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Talking points: Friends of the Earth alleges PG&E and NRC coordinated to spin positive messages about Diablo Canyon

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An environmental group has alleged that members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) collaborated with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to spin positive information about the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Friends of the Earth—a group that’s also petitioned to have Diablo Canyon shut down over seismic issues—said in a Dec. 16 press release that PG&E and the NRC “may have worked together to counteract widespread news coverage.” The group based the assertion on emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

HOT SPOT:  The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant has come under increasing public scrutiny following revelations about a differing professional opinion from the plant’s former NRC senior resident inspector, and ongoing seismic research. - PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
  • HOT SPOT: The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant has come under increasing public scrutiny following revelations about a differing professional opinion from the plant’s former NRC senior resident inspector, and ongoing seismic research.

On Sept. 10, the NRC made documents public that pertained to former senior resident inspector Michael Peck’s Differing Professional Opinion (DPO). In light of new seismic information, Peck claimed that Diablo Canyon is operating outside the scope of its license and that the NRC allowed it to do so. NRC staff disagreed with Peck’s DPO and concluded that Diablo Canyon is safe to operate. Within hours of that announcement, PG&E released the results of its years-long studies to gather and interpret seismic data surrounding Diablo Canyon, which concluded that the plant remains safe from earthquakes.

According to some of the emails, NRC spokeswoman Lara Uselding told multiple media outlets that there was no collaboration, adding that NRC staff had referred the matter to the NRC’s inspector general. (A New Times call to the Office of Inspector General wasn’t returned before press time.)

Other emails show that NRC staff and PG&E communicated about both the seismic studies and Peck’s DPO. On Aug. 24, NRC Office of Public Affairs Director Eliot Brenner sent an email marked “high” importance, titled “communications strategy on state report” with an attachment marked “state report messaging.” The subsequent bullet points were redacted completely from FOIA documents.

One day before the respective public releases, NRC Senior Project Manager Joseph Sebrosky emailed various NRC staff and mentioned discussions with PG&E’s Supervisor of Regulatory Services Philippe Soenen about the date and time of the seismic studies public release. The email also indicated that PG&E would provide a copy of the report to the NRC.

New Times obtained additional emails through a separate FOIA request. On Aug. 26, PG&E Regulatory Service Manager Tom Baldwin sent a packet to Tom Hipschman, the senior resident NRC inspector at Diablo Canyon. The email included previous messages from PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones, which outlined PG&E’s messaging, communications strategy, and company updates after the Associated Press wrote about Peck’s DPO. However, the emails didn’t indicate any collaboration about messaging.

In a statement to New Times, Uselding said the emails “show internal efforts within NRC Public Affairs to understand the agency’s actions related to the report PG&E planned to issue the state of California.” She added that the state report was expected in September, and the NRC is on record telling reporters that the final DPO decision would also be released in mid-September.

“None of the emails show collaboration between NRC and PG&E on timing of the individual releases,” Uselding said.

But Friends of the Earth Spokesman Damon Moglen said he believes the emails do show collaboration.

“The bottom line here is we can have an argument about what’s collusion and what’s collaboration, but at the end of the day this means the NRC presumably had the entire [seismic] report and it was developing a media strategy and a messaging strategy,” Moglen said.

In fact, the NRC did have the report. PG&E’s Jones said the utility provided the NRC “with electronic access to review the contents of the near-final report on Sept. 8.” He added, “the NRC is our chief safety regulator so providing them with access to view the near-final report is appropriate,” and said PG&E didn’t coordinate the timing of the document releases.

Friends of the Earth, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Mothers for Peace have appealed to obtain the redacted information.

Read transcripts of the NRC emails: PDF 1, PDF 2.

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