake that registered 7.5 of the Richter scale; based on the new modeling techniques, PG&E and the NRC assert the more likely worst case scenario is only 6.5. Brocher, however, declined to embrace the new calculations, stating that his office has not reviewed the new data.
Blocher remains adamant that there is still much that remains unknown about the Shoreline Fault that’s essential to understanding what potential threat it might pose. He said it remains unknown how fast the two sides of the fault line are moving and are capable of moving during an earthquake. That information, he said, is central to understanding how much the ground moves during a seismic event. He stated that a 3D seismic survey would prove extremely helpful in getting a grip on this question.
Lastly, the California Public Utilities Commission announced Thursday it had canceled a meeting scheduled for this April to discuss PG&E’s re-licensing application for Diablo canyon. A CPUC spokesperson explained that the hearing would be postponed until after the CPUC had explored public concerns about seismic safety concerning Diablo Canyon. How and when that would happen has yet to be determined. Without CPUC approval, PG&E cannot charge ratepayers the $85 million PG&E estimates the re-licensing application will cost.
This delay effectively puts Diablo Canyon’s re-licensing plans on ice. For activists concerned about Diablo Canyon’s seismic safety, this is an important development. They had expressed concern that PG&E was attempting to expedite the re-licensing process so that Diablo Canyon could get an additional 20 years of life from the NRC before the results of the 3D seismic survey of the new Shoreline Fault could become public. PG&E has consistently denied that it was attempting to hurry the process, and has insisted that it has aggressively pursued new information regarding the plant’s seismic underpinnings. The company has also insisted that the seismic information should not be included in the re-licensing application, and the NRC has agreed with this.