Shaky Future for California’s Last Nuclear Plant

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Last week, an advocacy group in California filed a petition to shut down California’s last operating nuclear power plant on the basis that it might not be safe to operate. Their concern? The plant’s position in relation to California’s notoriously volatile fault lines.

The group, Friends of the Earth, is asking that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have a hearing to address the potential seismic risks at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Not only are they worried about the earthquake potential, they also believe that the plant is currently violating an existing federal operating license. According to their 92-page petition, the closest fault to the plant – a scant 650 yards away – poses a “serious risk to the public and to the environment.”

The NRC and the owners of the Diablo Canyon Plant, Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E), have both come out and said that the 30 year old reactors are safe and operate in compliance with earthquake safety regulations. Lara Uselding, a spokeswoman for the NRC, said that the petition was being reviewed. A PG&E spokesman, Blair Jones, went on to say that the group was “mischaracterizing the facts. The plant was built with seismic safety in mind … and is designed to withstand the largest potential earthquakes that could occur in the region. Major components can continue to perform their safety functions during and after (a strong earthquake)”.

Friends of the Earth filed the petition after the Associated Press disclosed that a senior federal nuclear expert is urging the NRC to shut the plant down. In a 42 page document that was obtained and verified by the AP, Michael Peck – a long time inspector at the plant – said that the NRC is not applying the rules they themselves put in place. While the document does not say outright that the plant is unsafe, it does say that no one actually knows whether the facility is as safe as they think it is. The true potential for hazard was not realized until years after the plant was built.

Peck’s original report was largely ignored in 2013, to the extent that there is now an investigation being launched by the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee. The original disagreement with Peck and the directors of the NRC began with the recent discovery of the Shoreline fault in 2008 which is the closest fault to the plant, and the most potentially dangerous. The Hosgri fault, which is much larger and was discovered in 1970, is 3 miles away was discovered after the plant had begun construction. Peck’s report highlights the fact that even PG&E determined that any one of 3 faults in the area are capable of creating more ground motion than the plant is capable of handling. The NRC to this point has said that the Hosgri fault is the greatest risk, and that the plant can withstand any earthquake that the fault could produce.

It’s my personal hope that the Senate investigations and the NRC review of the petition is aimed at the protection of the people and the environment. These are what our elected officials and federal regulation committees are designed to do. The potential for disaster is one that cannot be ignored, and in a state that so heartily supports renewable and alternative energies, this seems like a no-brainer.

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