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Reflections in a Dog’s Eye

Diablo Canyon’s Seismic Safety Assurances Challenged by NRC Inspector


ALL OUR FAULT: The first, last, and only time I spoke with Dr. Michael Peck, he scared the crap out of me. Theoretically speaking, perhaps. At the time, Peck was teaching at a special university in Chattanooga, Tennessee, training up-and-coming resident inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) how to do their jobs. Up until September 2012, Peck had, in fact, been the resident inspector for the NRC up at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, located about an hour’s drive up the coast. Peck worked at Diablo a little under five years before declaring he wanted to be transferred. Given that the NRC is probably the world’s most singularly impenetrable bureaucracy, I was amazed how easily I got Peck on the line. His message was equally direct. “I’m not saying that Diablo Canyon is unsafe,” he told me. “But we can’t say that it’s safe, either.”

Angry Poodle

In some instances, perhaps it’s exciting to occupy that nebulous no-man’s land between what’s known and what isn’t. But where nuclear power plants are concerned, ambiguity ain’t an option.

This conversation took place a couple of years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011. It also took place after the United States Geological Survey had discovered not just one but three new fault lines located only a few hundred yards off the coast from Diablo Canyon, now the last remaining nuclear power plant in California. Based on the seismic punch that these three faults are capable of delivering, Peck warned his superiors he lacked confidence that Diablo Canyon was capable of safely shutting down ​— ​the essential safety requirement of any nuclear power plant ​— ​in the event of an earthquake. He raised these alarms in official communications and meetings more than 10 times. His superiors saw things otherwise and notified Peck as much.

Peck was neither appeased not persuaded. In fact, he’s consistently upped the ante. In 2012, he issued what’s known in the NRC parlance as a letter of “non-concurrence,” a formal dissent ​— ​and warning ​— ​that would become part of Diablo Canyon’s official safety file. That’s a big deal. During Peck’s 25 years with the NRC, he’d done that only one other time. Peck’s superiors again begged to differ and did so in writing. That, too, is in the official file.

I remember calling Lara Uselding, a gifted public information officer with the NRC, to ask her about Peck’s non-concurrence. I thought I had the proverbial smoking gun. She couldn’t have been more bored. “Oh, that?” she asked dismissively. “We resolved that issue a long time ago. That’s news?”

Around coastal California, it turns out, geological forces unleashed a few million years ago still remain a subject of high anxiety and keen public interest. Just ask the people of Napa, who will be crying over spilled wine for many moons to come. Just one day after the Napa quake, the Associated Press (AP) broke the story that Peck had struck again. From his self-imposed exile in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Peck had filed what’s known as a Differing Professional Opinion (DPO) in 2013. This is another formal dissent on Diablo Canyon’s ability to absorb the newly discovered seismic threats, but this time longer, more robust, and more urgent. It also went further up the chain of command. In 42 turgidly excruciating pages, Peck quietly and blandly made the chilling case that the seismic safety claims made on behalf of Diablo Canyon simply do not compute. They are predicated upon overly optimistic assumptions and methodologies that deviate uniquely from NRC’s own safety protocol. Until they can be verified, Peck insisted, the plant needed to be shut down.

These documents were leaked to the AP. This time around, NRC spokesperson Uselding did not say “Oh, that?” Instead, she allowed that such robust internal debate in part of the NRC’s process, but otherwise explained she wouldn’t be commenting. Blair Jones, Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s spokesperson for Diablo Canyon, issued a statement explaining how Diablo Canyon was unique among all American nuclear power plants in that it was built to withstand not one but three seismic shaking scenarios. The plant is engineered, he explained, to withstand the g-force generated by a 7.5 earthquake originating at the Hosgri fault, located just 2.5 miles off the coast from Diablo Canyon. Since all of the recently discovered “new” faults pack considerably less seismic punch than the Hosgri, he explained, Diablo Canyon is covered.

That logic, Peck has insisted, is as methodologically suspect as it is scientifically faulty. And this Tuesday, Friends of the Earth jumped into the act with both feet, using Peck’s documents as the legal crowbar to demand the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ​— ​an independent and quasi-judicial arm of the NRC ​— ​to hold public hearings to determine whether Diablo Canyon is operating beyond the scope of the seismic safety requirements imposed by its license. It’s entirely not coincidental, by the way, that Friends of the Earth formed in the first place 45 years ago, when the Sierra Club opted not to oppose what would become Diablo Canyon.

Peck’s dissent basically asks the following question: Would you rather get hit in the head by a 90-mile-an-hour fastball thrown from 100 feet away or a 60-mile-an-hour softball thrown from 50 feet? When applied to Diablo Canyon, Peck and Friends of the Earth argue that the damage inflicted by the slower pitch clearly exceeds Diablo Canyon’s ability to withstand ground acceleration and shaking. If and when such a quake happens, the cooling pipes needed to safely shut down the plant will not be able to absorb the stress. When earthquakes happen at places like Napa, we can all lament the loss of so much fine wine. No evacuations, however, are necessary. Should a similar quake strike in any of the “new” faults near Diablo Canyon, we don’t know for sure what will happen, but evacuation, we know for sure, will be impossible. Thanks to Peck and now Friends of the Earth, ignorance is now anything but bliss. In any place other than a highly theoretical world, that should scare the crap out of all of us.

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