Fukushima Stirs Diablo Fears

State Demands More Seismic Studies of California's Last Nuclear Power Plant

<b>PROMISED PATH:</b> During Monday night’s talk, a Buddhist monk vowed to walk from Santa Barbara to the gates of Diablo Canyon.
Paul Wellman

Perhaps a little prematurely, Santa Barbara commemorated the third anniversary of Japan’s now infamous and still-unfolding disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants, when a massive wave generated by this weekend’s storms slapped Moby Dick Restaurant, smashing the pier’s outer railings and shattering the establishment’s windows. It was hardly the one-two punch of a 9.0 earthquake followed by massive tsunami that laid waste to Japan’s once proud nuclear industry, but it was sufficient for those inclined to ask challenging questions about the safety of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant to ask them a little louder.

On Monday night, a crowd of about 150 well-heeled anti-nuclear activists thronged the University Club to hear Dr. Jerry Brown of the World Business Academy deliver the alarming bullet points of a new public-health report suggesting that radiation escaping from Diablo Canyon is to blame for elevated cancer risks in San Luis Obispo County ​— ​where its two nuclear reactors are located ​— ​as well as Santa Barbara’s North County. With one breath, the report ​— ​authored by anti-nuclear activist and public-health expert Joseph Mangano of Ocean City, New Jersey ​— ​blamed Diablo Canyon for a dramatic spike in melanoma rates in San Luis Obispo as well as less dramatic increases in breast cancer, thyroid cancer, infant mortality, and child and adolescent cancer deaths. Mangano suggested that the operation of the nuclear power plant contributed to an additional 738 San Luis Obispo residents being diagnosed with cancer. But in the next breath, Mangano conditioned his conclusions, stating that the public health data “suggest a probable link” between elevated cancer rates with the federally permitted radiation emissions coming off the Diablo Canyon reactors.

Not surprisingly, no one from Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), which operates Diablo Canyon, was on hand for a rebuttal. Company spokesperson Blair Jones took pains not to mask his evident disdain. “Given Mr. Mangano’s history of discredited reports due to poor science,” he wrote, “PG&E is not giving this report any consideration.” The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) ​— ​an industry-sponsored think tank and media center ​— ​has been verbally crossing swords with Mangano since 2005 and dismisses him as a fearmonger and his claims as “junk science.” The NEI claimed that Mangano’s findings have been rebutted by the health departments of eight states and two counties in which similar reports have been issued. Even among longtime anti–Diablo Canyon activists, there are doubts about the soundness of Mangano’s research. “He’s a very nice man and very dedicated,” said one high-profile activist who declined to be identified. “That’s all I’m willing to say.” Health officials with San Luis Obispo County are reportedly investigating many of Mangano’s claims, but said it was too soon to render any verdict.

Organizers at the event were not daunted by such criticisms, suggesting they were both predictable and unconstructive. Brown ​— ​whose organization sponsored the study ​— ​said he learned the painful way that those in positions of authority were not to be trusted. He’d been told by a dentist as a young boy that a certain procedure would be painless, only to experience excruciating agonies. He said he’s spent 41 years fighting against Diablo Canyon and that he’s not about to give up now. Dr. Stephen Hosea asked the crowd for a moment of silence to be “lovingly present” for those exposed to Fukushima’s nuclear radiation. And a Buddhist monk chanted for nearly 10 minutes and vowed to walk from Santa Barbara to the gates of Diablo Canyon.

Far less theatrical in nature ​— ​but no doubt much more troubling to PG&E ​— ​was a sharply worded letter sent by California Public Utility Commission (PUC) President Michael Peevey to PG&E President Christopher Johns on February 25, bluntly demanding new scientific information and studies regarding the seismic safety of Diablo Canyon, now California’s only operating nuclear power facility. Without this information, Peevey warned Johns, the PUC would not approve the rate increase necessary for PG&E to recoup the $80 million estimated it will cost to get its operating license at Diablo Canyon extended another 20 years. That license does not expire until 2024 and 2025.

Animating Peevey’s letter were discoveries in recent years of a new fault line just off the coast from Diablo Canyon and what that might mean. Scientists with the United States Geological Survey have questioned whether the plant is built to safely withstand the maximum ground acceleration that might be delivered should two offshore fault lines be connected. And two years ago, the resident inspector assigned to Diablo Canyon by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) raised similar doubts whether the nuclear facility was capable of safely shutting down in the event of a major seismic event. The inspector’s supervisor concluded that the plant was built to withstand far more seismic shock than any of the nearby fault lines are capable of delivering. Likewise, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the plant a clean bill of seismic health a year ago.

The NRC’s opinion was rendered just as PG&E was seeking a Coastal Commission permit to do high-energy sonar tests to better define the seismic issues surrounding the plant. Ultimately, the Coastal Commission denied the permit, arguing the risk to surrounding sea mammals was too great. Critics of PG&E and the NRC argued that it was premature to declare that the plant could be deemed seismically up to snuff without this information. Although the PUC has no authority over the plant’s relicensing, it does have authority over what rates utility companies can charge customers and what costs can be recouped. Peevey put PG&E on notice that he would use that leverage to exact this information.


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