It was less than an hour after sunrise on a brisk and gloomy June morning, and a lone reporter with a skull heavy from a serious case of Monday morning delirium trudged sleepily down the desolate streets of San Luis Obispo, ultimately slumping into his chair in a dark, empty New Times office.
The reason for this unusually early start to the workweek was a 7 a.m. Pacific Standard Time presentation by Pacific Gas & Electric staffers to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in an effort to amend a licensing requirement for Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
Unfortunately for the public, the very technical and often confusing dialogue was taking place more than 3,000 miles away at the NRC headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the only way for a Californian to engage was to connect via a toll-free telephone conference call, which often left speakers unidentified and specific terminology a bit muddled.
Simply put, PG&E asked the NRC to designate the Hosgri Fault—a long-known seismic feature located some five miles from Diablo Canyon—to be the “safe shutdown earthquake” for the plant. A safe shutdown earthquake is the maximum earthquake vital structural and operational components that a nuclear plant can withstand and remain online.
In other words, the Hosgri is being designated the greatest seismic threat to the plant, but one PG&E says it can handle.
The request was enough to raise an NRC eyebrow or two. A seemingly puzzled Michael Peck, the NRC’s resident inspector at Diablo Canyon, asked several times for clarification as to why PG&E never pursued this classification for the Hosgri before.
In 1977, in response to a seismic safety evaluation report, the NRC stated that it already considered a hypothetical Hosgri event the safe shutdown earthquake. PG&E, however, did not.
“We do not know why we chose not to call the Hosgri the [safe shutdown earthquake],” responded Loren Sharp, PG&E’s senior director of technical services at Diablo Canyon.
Following the meeting, Sharp told New Times the issue is over classification, not re-categorization.
“There’s nothing new or different here,” he said. “Rather, it came to our attention that there was some ambiguity that needed to be clarified. I can’t answer why that discrepancy was made, but that’s no reason not to fix it now.”
He added that the new designation of the Hosgri Fault doesn’t re-categorize or downplay the threat it poses.
The Hosgri Fault is estimated by PG&E to be capable of no more than a 6.5-magnitude temblor. The United States Geological Survey, however, says it’s capable of a 7.3. PG&E says the plant is designed to withstand a 7.5-magnitude seismic event.
Rochelle Becker, executive director of the ratepayer advocacy group Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, wonders why a meeting concerning California’s seismic safety was held on the other side of the country. Most of the meeting’s attendees were PG&E staffers and seismologists, who were in Washington, D.C., at the time. Becker said it made little sense for the utility to send so many representatives across the country, when the issues at hand concern its own customers on the West Coast.
“As I’m listening here, most of the people [at the meeting] are from PG&E, and I don’t know why the one or two people from the NRC couldn’t have come out to California rather than all of those people going out to [Washington] D.C. at [the ratepayers’ expense],” Becker said during the phone conference.
Becker expressed her frustration over repeatedly requesting that the NRC hold such public meetings “at a decent time” so people can participate.
“Our oversight agencies aren’t even at work yet at 8:47—they’ll be at work in 13 minutes,” Becker told PG&E and the NRC. “This meeting couldn’t have waited until they were at work so they could participate in this as part of their duties? It’s just a frustration level that really shows that the public really isn’t as welcome as you pretend we are.”
An NRC representative—unidentifiable because of poor phone connection—thanked Becker for her comments but politely disagreed with her characterization of the agency’s interest in the public.
NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks later told New Times there are logistical elements
“Sometimes just by virtue, when we need to have many [NRC] staff in attendance, it just makes more sense to hold the meeting on the East Coast,” Dricks said, adding that the NRC held a public meeting in San Luis Obispo on June 15, to discuss seismic issues—and was poorly attended
by the public.
Speaking to the overtly technical nature of the issue at hand, Dricks said that sometimes there’s no other way to have a productive discussion without getting technical, which he admitted may be “off-putting to some people.”
The latest meeting comes on the heels of the release of an investigative series by the Associated Press, scrutinizing the allegedly cozy relationship between the NRC and the industry it regulates.
According to a June 20 article, the AP found in its yearlong investigation numerous instances of the NRC loosening regulations or downgrading assessments of safety threats so that many aging reactors could remain in compliance—a term known as “sharpening
But PG&E says that’s not what’s happening here in the latest meeting regarding the Hosgri threat. However, some people familiar with the relicensing process question the timing of the license amendment.
The NRC will review PG&E’s license amendment request and make a determination, expected in the coming months.
Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at email@example.com.