Was an Independent Peer Review Panel cut out of PG&E's seismic review?



Several emails made public as part of a recent legal filing have provided a rare glimpse into internal conversations between Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) officials at a time when some critics have alleged the company sidestepped independent oversight.

On Sept. 16, 2013, PG&E Director of Regulatory Relations Erik Jacobson wrote to Valerie Winn, PG&E’s manager of state agency relations, and copied a half dozen other company officials.

“If the IPRP [Independent Peer Review Panel] starts to go too far in expanding its scope of work, we can try to rein them in at that point … I recommend that we continue with our current strategy of cooperating with the IPRP, monitor their activities, and follow up with the CPUC if we see some major conflicts on the horizon.”

About 15 minutes later, PG&E Director of State Agency Relations Mark Krause responded, “When PG&E submits its final findings on its enhanced imaging [by May of 2014], do you believe we could get the IPRP ‘decommissioned?’”

The IPRP was authorized in August 2010 as part of a wider ratepayer-funding package the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) granted to PG&E in order to conduct seismic tests around Diablo Canyon, dubbed the Central Coast California Seismic Imaging Project. The panel consists of about a dozen members from agencies such as the California Coastal Commission, California Energy Commission, and California Seismic Safety Commission. It was even given $950,000 in ratepayer funding—taken out of the total $64 million package PG&E was authorized to use for the seismic imaging project—and tasked with reviewing PG&E’s seismic study plans and completed study findings.

The emails were made public as part of an Oct. 3 legal filing the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility brought before the CPUC. And as of press time, CPUC President Michael Peevey had recently announced he wouldn’t seek another term amid widespread criticism over emails between the CPUC and PG&E. That correspondence indicated an overly cozy relationship between the company and state regulators following the San Bruno gas explosion in 2010.

At the time of the email exchange between Jacobson and Krause, the IPRP hadn’t held a public meeting for about two months. In fact, the panel still hasn’t met publicly (it’s scheduled to hold a public meeting Oct. 23 in San Francisco).

In its most recently released report, the IPRP had focused mainly on questions related to PG&E’s ground-motion calculations: essentially how the company determined the amount of shaking that could actually occur at Diablo Canyon. Panel members raised a few concerns about some of PG&E’s methodologies, saying that the company’s approach gave lower ground motions hazard estimates “compared to other state-of-the-practice approaches used currently in the U.S. National Seismic Hazard Maps and in International and California building codes.” But, the panel noted, PG&E had indicated it would conduct further studies.

That’s when communications between PG&E and the panel essentially stopped, said Bruce Gibson, a member of the IPRP and a SLO County supervisor who holds a doctorate in geophysics.

“They were slow; they were not very responsive; they were clearly not very interested in working with the IPRP because we’re an independent voice,” Gibson said of later interactions with PG&E.

PG&E spokesman Blair Jones said in response that the company met regularly with the IPRP in 2011 and 2012 as it was gathering data. However, he said, while the data was being interpreted and processed, “the IPRP had no role in this phase, as set forth by the CPUC’s funding decisions.”

Although there was no legal mandate that required PG&E to provide IPRP members a chance to review its findings before the broader seismic studies went public, Gibson said that was the expectation.

“The IPRP expected that as they [PG&E] processed and interpreted bigger pieces of this project that they would be providing those results to our panel for review and comment,” he said. “I think what strikes me and bothers me is they released it to the public before they released anything to the panel.”

Others have expressed the same concern, particularly after PG&E released its completed report on Sept. 10 without first turning it over to the IPRP.

“This peer review panel was convened to assure that PG&E’s research was conducted in a proper and open manner,” said Sam Blakeslee, a former geophysicist, as well as the former Republican California assemblyman and senator who authored legislation in 2006 that prompted further analysis of Diablo Canyon. “If the peer review panel is now just a member of the public, what is the point of the peer review panel?”

Though the completed seismic report found that fault lines in the area are capable of producing larger earthquakes than previously believed, PG&E concluded that Diablo Canyon is “built to withstand the strongest potential earthquakes in 
the region.”

Blakeslee commended PG&E for acknowledging that faults surrounding Diablo Canyon are larger than previously thought, but said that—specifically noting one chapter in PG&E’s final report—“the final conclusions about plant safety are made, but they’re based on exceedingly thin evidence.”

In his own early assessment, Blakeslee said he has concerns about PG&E’s conclusions, specifically about the way in which PG&E interpreted ground-motion levels. His concerns fell on many of the same issues the IPRP discussed in its last report, issued about one year before PG&E went public with its final conclusions.

“I think it’s frankly disappointing, but it’s consistent with the pattern that PG&E has employed in its seismic studies over the last decades of debate,” Blakeslee said. “Virtually anyone who asks an honest technical engineering or scientific question is treated as a potential threat to the plant and finds themselves treated with great suspicion. And that’s frustrating because in fact virtually all the concerns that had been previously identified over the history of this plant have, in fact, proven to be founded.”

A question he wants put to bed is whether the plant is, in fact, able to hold up to the largest temblor the faults in the area are capable of producing, as PG&E now claims.

“I’ve spent the last week reading through the 1,800 pages of the report. And I think it’s unfortunate that the peer review panel was not given more opportunity to help improve the quality of the work,” Blakeslee said.

When the CPUC created the peer review panel, it was on the grounds that that PG&E “shall provide the Independent Peer Review Panel the findings and/or results associated with the seismic studies upon finalizing those findings and/or results.” It’s this point that PG&E’s Jones reiterates when critics claim that the company attempted to skirt IPRP review.

“PG&E is following the established review process for the research as set forth by our regulators,” Jones said. “PG&E’s original intent was to provide the [IPRP] a draft of the seismic report prior to finalizing it, even though we were not required to do so. However, as the evaluation of this new type of research proceeded, it became clear it would take additional time to process and interpret the data.”

Gibson, however, said that the expectation was that PG&E would provide its data to the IPRP as it became available. And when information stopped coming, he said the panel had no reason to convene, even though it had intended to hold quarterly meetings.

The IPRP’s review is estimated to take about six to eight months. PG&E is required to submit another report as part of its seismic hazard re-evaluation to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March 2015. Asked if the IPRP review could impact future deadlines as PG&E pursues a new license for both reactors at Diablo Canyon (the current licenses will expire in 2024 and 2025, respectively), Jones said the IPRP comments could be rolled into Diablo Canyon’s Long Term Seismic Program, which “has been in place for decades and will continue to be in place as long as the plant is operating.”

Asked for comment about the September 2013 email exchange, Jones said that at the time the IPRP’s scope was limited to “review and comment on the study plans.”

“The context of the emails was an attempt between employees at that time to understand the full scope of the IPRP, to provide clarity on the panel’s role, and to understand when the panel’s peer-review function will be fulfilled,” he said.

Jones said the company “does not intend to ask the IPRP be disbanded before it fulfills its role,” adding that “by definition, however, the IRPP was established by the CPUC as a short-term advisory task force to assist the Commission with review of the advanced seismic studies.”

Regardless of looming deadlines before PG&E, Gibson said his primary concern is that the IPRP can now dig through PG&E’s conclusions, make its own comments, and take the necessary time to make “valid conclusions.”

“I guess that email is consistent with the attitude that I’ve seen expressed by PG&E,” Gibson said in response to the September 2013 exchange between Jacobson and Krause. “But it doesn’t really affect me or my colleagues. We’re going to get down and do what we have to do. We’re going to do our jobs.”


Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at [email protected].

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