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Fukushima at 4

The root cause--and cause for concern



On March 11, the fourth anniversary of the tragic nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Californians should pause to consider both their good luck and their potential fate. Luck, that Mother Nature has not yet thrown her full force against the state’s last remaining nuclear power plant; and fate that Diablo Canyon’s days as a power—and revenue—generator may be numbered.

Three California reactors have closed long before their licenses would have expired: Humboldt, because PG&E chose not to invest in seismic retrofits; and San Onofre and Rancho Seco due to irreparable components and mechanical failures. In Japan, all 48 reactors 
remain idle.

The continued operation of Diablo Canyon is facing serious hurdles, and PG&E has been mum on relicensing as the fifth anniversary of that undertaking passed with no news from the utility. San Luis Obispo County should be paying attention; while the power from Diablo is not needed to maintain California’s grid and electric infrastructure, the economic incentives it provides the county will need to be mitigated when PG&E announces the closure of the plant.

The anniversary of Fukushima will also mark the week PG&E submits to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) the agency’s mandatory “post-Fukushima” seismic re-evaluation. At the California Energy Commission two years ago, an NRC seismologist predicted this study will reveal that new ground motion analyses will put the plant out of compliance with its design basis. This would in turn trigger another two years of analysis. Attendees at the workshops leading up to this seismic report have consistently heard PG&E’s experts repeatedly talk about the high level of “uncertainty” in their formulations and the lack of “data” to round out their estimates. Will this inspire confidence in the results?

Much debate will surround PG&E’s submittal to the NRC, but the actual concerns go beyond tectonics and technology. The real lesson of Fukushima was that the disaster was man-made, an accident waiting to happen, and the culprits were the very regulators and licensees in whom the public had placed their trust. As the National Diet of Japan’s “Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission” report concluded:

“The … accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. … the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.”

Further, they added:

“The regulators did not monitor or supervise nuclear safety. The lack of expertise resulted in ‘regulatory capture’ … Moreover, the organization lacked transparency. Without the investigation by this Commission, operating independently of the government, many of the facts revealing the collusion between regulators and other players might never have been revealed.”

Both PG&E and the NRC were quick to proclaim that this “regulatory capture” was a uniquely Japanese cultural phenomenon and not a concern in the United States. And so it might have seemed until a recent spate of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act and the Public Records Act. After Fukushima, PG&E and the NRC claimed that Diablo Canyon, 85 feet above the Pacific, was immune to a tsunami wave like the one that struck Japan. It is now known that the NRC stuffed a revealing 2003 study forecasting such a tsunami threat on our shores into a desk drawer, never to see the light of day, let alone be peer reviewed. 

PG&E, already trying to restore its public image after negligent maintenance led to eight deaths in the San Bruno gas explosion, claimed that the “gas” division malfeasance had no bearing on the “nuclear” division. However, emails uncovered during the ongoing state and federal investigations of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and PG&E reveal similar illicit “insider” manipulation taking place with regard to Diablo Canyon.

In the month after Fukushima—while that facility was still smoldering—PG&E’s public relations statements made the utility appear to be taking a “slow” approach to relicensing by asking the NRC to put final approval on hold until after the state’s mandated seismic studies were complete. Behind the scenes, at the CPUC, emails reveal PG&E wasted no time in asking that their license renewal funding be put back on track as quickly as possible. And, when it came time for the state’s seismic studies to be released, PG&E avoided review of that project by the state’s independent peer committee. Emails reveal PG&E’s staff pondering how quickly those reviewers could be disbanded and dismissed.

As the problem of collusion and complacency continues to make headlines, the California Legislature is weighing in. Following this Fukushima anniversary, both the Assembly and Senate utilities oversight committees will be holding hearings on badly needed reforms to the CPUC and the culture of utility regulation. Ratepayers should let their representatives know that nothing less than a top-to-bottom review and reorganization is needed. The fiasco that led to the closure of San Onofre will cost ratepayers billions. Mishandling of the Diablo seismic follies cost billions when the plant was built.

With the traditional energy sector being tossed on its head as markets reshape themselves, there is no doubt that PG&E management is weighing just how much of a corporate liability Diablo will continue to remain. San Luis Obispo’s business leaders, elected officials, and ratepayers should pay attention. We need not await the “disease” that created Fukushima to wash upon our shore; it is already dormant in our soil.


Rochelle Becker is the executive 
director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility (www.a4nr.org). 
Send comments to the executive 
editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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