As heroic workers in Japan struggle in their radiation suits to gain control of the ongoing meltdown at the Fukushima reactors, bureaucrats in business suits from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are attempting to verbally control the resulting fallout within the nuclear industry here. Shortly after the Fukushima crisis began, the NRC announced to Congress and communities a 90-day review to evaluate lessons learned from Fukushima and assess how well domestic nuclear plants are prepared for similar natural catastrophes or malicious acts. Their sense of urgency is commendable, though any attempts to analyze or achieve closure from “lessons learned” from Fukushima at this early stage would be disingenuous.
Consider this: During the first two months after the crisis began, the general assumption among the industry, its regulators, and the media was that the Fukushima reactors were not damaged by the earthquake itself, but by the subsequent tsunami that disabled the backup power generators, causing reactor overheating and meltdown. However, on May 15, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Bloomberg News, and United Press International reported the reactors began to malfunction before the tsunami hit, with UPI stating:
“Readings taken immediately after the March earthquake in Japan suggest it was the shaking rather than the tsunami that crippled a nuclear power plant. A utility source told Japan’s Kyodo news service the data indicate radiation levels inside the reactor building at the Fukushima No. 1 plant increased before the tidal wave knocked out the power to the facility.”
In the weeks following the Fukushima hit, PG&E’s media blitz assured Californians Diablo Canyon would be safe from a similar tsunami because of the utility’s height above sea level. If the revelations about the true “shake” damage at Fukushima pan out, PG&E will be forced to deal squarely with legislators, state regulators, and ratepayers about seismic threats, after years of stonewalling.
The NRC also continues to dance around the seismic threats. On May 18, the Tribune reported the NRC’s post-Fukushima inspection of emergency preparedness at Diablo Canyon found 20 problems needing correction. NRC spokesman Victor Dricks remarked, “… but nothing that was ... significant enough to undermine the ability of the plant to respond to a severe event like an explosion, fire, or flood … .” What about responding to an earthquake? Or is the NRC still operating under the assumption that only the tsunami caused the havoc at Fukushima?
According to the Tribune, one of the problems at Diablo the NRC cited is, “Reliance on state highways and access roads that may be inaccessible after an earthquake.” The newspaper reported Dricks said the discrepancies will be corrected as part of the plant’s regular oversight process. The Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility made several requests to him asking how reliance on quake-damaged roads could be corrected—as these are state roads and infrastructure projects. Who would pay to either build new or reinforce old roads? And what of the public’s need for evacuation via these roads? Would PG&E attempt to use a fleet of helicopters in lieu of roads? The NRC has not responded to the Alliance’s repeated queries.
The NRC’s admission that local roads “may be inaccessible after an earthquake,” yet those roads would be escape routes from a disaster at the reactor complex, places them in a double bind. Previously, when questioned about the consequences of simultaneous events—such as an earthquake and accident at the plant—the agency relied on a 1984 U.S. Appeals Court decision in favor of the NRC, which stated: “special circumstances might exist if there were a real danger that a core meltdown and an earthquake would occur—by coincidence—simultaneously. As we discuss in the following section, the Commission has determined that the chance of such a bizarre concatenation of events occurring is extremely small.”
The issue was raised again after the 2003 San Simeon earthquake, when the most significant road damage was to State Routes 41 and 46 between I-101 and I-1—the principle west-east evacuation routes for coastal San Luis County. Ron Richman, the District 5 Cal-Trans Geotechnical engineer wrote, “We observed rock falls originating from cut slopes on Route 41. The Route 46 damage included surging of landslides, spreading of tall embankments, and fissuring at the contacts between the original ground and tall embankments.” In 2003 the NRC discounted an earthquake could force an evacuation from Diablo. After Fukushima, can we be so sure? How will these problems be corrected “as part of the plant’s regular oversight process?”
The contradictions and inconsistencies in the NRC’s hasty responses to provide public assurance after Fukushima demand scrutiny, not acceptance. Congresswoman Lois Capps publicly questioned NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko twice since Fukushima regarding the possible “bizarre concatenation” and halting license renewal, and he has deferred answering. We have experienced the recent anniversary of the BP Gulf disaster and the report on the Massey coalmine tragedy—both placing failure in the hands of the industry and their regulator.
Speak out: Tell the California Public Utilities Commission to halt all funding for the Diablo license renewal until the state’s requested seismic studies are completed and independently peer reviewed. Visit a4nr.org for sample letters. If the federal NRC can’t be trusted, the Golden State can and must assert its authority.
David Weisman is the outreach consultant for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. Send comments via the opinion editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.