Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight As California's Last Active Nuke Plant Puts Millions at Risk

Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight As California's Last Active Nuke Plant Puts Millions at Risk

Humanity’s clock is ticking but few in power seem to recognize how late it’s getting. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been keeping time though with their “Doomsday Clock,” established in 1947 to convey threats to humanity and the planet in the new atomic age launched by the Manhattan Project two years before. Widely recognized as an indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, global climate change and other emerging technologies, the Doomsday Clock was moved forward two minutes in January to 11:57 p.m. It’s the closest the clock has been to midnight since the height of the Cold War in 1984.

The Diablo Canyon Power Plant near scenic San Luis Obispo on the Golden State’s central coast sits in an area where several new fault lines have been discovered over the decades. The situation at California’s last remaining active nuclear plant has generated widespread concern about whether the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has learned anything at all from Fukushima.

“The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization,” the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board stated in their announcement. “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon."

Global climate change and the nuclear weapons industry were listed as the primary threats, but the Bulletin’s analysis also cited “the leadership failure on nuclear power.” The Bulletin noted that “the international community has not developed coordinated plans to meet the challenges that nuclear power faces in terms of cost, safety, radioactive waste management, and proliferation risk.” The triple meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in 2011 brought the issue to global attention after an unpredictable earthquake stronger than the plant was built to withstand overwhelmed the reactors in conjunction with a massive tsunami. This unprecedented disaster even led the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to establish a Fukushima Lessons Learned Division. But the situation at California’s last remaining active nuclear plant has generated widespread concern about whether the NRC has learned anything at all from Fukushima.

Diablo Canyon—An American nuclear plant with troubling similarities to Fukushima

The Diablo Canyon Power Plant near scenic San Luis Obispo on the Golden State’s central coast sits in an area where several new fault lines have been discovered over the decades. Controversy flared in 2014 due to revelations about regulatory safety questions from the plant’s former senior resident inspector Michael Peck, who served in that role from 2007-12. Peck became concerned that new seismic data suggested the plant was operating outside the safety margins of its license. He issued a non-concurrence in 2012, a Dissenting Professional Opinion in 2013 and a DPO Appeal in 2014. Debate between Peck and his bosses at the NRC has centered around what methodology should be used to determine whether the plant could survive a massive quake it might not be built to withstand.

Michael Peck, former senior resident inspector of Diablo Canyon Power Plant, at Avila Beach, near Diablo Canyon. Photo credit: Michael Peck

“I wrote the non-concurrence, DPO, and the Appeal to draw attention to the failure of the NRC to enforce nuclear safety rules and license requirements at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. These requirements include the regulatory safeguards relied on to protect California residents from a radiation release following a major earthquake,” Peck said in a recent interview by both phone and email.

He went on to explain how NRC regulations require a plant’s operating license to be amended before “non-conservative” changes are applied to safety analysis methodologies, yet PG&E had been allowed to make such changes without a license amendment.

“PG&E completed a reevaluation of Diablo Canyon seismology in January 2011. This reevaluation concluded that three local faults were capable of exceeding equipment seismic qualification limits established by the facility design basis. In September 2014, PG&E completed an additional reevaluation as mandated by California Assembly Bill 1632. This latest reevaluation revealed that several of these faults are even more capable than previously considered,” Peck explained. “PG&E created the appearance that the facility design basis remained satisfied by presenting the reevaluation results using less conservative methods than specified in the facility license. While these new methods and assumptions may or may not be technically justifiable, NRC rules required that PG&E first obtain an amendment to the Operating License before they were used in facility safety analyses. When applying the licensed methodology, the new seismic data results in stress levels on important equipment well in excess of safety limits. As a result, key safety barriers protecting the public from a radiation release may fail following a major earthquake.”

Michael Peck at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant.

Peck went against the politically desired outcome because PG&E was no longer adhering to the parameters of the plant’s license and the NRC was no longer enforcing it.

