TSURFING TSUNAMIS: If you ask David Weisman a question, get ready to duck. It’s like opening a closet and having 25 years of accumulated stuff fall on your head. Except with Weisman, the spillage is ridiculously detailed and meticulously organized. Since 2010, Weisman has been spokesperson-provocateur for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, one of the main groups bird-dogging the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in Avila Beach. His gift, as one high-ranking public official put it, is that “he vomits out documents and then organizes it for you.” In a previous incarnation, Weisman made environmental documentaries. Before that, he coproduced such cinematic stinkers as Raiders of the Living Dead. More recently, he’s taken to writing haiku poetry. To mark the fourth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster this coming week, Weisman went high-brow-low-brow at the same time, hosting an agit-art exhibit in San Luis Obispo that steals generously from both Ron Popeil — king of kitschy late-night TV commercials — and acclaimed neoplasticist painter Piet Mondrian.
I don’t know if Weisman’s work qualifies as assemblage, word sculpture, or word salad, but his medium of choice is redacted text — bureaucratically censored words — painstakingly culled and curated from documents suppressed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). These documents detail potential earthquake and tsunami risks posed by the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. In some exhibits, words are poured onto a canvas facsimile and smeared into geometric patterns. I’m betting the real crowd-pleaser will be Weisman’s “Redacto-Matic.” In it, viewers will be shown the totally whited-out report commissioned by the NRC in 2003 indicating Diablo Canyon is far less tsunami-proof than we’ve been led to believe. Then they’ll be shown — thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request — what the words said before they were redacted. If I were an art critic, maybe I’d describe the show as “Obvious yet ominous.” If I wasn’t, I’d say, “Head for the hills.”
On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima reactors were wiped out when two statistically impossible events happened at the same time. First was the massive earthquake, then the tsunami, one-in-a-million disasters each. For a coastal nuclear power plant like Diablo Canyon, all this statistical impossibility raises equally “ominous yet obvious” questions. It was known when Diablo Canyon was built there were earthquake faults uncomfortably close by. But in recent years, new offshore faults were discovered much closer to the plant. Two years ago, the NRC’s resident safety inspector at Diablo Canyon concluded the plant wasn’t engineered to withstand the seismic punch the “new” faults might deliver. Both the NRC and PG&E, which owns and operates Diablo Canyon, took serious umbrage, dismissing the report as a technical disagreement among experts. Just last month, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., issued a little-noticed ruling that will allow Friends of the Earth to put those assurances to the test in a court trial.
Until recently, nobody worried about tsunamis at Diablo Canyon. The plant sits on a mesa 85 feet above the ocean. No waves could conceivably get that high. The plant was built to withstand tsunamis up to 32 feet up or less. The seawater intake valves — crucial to cooling the core — are 45 feet up. The picture, it turns out, might be more complicated. In 2003, the NRC hired Dr. Robert Sewell, a serious-as-a-heart-attack, belt-and-suspenders risk-hazard-assessment expert, to determine how vulnerable the spent-fuel storage casks — then being proposed by PG&E — might be to oncoming tsunamis. Sewell ran 13 tsunami scenarios and discovered that in all of them, the plant’s seawater intake valves could be damaged, leading to a “non-zero” risk to the radioactive core. In his draft report, Sewell questioned whether Diablo Canyon was adequately engineered to meet the threat and strongly suggested further studies were needed. The NRC responded by putting the draft report in deep freeze. Not even PG&E saw it. Sewell’s draft, the NRC declared, was fatally flawed by “uncertainties too large” and “results too speculative to be considered in current licensing decisions.” Just five days after Fukushima, Sewell wrote NRC staffer Nilesh Chokshi, requesting Chokshi read his 2003 report and to make sure “responsible parties within the NRC” did, too. Sewell added he’d visited Diablo Canyon the year before and had been underwhelmed by the plant’s tsunami hazard assessment. When Chokshi started asking questions, he stirred up a hornet’s nest. “You may recall that we were instructed (verbally!!) not to make the report public, nor our evaluations of the report,” wrote another NRC staffer in response.
The Union of Concerned Scientists stumbled onto the Sewell report when investigating the NRC’s propensity to redact documents released to the public. The Union gave the 65 blank pages to Weisman and to Mothers for Peace. The Mothers filed a Freedom of Information Act request last August, and in November, the report was released. Blair Jones of PG&E stressed that Diablo Canyon has nearly six million gallons of water stored on-site should the intake valve ever shut down. It also has a massive number of backup generators to ensure there’s power to pump the water to the cooling tower. Likewise, he noted the seismic faults surrounding Diablo Canyon were far less volatile as those surrounding Fukushima plants.
Jones said Sewell’s insights were, in fact, incorporated into a post-Fukushima assessment — ordered by the NRC — of Diablo Canyon’s flooding vulnerabilities. That report will be turned in to the NRC next week. So, too, will be PG&E’s most recent assessment of the seismic hazards confronting Diablo Canyon. By NRC standards, the public process surrounding that seismic assessment was remarkably open and transparent. But by contrast, there was no public process at all for the tsunami review. When I asked Jones if the NRC instructed PG&E to assess the potential hazard caused by an earthquake and tsunami striking at the same time, he graciously suggested I ask the NRC. In other words, no.
In the meantime, don’t ask David Weisman too many questions. But if you do, be sure to wear a hard hat.