What’s Shakin’ at Diablo Canyon?

Friends of the Earth won a limited but strategically significant victory last week in its quest to shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant when a majority of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted that the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, a quasi-judicial branch of the NRC, should review allegations that PG&E had exceeded the terms of its operating license for Diablo Canyon. The NRC board did not rule that any such exceedance had, in fact, occurred, merely that the panel should review such allegations.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group, trumpeted the decision as a major victory, noting that Southern California Edison opted to pull the plug on the San Onofre nuclear power plant three years ago shortly after the group had secured the same level of review. Supporters of Diablo Canyon noted that the NRC also rejected the Friends of the Earth’s demand that Diablo Canyon be shut down. The legal action rests largely upon a dissent filed by the NRC’s former resident safety inspector at Diablo Canyon, Michael Peck, who argued up the chain of command ​— ​without success ​— ​that the plant was not designed to safely shut down in the face of ground acceleration induced by a new earthquake fault line, discovered in 2008 roughly a mile off the coast from the plant.

Peck’s superiors within the NRC insisted the plant had been designed to withstand the even bigger seismic threat originating from the Hosgri fault even farther off the coast. Because of that, they insisted, the plant’s safe shutdown design falls well within Diablo Canyon’s operating license. Friends of the Earth argued ​— ​as did Peck ​— ​that only by deploying a new and different method of calculating ground motion and seismic risk could the NRC make such a finding. As such, they both have argued, the new methodology constitutes a de facto amendment to Diablo Canyon’s operating license. By law, any amendments must be the subject of a public application by the plant owners and open to public review. In this case, none of those occurred.

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