“Bypassing this regulatory framework was not only irresponsible but also represented a serious violation of the public trust. The amendment process also would have provided public notice and hearing opportunities for these facility safety analysis changes that directly affect the principle safety barriers for ensuring public protection from radiation,” Peck added.

The NRC put together a three-person “independent” panel to rule on Peck’s DPO. Eric Leeds, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, appointed Mike Case, director from the Division of Engineering in the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, as panel chair. Peck, as DPO submitter, was entitled to recommend one panel member and selected NRC’s Rudolph Bernhard, a senior reactor analyst. The other panel member selected by Leeds, Brit Hill, is a bit more curious. Hill is COO of NUTECH Energy Alliance, a Houston-based oilfield services company. He previously spent 13 years working for the notorious Halliburton Company, before moving on to NUTECH (which was co-founded by former Halliburton execs). NRC spokesperson Lara Uselding says Hill has relevant seismic experience and has worked with NRC for almost a decade.

The panel apparently spent almost a year analyzing Peck’s DPO before rejecting it in May of 2014 and declaring that PG&E had satisfied all regulatory requirements. A primary issue for Peck was a difference of opinion about Diablo Canyon’s Safe Shutdown Earthquake (SSE), the level of seismic activity the plant could withstand. Peck says the panel used “circular logic” in justifying a change to the seismic standard that conflicted with the facility’s license application (FSAR) and then used that assumption to support their conclusion.

“When I asked the Panel Chairman (Mike Case) the basis for their assumption, he directed me to a recently changed FSAR Section (Revision 21). NRC regulations (10 CFR 50.59) required PG&E to first obtain an amendment to the Operating License before changing either the facility design basis or using a less conservative methodology or input assumptions in safety analyses that demonstrate that the design basis is satisfied. So, the basis the Panel chairman provided was built on an unauthorized change of the Operating License by PG&E,” Peck says.

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Peck’s concerns about circular logic by the NRC drew support of varying parties such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and environmental non-profit Friends of the Earth.

Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the UCS, authored a November 2013 report, “Seismic Shift: Diablo Canyon Literally and Figuratively on Shaky Ground,” in which he backed Peck’s concerns and voiced some of his own. “Of the 100 reactors currently operating in the U.S., the two at Diablo Canyon top the NRC’s list as being most likely to experience an earthquake larger than they are designed to withstand,” wrote Lochbaum.

He cited figures indicating that “the Diablo Canyon reactors are more than 10 times more likely to experience an earthquake larger than they are designed to withstand than the average U.S. reactor” and he calculated that “the chance such a large earthquake will occur at Diablo Canyon over the 40-year lifetime of the plant is … about 1 in 6—which is a toss of a die.”

“PG&E sought to have the NRC increase the SSE value to a level PG&E believed its reactors could withstand, but that had not been justified by a rigorous analysis meeting the NRC’s regulatory standards,” Lochbaum wrote. “David Copperfield and other magicians get paid when performing such feats of illusion. PG&E also gets paid for its illusion from the revenue generated by the continuing operation of Diablo Canyon’s two reactors.”

Lochbaum used the NRC’s seismic data to calculate that Diablo Canyon could be expected to suffer an earthquake larger than its SSE every 256 years. Reached by email, he put that number into context by comparing it with what happened at Fukushima.

“That seems like a fairly rare event. But for comparison, the odds that Fukushima would experience a tsunami as large as it experienced on March 11, 2011, were about one such tsunami every 1,000 years or so ... So, Diablo Canyon is nearly four times more likely to experience an earthquake larger than its SSE than Fukushima was to experience its devastating tsunami,” Lochbaum explained.

Peck submitted an appeal to the DPO decision in June of 2014, stating that the decision appeared to be built around a misunderstanding of the plant’s license requirements and agency rules. But his concerns were again rejected. “I have exhausted the NRC processes for raising nuclear safety concerns,” Peck wrote in an editorial for the Santa Barbara Independent in September. “I was left with the impression that the NRC may have applied a different standard to Diablo Canyon.”

