Comment
0
Tweet
0
Print
RSS Feeds

Hearings planned after call for nuke-plant closure

Thursday - 8/28/2014, 2:22am  ET

FILE - This Nov. 3, 2008, file photo, shows people on an overlook above Pacific Gas and Electric's Diablo Canyon Power Plant's nuclear reactors in Avila Beach, Calif. A senior federal nuclear expert is urging regulators to shut down California's last operating nuclear plant until they can determine whether the facility's twin reactors can withstand powerful shaking from any one of several nearby earthquake faults. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant,File)

MICHAEL R. BLOOD
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A senior federal nuclear expert is urging regulators to shut down California's last operating nuclear plant until they can determine whether the facility's twin reactors can withstand powerful shaking from any one of several nearby earthquake faults.

Michael Peck, who for five years was Diablo Canyon's lead on-site inspector, says in a 42-page, confidential report that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not applying the safety rules it set out for the plant's operation.

The document, which was obtained and verified by The Associated Press, does not say the plant itself is unsafe. Instead, according to Peck's analysis, no one knows whether the facility's key equipment can withstand strong shaking from those faults -- the potential for which was realized decades after the facility was built.

Continuing to run the reactors, Peck writes, "challenges the presumption of nuclear safety."

Peck's July 2013 filing is part of an agency review in which employees can appeal a supervisor's or agency ruling -- a process that normally takes 60 to 120 days, but can be extended. The NRC, however, has not yet ruled. Spokeswoman Lara Uselding said in emails that the agency would have no comment on the document.

The NRC, which oversees the nation's commercial nuclear power industry, and Diablo Canyon owner Pacific Gas and Electric Co., say the nearly three-decade-old reactors, which produce enough electricity for more than 3 million people annually, are safe and that the facility complies with its operating license, including earthquake safety standards.

PG&E spokesman Blair Jones said the NRC has exhaustively analyzed earthquake threats for Diablo Canyon and demonstrated that it "is seismically safe." Jones said in an email that the core issue involving earthquake ground motions was resolved in the late 1970s with seismic retrofitting of the plant.

Following the AP report, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee announced it would hold hearings into how the NRC has handled Peck's recommendation. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the panel, said in a statement she's alarmed his report has lingered at the agency for a year. "The NRC's failure to act constitutes an abdication of its responsibility to protect public health and safety," she said.

The disaster preparedness of the world's nuclear plants came into sharp focus in 2011, when the coastal Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in Japan suffered multiple meltdowns after an earthquake and tsunami destroyed its power and cooling systems. The magnitude-9 earthquake was far larger than had been believed possible. The NRC has since directed U.S. nuclear plants to reevaluate seismic risks, and those studies are due by March 2015.

The importance of such an analysis was underscored Sunday when a magnitude 6.0-earthquake struck in Northern California's wine country, injuring scores of residents, knocking out power to thousands and toppling wine bottles at vineyards.

Environmentalists have long depicted Diablo Canyon -- the state's last nuclear plant after the 2013 closure of the San Onofre reactors in Southern California -- as a nuclear catastrophe in waiting. In many ways, the history of the plant, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the Pacific coast and within 50 miles of 500,000 people, has been a costly fight against nature, involving questions and repairs connected to its design and structural strength.

What's striking about Peck's analysis is that it comes from within the NRC itself, and gives a rare look at a dispute within the agency. At issue are whether the plant's mechanical guts could survive a big jolt and what yardsticks should be used to measure the ability of the equipment to withstand the potentially strong vibrations that could result.

The conflict between Peck and his superiors stems from the 2008 discovery of the Shoreline fault, which snakes offshore about 650 yards from the reactors. A larger crack, the Hosgri fault, had been discovered in the 1970s about 3 miles away, after the plant's construction permits had been issued and work was underway. Surveys have mapped a network of other faults north and south of the reactors.

According to Peck's filing, PG&E research in 2011 determined that any of three nearby faults -- the Shoreline, Los Osos and San Luis Bay -- is capable of producing significantly more ground motion during an earthquake than was accounted for in the design of important plant equipment. In the case of San Luis Bay, it is as much as 75 percent more.

Those findings involve estimates of what's called peak ground acceleration, a measurement of how hard the earth could shake in a given location. The analysis says PG&E failed to demonstrate that the equipment would remain operable if exposed to the stronger shaking, violating its operating license.

   1 2  -  Next page  >>