A nuclear power plant shouldn’t be allowed to operate while being studied to reassess whether it is safe to operate. Had this one simple rule been followed, there may have been no radiation leak at Fukushima four years ago this month.
So why is Diablo Canyon, California’s last remaining nuclear power plant, operating while undergoing studies to determine if it is fully earthquake safe? Have we learned nothing from Fukushima?
According to the Japan Nuclear Regulation Authority, Fukushima was reassessed a year prior to the tsunami. It was determined that the plant needed to be retrofitted to withstand a much stronger earthquake. Had the plant been offline or retrofitted, the accident may have been far less severe.
It is already known that Diablo Canyon, operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in San Luis Obispo County, may be subjected to 30 percent more ground shaking from nearby faults than Fukushima experienced. The first of several ongoing studies, published last week, states ground shaking at Diablo Canyon can exceed plant design. It is anticipated this will lead to years of more study. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will then consider ordering upgrades.
Diablo is being allowed to operate during this entire process, as was Fukushima. A federal appeals court is currently considering the legality of the NRC allowing Diablo Canyon to operate outside of its license while the studies are being completed.
The U.S. Geological Survey also released a report last week stating that the chance of an 8.0-magnitude quake in California sometime in the next 30 years has increased from 4.7 percent to 7 percent. The Fukushima disaster was cited as the reason for the USGS study because it involved multi-fault ruptures. Diablo Canyon is located within a few miles of multiple faults, which are the focus of its ongoing study.
The NRC has not considered whether the Fukushima accident would have been less severe had the plant been taken offline until retrofitted. In response to my query, it stated: “The NRC has always focused on U.S. reactors in our efforts to implement lessons learned from the Fukushima event. We have not closely examined the issue you’re interested in, as it does not affect the ongoing seismic re-evaluations at U.S. reactors.”
It is now estimated that the total costs of the Fukushima disaster may eventually be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In California, insurance for Diablo is extremely low and limited by law.
Since 1976, California has had, in effect, a moratorium on building new nuclear plants. The San Onofre plant in San Diego was permanently shut down in 2013 after a water leak was found in a reactor tube.
Proponents plan to start gathering signatures next week to qualify an initiative for the November 2016 ballot that would ban the generation of nuclear power in California until the federal government has approved a “demonstrated technology” to build and operate a nuclear fuel rod reprocessing plant and/or to permanently dispose of high-level nuclear waste. The measure would result in the immediate shutdown of the Diablo Canyon plant.
Immediately after the Fukushima accident, the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that closing Diablo Canyon would cost tens of billions of dollars a year and cause rolling blackouts.
But Diablo Canyon provides less than 7 percent of California’s electrical energy. And a LAO memo issued last month questions whether closing it would have any significant fiscal effect at all.
So, given all of that, why is Diablo Canyon being allowed to operate while being studied to determine whether it is really safe?
Clearly there is too much industry influence within the NRC for it to regulate nuclear power. That may be the true lesson learned from Fukushima. Perhaps it is the NRC that needs to be retrofitted. And Diablo Canyon should certainly cease operation until that process is completed.
Ben Davis Jr. drafted the 1989 initiative that led to the closure of Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in Sacramento County and is a proponent of a potential 2016 statewide ballot measure to shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.