It’s the Capitol: Senators Call For Improved Nuclear Earthquake Response

By Published On: March 25, 2011

Lawmakers insisted there are gaps in the seismic research surrounding California nuclear power plants. Utility representatives disagreed, countering that their facilities can withstand higher-than-predicted earthquakes. “We don’t think a 9.0 earthquake is credible,” Steve David, Pacific Gas & Electric Diablo Canyon director of site services, told the Senate Select Committee on Earthquake & Disaster Preparedness, Response, & Recovery March 21. The informational hearing was called in the wake of a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. Those events caused radioactive releases from Japanese nuclear facilities in the last weeks. Three California nuclear plants--Diablo, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, and the partially decommissioned Humboldt Bay--reside close to active earthquake faults. When asked directly by Senator Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) to withdraw its application for a 20-year license extension for Diablo Canyon from the federal government, David said he could not respond to that request. Chris Johns, PG&E president, stated March 17 that the utility would not pull the application. “I will pursue legislation” to get the license extension withdrawn, Blakeslee replied. Nuclear power plant relicensing is under the purview of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The state has no sovereignty over nuclear power’s seismic health and safety but does control utilities cost recovery of power plant economics. The California Public Utilities Commission can, and has, approved seismic studies. Edison, operator and majority owner of San Onofre, has publicly stated it plans to also file a nuke license extension application but that is has “taken a backseat,” according to Caroline McAndrews, Edison director of license renewal. (San Diego Gas & Electric owns a minority stake in the facility.) Seismic research on the state’s nuclear power plants is “woefully inadequate,” Blakeslee said. The lawmaker has a degree in seismic studies. California Energy Commission member Jim Boyd agreed. He said that the commission wants more seismic studies on power plants, but that it’s run into resistance at the federal level. “We’ve been doing 3-D studies since October [2010],” maintained PG&E director of geosciences and earthquake risk management Lloyd Cluff. Those are the seismic studies approved by the CPUC at a cost of $16 million. Cluff added that PG&E also began more traditional studies in 2006. In a January document filed with federal regulators, PG&E noted that it discovered a previously unknown faultline running within a half-mile of Diablo Canyon in 2008. PG&E dubbed the fault “Shoreline.” A known fault, Hosgri, is positioned about 2.5 miles from the facility. The Southcoast Offshore Fault Zone runs about 4.5 miles from the San Onofre plant. The CPUC approved Edison recovering $36 million in rates for seismic studies. The Newport-Inglewood fault also runs about the same distance from the nuclear facility. To the north, three earthquake faults are within a few hundred feet of the Humboldt Bay reactor. While it shut down in 1976, the radioactive reactor vessel, as well as the high-level waste and spent fuel, remain on site.

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