DEVIL IN THE DETAILS: When $64-million questions get violently “un-asked,” I don’t go looking for explanations. I look for suspects. Instead, I stumbled onto a conspiracy of self-inflicted stupidity. Given that the question involves the seismic safety of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant just 85 miles up the coast in Avila Beach, the answer is of more than academic interest. Should the unthinkable actually occur — an earthquake-induced fire at the plant’s intensely radioactive spent-fuel pool — down-winders in Santa Barbara will no longer have the luxury of worrying about climate change, ocean acidification, or intrusive panhandlers. I mention $64 million because that’s the price for a series of extremely high-energy, excruciatingly loud underwater seismic tests that Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) had proposed just off the coast from Diablo Canyon to better define a new fault line — dubbed the Shoreline Fault — discovered five years ago 300 yards offshore from the power plant. Using air guns blasting away at 250 decibels — roughly the equivalent of an atom bomb explosion — the tests can reveal what’s happening 10 miles under the ocean floor with the clarity of an MRI. It was hoped these tests would show the extent to which the Shoreline Fault intersected with another earthquake fault — the better-known Hosgri — located just two miles off the coast from Diablo Canyon. The fear among many seismological experts and a loose confederation of wonky watchdogs is that an earthquake on Shoreline could trigger explosive movement on Hosgri — or vice versa — and that the cumulative ground acceleration may pack far greater punch than either of the two individually. Should that unlikelihood actually occur, one would like some assurance Diablo Canyon was engineered to withstand such an onslaught.
It’s not clear now we’ll ever find out. That’s because earlier this month, the California Coastal Commission rejected PG&E’s application to conduct the 3-d tests. The vote was 10 to zip, but it wasn’t even that close. When an environmental impact report came out this summer showing that the air guns could inflict serious harm to whales, porpoises, sea lions, and sea otters, it triggered an eco-jihad of epic proportions. Anyone who ever tacked a Sierra Club calendar to their walls emailed their outraged opposition. The small cadre of techno-wonks who had painstakingly pushed for 3-d tests since 2005 found themselves blindsided by the tsunami of passionate newcomers. Not one single person — other than PG&E officials — spoke in favor of the tests. A human being who identified himself as a bear, however, took to the podium to express his heartfelt concerns. He brought with him a translator. Through that translator, he also indicated he found Coastal Commission chair Mary Shallenberger an attractive specimen. He expressed the hormonal hope their paths might cross in the future. For his efforts, the man-bear was allowed an extra 10 minutes at the podium. It went like that.
The Coastal Commission staff had argued PG&E never provided adequate information to answer many of the outstanding questions surrounding the proposed tests. And they were absolutely right. Even the most ardent supporters of the 3-d tests have opposed the specific plans put forward by PG&E, citing a blizzard of technical objections large and small. The commissioners should have ordered PG&E execs to come back later with a better plan. Less invasive technologies may be good enough, but they have serious limitations; they can only get one mile below the ocean. Instead, the commissars capitulated to PG&E’s demand for a straight up-or-down vote; no delays, the company made clear, would be accepted. Why the commission let PG&E call the shots is beyond me. It’s worth remembering PG&E — now trying to get Diablo Canyon relicensed for another 20 years — agreed to the tests only with a 250-decibel air gun pointed to its head. Company executives have long insisted they already know everything worth knowing and that Diablo Canyon can withstand anything either fault can deliver. They agreed to the tests, however, at the insistence of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Absent such tests, the CPUC made it clear PG&E would never get approval for the $85 million in rate increases the utility giant says are needed to cover the cost of relicensing Diablo Canyon. And that’s a lot of money.
If the Coastal Commission drank the Kool-Aid, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) provided both the powder and the pitchers. Just three weeks before the Coastal Commission met, the NRC — the federal agency that licenses and regulates the nation’s nuclear power plants — issued a report proclaiming Diablo Canyon seismically safe. The timing could hardly have been coincidental, despite insistence to the contrary by NRC officials. I don’t know for a fact — as some have alleged — that the geologists employed by the NRC also moonlight for PG&E. But I do know that the NRC explicitly refused to examine the possibility of a trigger effect or linkage between the two faults. I also know many independent geologists have argued the NRC findings could not be scientifically justified based on the evidence at hand and testified to that effect at NRC hearings. This blessing by the NRC was seized upon by many of the coastal commissioners to justify their vote against the 3-d tests. It was also frequently cited by many of the save-the-sea-otter activists inveighing against the tests. That environmentally minded people would rely upon the NRC to make their case gives fresh meaning to cynical opportunism. Few federal oversight agencies are as captivated and brainwashed by the regulated industry as the NRC, a fact well-known by even the most inexperienced activist.
All this, I have been told by one particularly wonky watchdog, is now “water under the table.” The real question is whether the CPUC will stick to its guns and insist upon the tests. Or will it roll over in response to the Coastal Commission vote and give PG&E the relicensing rate increase it’s seeking? Although the answers lie miles beneath the ocean floor — maybe one, maybe 10 — the stakes are high. For the time being, this remains the $64-million question.