Part of the NRC’s justification for rejecting Peck’s appeal is that Peck agreed in a meeting last summer with Mark Satorius, the NRC’s Executive Director for Operations, that there is “no immediate or significant safety issue” at Diablo Canyon.

“I was only agreeing that there wasn’t an imminent threat of a core meltdown,” Peck says, standing by his concerns that the plant continues to operate outside the safety margins of its license. “We consider an immediate safety issue one requiring immediate intervention to protect the public from an imminent or potential release of radioactive material. We consider a significant safety issue one representing an increase of core damage probability in the range of about one in a hundred. The probability of a large earthquake at Diablo Canyon is outside of this frequency range.”

“That said, NRC regulations require the plant design basis to ensure important plant structures, systems, and components are designed to withstand the effects of the most severe earthquake reported for the site and surrounding area. PG&E’s new seismic evaluations indicated that local faults can produce about twice the ground motion established by the facility license. While a major earthquake is unlikely to occur, as we saw in Japan, the consequence to the local population can be quite severe,” Peck added. “The lack of an ‘immediate or significant safety issue’ does not justify the failure of the NRC to enforce agency regulations and license requirements at Diablo Canyon ...”

Lochbaum backed Peck again in another report for the UCS last August, citing information that UCS had acquired from the NRC through Freedom of Information Act requests. “It is clear and undeniable that Dr. Peck’s findings are correct: the company’s [PG&E] evaluation of the Shoreline Fault and its implications on safety at Diablo Canyon is incomplete and does not use methods and assumptions accepted by the NRC,” Lochbaum concluded.

A Congressional hearing debates the diabolical questions at Diablo Canyon

Peck’s dissent drew the attention of California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who made Diablo Canyon a focal point of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Dec. 3 hearing on “NRC’s Implementation of the Fukushima Near-Term Task Force Recommendations and Other Actions to Maintain and Enhance Nuclear Safety.” Daniel Hirsch, who lectures on nuclear policy at the University of California-Santa Cruz, testified and compared the situation at Diablo Canyon with Fukushima to illustrate the NRC’s failure to learn from the Japanese disaster.

“In the Diablo case, the decisions have turned out to be erroneous, over and over again. And yet the pattern is repeated, over and over again. How many times do they get to be wrong before something changes?” Hirsch asked. “Unless we fix these problems—of regulated entities pressing for exceptions to and weakening of safety requirements and of regulators viewing themselves more as advocates for and allies of the industry they are to regulate rather than primarily protectors of public safety—we will not have learned the lessons of Fukushima.”

Hirsch went on to elaborate on the historical pattern of political interference and subterfuge at Diablo Canyon.

“NRC and PG&E attempt to avoid public licensing hearings on the critical seismic issues. Overly optimistic assumptions are thus chosen, only to be, time and time again, disproven by newly discovered scientific facts. Rather than shut the plant down or require sufficient upgrades to address the newly revealed seismic challenges, NRC and PG&E carve more and more safety margins out of the design, using ever less conservative (i.e., less protective) assumptions and methodologies. And they try to do this behind closed doors, with the public locked out of their right to evidentiary hearings … The problem is that nature may not go along with the regulatory fictions. As at Fukushima, an earthquake larger than the plant can withstand could occur at any moment. And as at Fukushima, it will not be an act of nature, but a man-made disaster, caused by the failure of our institutions. “

Tony Pietrangelo, Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute, testified along with NRC commissioners in support of PG&E and NRC’s decisions at Diablo Canyon. “Differing professional opinions do occur among the 4,000 staff at the NRC, and the NRC has a process for addressing them. In this case, the conclusion was that, ‘there is not now nor has there ever been an immediate safety concern’ with this issue at Diablo Canyon. In addition, the panel concluded that older analytical techniques were overly conservative and no longer technically justified since the license at Diablo Canyon allows for newer technologies to be used,” Pietrangelo said.

Peck doesn’t doubt “that the geo-science has improved greatly since the 1980s,” but he remains steadfast that PG&E is still violating the terms of Diablo Canyon’s license.

