The Eyes on Diablo

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

We read with great interest Jane Swanson’s May 26 op-ed challenging assurances made by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission about nuclear power plant safety, following events at the Fukushima Diaichi Nuclear Site in Japan on March 11.

The Mothers for Peace have had a longstanding interest in the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Despite the fact that we frequently agree to disagree, the NRC appreciates their participation in the regulatory process as we share the common goal of ensuring the safety of Diablo Canyon, protecting public health and the environment.

This said, there are several misstatements in Ms. Swanson’s column which deserve correction.

Following the Japanese accident, NRC decided to assess the capabilities of the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants to respond to severe events like fires and flooding in combination with earthquakes, following major losses of plant equipment and off-site power. The comprehensive inspections NRC undertook were a prudent response to the most significant nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. It is the action of an independent regulator that continually asks probing questions of itself as well as its licensees and continually searches for ways to improve nuclear power plant safety.

We did identify some areas for improvement at Diablo Canyon and Pacific Gas & Electric has indicated they will take appropriate actions to correct deficiencies. But largely overlooked amid the flurry of news reports was the fact that overall, none of the findings are significant enough to undermine our confidence in the ability of Diablo Canyon and other plants to respond to catastrophic accidents. We found a high level of preparedness and strong capability in terms of equipment and procedures to respond to severe events. Licensees have taken corrective actions and further NRC inspections are planned.

The NRC is an independent regulatory agency respected around the world for its high standards and low threshold for concern. Our inspection process is designed to identify problems long before they become safety-significant. —Victor Dricks (senior public affairs officer for NRC Region IV)

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It was the power company that said they built those nuclear reactors to withstand a magnitude 7.5 earthquake. (The same was said of the reactors in Japan that are now melting down from a magnitude 9 earthquake.) Now the power company seems to be weaseling out of that statement by saying the magnitude of the quake doesn't count in safety. In the May 12 Independent, Nick Welsh cites Jearl Strickland, senior regional manager at Diablo, speaking to the Board of Supervisors: "The real threat, he said, was not so much the reading on the Richter scale as it was the ground acceleration unleashed by the quake..."

When thousands of people's lives are at risk, it would be nice if they could be a little straightforward.

From my research it appears that when a nuclear reactor has leaks or problems, the NRC regularly downgrades requirements instead of requiring a fix. Watch for the downgrading! In Japan they had a maximum radiation level for children and when it went way above that, they raised the maximum level allowed.—Elaine Pedigo, S.B.

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