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Barking Dogs of Diablo Canyon

What Capps and Feinstein Saw at Diablo Canyon


Originally published 12:00 a.m., March 24, 2011
Updated 11:15 a.m., March 24, 2011

WHEN POWER MEETS POWER: Probably the single most daunting challenge confronting elected officials trying to respond to the biblical magnitude of Japan’s seismic mauling and nuclear meltdown is coming up with a good sound byte. In this regard, it pains me to report that Lois Capps — our woman in Washington — has come up notably short. This Tuesday, Capps and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein were given a hush-hush, celebrities-only tour of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, located about 90 miles up the coast outside of Avila Beach. Given that Diablo Canyon was built within three miles of not one, but two active earthquake faults — and the plant’s owners are currently pushing hard to get relicensed for another 20 years — their concerns should be obvious. I had given Capps’s press secretary strict instructions I wanted something sufficiently sizzling to warrant entombment in the 135-ton steel-and-concrete casks that Diablo Canyon operators use to contain their highly radioactive spent fuel rods. If a mere state senator like Sam Blakeslee — the nerdish Republican with a PhD in offshore seismology — could accuse PG&E, Diablo Canyon’s parent company, of fomenting a “culture of disregarding risk,” then certainly a U.S. congressmember could come up with something epic. Capps aimed for Churchillian heights with, “We cannot accept with blind faith any industry’s assurances that it can prevent a disaster,” but landed in the left-field bleachers with, “It is my responsibility to help hold those industries accountable.” Hey, at least she took a swing. Much more importantly, Capps and Feinstein actually went there.

Angry Poodle

From members of Capps’s extended posse, I would learn what really alarmed the congresswoman was just how old the plant is. Not cobwebs-and-creaky-doors old, but ironic-hipster-vintage-clothes old. It’s true that Diablo Canyon first began producing power in the mid 1980s, but that obscures the fact that it was first built in the 1970s and initially designed way back in the 1960s. It’s so ’60s, in fact, that the plant’s massive control room — a solar system of knobs, dials, and lights blinking red and green — is painted avocado green. Given that Diablo Canyon has become a de facto elephants’ graveyard for stuff so dangerous — about 135 tons at last count — that even atomic scientists affiliated with the nuclear industry insist it needs to be buried at least a million years, maybe a less-dated color is in order.

Capps and Feinstein could not help but be impressed with some of the security precautions at Diablo Canyon. Before entering the plant, they had to pass through a metal detector, a radiation detector, and a mechanical sniffing machine that made sure they weren’t packing explosives. Certainly, the good news is that Diablo Canyon — built 85 feet off the ground — seems all but tsunami-proof. And the geology off the coast of San Luis Obispo is drastically different than it is in Japan, where a subterranean land mass about the size of Maryland — 10 miles thick — got suddenly and violently moved. Each reactor has three back-up generators to keep the essential cooling fluids flowing, and each generator has enough fuel for a week. If those fail, the plant has two reservoirs above the reactors that can be gravity fed into the plant if need be. That’s all good. I remain leery, however, about PG&E’s recent claims — filed this January — that new studies suggest the real seismic threat posed by the Hosgri Fault, located three miles offshore, is significantly less than initially estimated. PG&E built Diablo canyon to withstand a 7.5 quake, but based on new modeling techniques, the company now suggests the maximum likely threat is closer to just 6.5.

What fuels my skepticism is not the fact that during the 6.5 San Simeon earthquake in 2003 only half of Diablo Canyon’s warning sirens worked. Or that for an 18-month period, a key valve that would have allowed Diablo Canyon plant operators to send cooling water to the reactor core by remote control was simply not functioning. (Plant operators say the valves could have been manually opened in case of emergency.) My real concern is that we still don’t know nearly enough about the new Shoreline Fault, located just 300 yards off the coast from Diablo Canyon and discovered in 2008. (Last week, I wrote the possibility existed, admittedly remote, that the fault could dip directly under the plant. Based on the new seismological report, it appears that’s no longer the case, also very good news.)

Blakeslee sought to pin down PG&E’s chief geologist, Lloyd Cluff, on what we know and what we don’t know about this new fault at a State Senate subcommittee hearing this week. The two went back and forth, and it got pretty hot. Cluff’s bottom line? “We don’t see a concern about the uncertainty because we’ve quantified where it is and what would happen if we changed the uncertainty.” I have no doubt Cluff knows a lot more than I do on the subject. But so, too, does Tom Brocher, the geologist with the United States Geological Survey who helped discover the Shoreline Fault in the first place. Last week, Brocher told me that what we still don’t know about Shoreline’s potential for seismic violence remains major. Specifically, he said we still have no clue what the fault’s slip rate is, referring to how fast the two sides of the fault line are moving relative to one another. That’s the seismic equivalent of not knowing how fast your car can accelerate from zero to 100 before driving it into a brick wall. It’s probably true that Diablo is built to withstand anything Hosgri or Shoreline can dish out. But until PG&E has conducted all possible exploratory and diagnostic tests, I might still harbor some nagging concerns.