“PG&E didn't even bother to ask for NRC permission to use the new methods associated with the September 2014 data.  They just went ahead and used them.  Remember, the plant would be shut down if PG&E used the methods and inputs required by the license,” Peck points out.

PG&E stands by their seismic data, asserting that they have completed exhaustive research to confirm Diablo Canyon is not vulnerable to a potential earthquake stronger than it’s designed to withstand.

“As the NRC confirmed in the hearing, Diablo Canyon is being operated safely and is in compliance with its seismic licensing requirements,” PG&E spokesperson Blair Jones said to the media after the hearing, adding that the company’s Long Term Seismic Program (LTSP) continues to assess seismic safety at the plant. “The LTSP is a unique program in the U.S. commercial nuclear power plant industry. It is comprised of a geosciences team of professionals who partner with independent seismic experts on an ongoing basis to evaluate regional geology and global seismic events to ensure the facility remains safe. Because of our LTSP and decades of industry-leading research, the seismic region around Diablo Canyon is among the most studied and understood areas in the nation.”

Daniel Hirsch’s argument that NRC management has greater allegiance to profits than safety gained further ammunition in the early part of 2015 when American diplomats at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Convention on Nuclear Safety were blamed for rejecting a Swiss-led European Union proposal to strengthen international nuclear safety rules.

“Opposition to the Swiss proposal mirrors the situation of the international nuclear industry,” Paris-based Mycle Schneider, lead author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, told Bloomberg.com. “Nuclear operators are confronted with severely shrinking profit margins everywhere.”

The U.S. delegation insisted that it did not oppose the initiative due to increasing costs and market losses to the nuclear industry, saying that current upgrades are adequate. But watchdog group Beyond Nuclear took issue, noting that the NRC had already shown its hand by rejecting another reactor safety upgrade recommendation from its own Japan Lessons Learned Task Force.

“The lesson, now unlearned by the Commission, would have ordered all U.S. operators of Fukushima-style reactors (GE Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactors) to install high capacity external radiation filters for hardened vents on the vulnerable containment systems,” reported BeyondNuclear.org. “Senior staff had concluded that installing external filters was ‘a cost-benefited substantial safety enhancement’ to more reliably manage the next severe nuclear accident by venting the extreme heat, high pressure, explosive gases while still significantly reducing the consequences by capturing large amounts of radioactivity. However, the UBS international energy investment bank had earlier predicted that the Commission would likely vote down its senior managers’ recommendation because of the ‘added stress this places on the incumbent’s portfolio’ and ‘the fragile state of affairs’ of their licensees' financial and economic condition.”

As for Michael Peck, he now works as a senior instructor at the NRC’s Technical Training Center in Tennessee, a position he applied for after he saw the writing on the wall at Diablo Canyon.

“I went from being the ‘senior resident inspector’ to having both performance and conduct issues after I submitted the non-concurrence,” Peck explains about his departure from Diablo Canyon. “I felt that [NRC] Region IV was setting me up to involuntarily reassign me to their Dallas-Fort Worth office.  Over the years, I’ve seen it happen to many other inspectors. So, rather than wait for the other shoe to drop, I applied and was selected for the position in Chattanooga.  I’m sure that had I not filed the non-concurrence or DPO, I would still be a senior resident inspector.”

It looks like the controversial status of Diablo Canyon will be decided in the courts. Washington, DC-based non-profit Friends of the Earth has filed a lawsuit against the NRC in the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the court that reviews decisions of federal agencies. The lawsuit asks the court to order the NRC to conduct public hearings on the amending of Diablo Canyon’s license and to shut down the plant until that process concludes.

The NRC motioned to have the case dismissed but on February 20 the D.C. Circuit ruled not to grant the motion and that the case should be heard on its merits. “This is a big victory,” said Damon Moglen, senior strategic advisor for Friends of the Earth, in a press release. “The public has a right to know what the NRC and PG&E won’t admit—hundreds of thousands of people are put at immediate risk by earthquake danger at Diablo Canyon.”


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