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An outgoing panel could be given new life in its review of Diablo Canyon

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With a little more than 10 years before the last license is scheduled to expire at Diablo Canyon, regulators and independent reviewers remain up to their bureaucratic elbows in the data that began pouring out late last year. Looking forward, some of them might have a much stronger sway in reviewing the plant.

On April 21, Central Coast Democrat Sen. Bill Monning amended a spot bill introduced at the close of the 2015 legislative deadline. As amended, Monning’s Senate Bill 657 would give a state Independent Peer Review Panel (IPRP), which was tasked with reviewing safety information out of Diablo Canyon, another decade of life.

The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) convened the IPRP in August 2010 to help carry out the requirements of earlier state legislation (former Central Coast Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee’s AB 1632) aimed at refining what is known about the seismic hazards surrounding Diablo Canyon. In the years that have passed (during which PG&E started and halted a planned re-licensing application amid the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster), the IPRP became just one of the various reviewers of Pacific Gas & Electric’s own review of the power plant.

“As seismic reviews and surveys continue on Diablo Canyon, SB 657 provides certainty that the independent review process is not lost in California and that we continue to provide the public with safety information about Diablo Canyon,” Monning wrote in a statement to New Times.

Over the last few months, the utility has engaged in some light bureaucratic tussling with the IPRP. In 2013, PG&E officials traded emails in which they discussed reining in the IPRP and having it decommissioned in mid-2014.

Currently, the IPRP’s contract is scheduled to expire on Nov. 30. If Monning’s bill passes, it would continue in its oversight position until Jan. 1, 2025, about the same time that Diablo Canyon’s Unit 2 reactor license is scheduled to expire, unless PG&E is able to procure a new 20-year license from the NRC.

Since the panel was formed, IPRP members have held multiple meetings with PG&E and released nine reports in total, the last three of which were in response to PG&E’s final seismic report released last September.

“I’ll tell you that safety is the No. 1 priority of PG&E and Diablo Canyon, and I have my commitment to my friends and family that I’m going to make sure that this plant is safe,” PG&E Director of Technical Services Jearl Strickland told New Times. “As a result of that, we did take an appropriate amount of time to evaluate the data and be able to validate for ourselves that the plant is seismically safe, and in turn the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission], as the regulator, will confirm that.”

Some people are less convinced. In its last three reports, which totaled 49 pages, panel members raised questions about how PG&E calculated ground-motion levels and the levels of uncertainty in its seismic models. In response, PG&E on April 22 issued an eight-page response. And according to Strickland, the company gave the answers it needed to give.

“I think we have been responsive,” Strickland told New Times. “We may not have been as [un]responsive as some people have portrayed in the media and the public.”

PG&E spokesman Blair Jones echoed Strickland’s assessment, telling New Times, “We have been responsive and … we’ve worked with the IPRP exactly as the CPUC had set out.”

Not so, said Blakeslee, who authored the bill that prompted the studies in the first place.

“It seemed, largely, simply a summary of PG&E’s findings,” Blakeslee said of the PG&E response. “The actual reports themselves contain more valuable content.”

In PG&E’s response to the IPRP, it often reiterated its own findings and explained that new data would be forthcoming from its Senior Seismic Hazards Analysis Committee (SSHAC) or through its long-term seismic program. Asked about the response, San Luis Obispo County Supervisor, and IPRP member, Bruce Gibson said it was a little sparse.

“Basically what they said is thank you very much for your comments, but the decisions on the analysis of the seismic hazard are all going to be made in front of the NRC,” he said.

In other words, according to David Weisman, outreach coordinator for the ratepayer advocacy group the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, “so long and thanks for all the fish.”

With the ongoing slog of seismic review at Diablo Canyon, the tricky part is in identifying a definitive answer to the question of Diablo Canyon’s safety. Ask PG&E, and they’ll say that they have a better set of data and models about earthquakes and tsunami flooding hazards than any nuclear facility in the country. They’ll also add that they’re constantly reviewing their own data and shipping it out to independent reviewers, as well as their regulators. Long story short: The plant is safe.

Ask someone outside the company, however, and they’ll likely say that the utility punted reviews to its SSHAC and the NRC, the latter of which hasn’t won over critics. For someone like Blakeslee, there are still major questions that haven’t been answered to his satisfaction.

“We can no longer provide an unambiguous answer to the question of whether or not the facility is safe,” he said.

 

Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley apologizes for all the acronyms. He can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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