Certainly, Lois Capps does. So, too, does Blakeslee. Both wonder why PG&E insists on proceeding with its relicensing application for Diablo Canyon before conducting high-tech, 3-d seismic surveys along the Shoreline Fault. The results of such surveys, according to Brocher, would go a long way to determining the fault’s slip rate, which is essential to understanding how fast the ground might move in case of a quake. Capps and Blakeslee are especially curious given that PG&E’s existing license doesn’t expire for another 13 years. On this score, Blakeslee has proven more adamant. He’s vowed to block PG&E’s relicensing application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) until high-energy, 3-d studies are completed. For the record, PG&E has already commenced a low-energy variant of these tests, but has yet to obtain the necessary permits needed to conduct the pedal-to-the-metal survey that Blakeslee — and the California Energy Commission — have been demanding. To date, PG&E and the NRC have insisted that the relicensing application should not be held up pending completion of these studies. (They point out — both correctly and absurdly — that seismic issues fall outside the scope of such applications.)

The big news is that it may no longer be their call to make. They may have been effectively preempted last week by a relatively obscure state agency with narrowly focused oversight over the debate. To recoup the $85 million PG&E estimates it will cost to process its relicensing application, the utility has to get approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to pass on the costs to rate payers. Until last Thursday, the CPUC — which, to date, has been extremely reluctant to link relicensing with the new seismic studies — was scheduled to hold a hearing on that volatile matter April 5. That’s when the CPUC sent out a terse media announcement confirming it had canceled that meeting. The announcement explained the CPUC first needed to assess the impacts of the Japanese earthquakes on nuclear plant safety. How and when that would happen, said the CPUC, remained uncertain.

PG&E and the NRC should do themselves a favor and read the tea leaves smeared on the wall. Given the obvious uncertainties involved — and the dire consequence of miscalculation — we’ve arrived at the historic moment when wearing both belts and suspenders is no longer advisable, but mandatory. As fashion accessories go, these are dorky in the extreme. Don’t make it worse by making us wear avocado, too.

THIS JUST IN: In no uncertain terms, Capps weighed in this morning, March 24, with the following letter to Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Dear Chairman Jaczko:

I am writing to request the Nuclear Regulatory Commission immediately stay the license renewal process for the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant until further studies demonstrate the plant’s design and operations can withstand an earthquake and other potential threats.

As you are well aware, a 2008 California Energy Commission report found very clear warnings of potential new seismic threats surrounding the Diablo Canyon plant. The report also determined that the newly discovered Shoreline earthquake fault should be taken into consideration as part of the license renewal process. In addition to the concerns raised by the California Energy Commission, the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Coastal Commission have filed comments in the license renewal proceedings indicating that many seismic uncertainties remain unstudied and unresolved.

I am very concerned the NRC has not taken action to address the warnings in the Energy Commission’s report, nor has it seriously considered the concerns raised by these state agencies and the public. Moreover, the NRC continues to support its evaluation of the Shoreline earthquake fault on an early report based on preliminary findings. Therefore, I request that you also reconsider my earlier request to ensure the NRC is collaborating with other federal and state agencies by creating a joint panel to peer review, upon their completion, independent advanced seismic studies for all onshore and offshore faults in the area as requested by our state regulators and legislature. The urgency of resolving the state’s seismic concerns necessitates the formation of such a panel of experts. Furthermore, given that the plant’s current operating licenses do not expire for more than a decade, the completion and review of these studies prior to consideration of any relicensing would not impede any process affecting its ongoing operation.

The NRC has a responsibility to maintain both the reliability and economic viability of nation’s nuclear energy plants, and to ensure the public’s health and safety in surrounding communities is protected. For plants located in seismically active areas, like Diablo Canyon, it is imperative they are designed with sufficient levels of resiliency against the sort of earthquakes experts predict they could experience. Additionally, from what we witnessed in Japan—an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident all occurring in sequence—it is more important than ever that the NRC demonstrate that it has taken all appropriate steps to safeguard against a similar occurrence at any U.S. facility.

These safety issues continue to be of great concern to me and my constituents based on a history of incomplete and faulty NRC oversight of the Diablo Canyon plant. While Pacific Gas & Electric has put into place safety measures to address some potential hazards at the plant, there are simply too many unanswered questions on seismic activity and emergency preparedness for this licensing renewal process to move forward. Failure to address this issue in a forthright and transparent manner prior to relicensing is unwise and irresponsible. It will feed public uncertainty about the oversight and safety of nuclear energy and could cost taxpayers billions of dollars to once again belatedly address issues that should have been dealt with beforehand.

Mr. Chairman, you and I agree that nothing is more important than the health and safety of our communities. For that reason, I request the NRC immediately stay the license renewal process until it can fully resolve the state’s seismic concerns and adopt whatever lessons are to be learned from the disaster in Japan. My constituents deserve the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant be as safe as possible and they are looking to the NRC to do everything within its power to ensure such a nuclear tragedy does not occur in our community.

I look forward to working with you to ensure that is the case.

Sincerely,

LOIS CAPPS

Member of Congress

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