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Nuclear watchdog petitions federal regulator to close unsafe Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors

Posted Aug. 26, 2014 / Posted by: Kate Colwell

Senator Boxer calls for hearings on NRC's "failure" of "its responsibility to protect public health and safety"

WASHINGTON, D.C. – One day after the release of a document suppressed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which revealed that the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California is vulnerable to earthquakes, Friends of the Earth has filed a petition charging that the plant is in violation of its license and must be closed immediately pending public hearings to prove it is safe. Meanwhile, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee announced it will hold its own hearings into the NRC's suppression of the document.

Friends of the Earth’s petition charges that despite having new information that earthquake faults surrounding Diablo Canyon are capable of ground motion far greater than the reactors were designed and licensed to withstand, both Pacific Gas and Electric and the NRC have failed to close the plant pending the completion of a rigorous safety analysis and licensing review required by the agency’s rules. Friends of the Earth's petition states:

“Studies done so far indicate that the Shoreline Fault and the nearby Los Osos and San Luis Bay faults are capable of producing an earthquake with ground acceleration that far exceeds the plant’s current licensing basis, posing a serious safety risk to the public and the environment near the plant…When a plant cannot operate within the specific parameters described in the current licensing basis, the (Atomic Energy Act) requires the licensee to seek a license amendment and engage in a public process with an adjudicatory hearing.”

Citing the fact that the new seismic data shows that the reactors do not meet their licensing specifications and requirements and could therefore fail catastrophically in a massive earthquake, Friends of the Earth is asking that the NRC close the Diablo reactors and convene a public review with hearings to assess whether or not the reactors can be run safely and if so under what kind of revised license.

The petition is similar to one Friends of the Earth filed in June 2012 which resulted in a landmark ruling that led to Southern California Edison’s decision to permanently close the San Onofre nuclear reactors in which damaged equipment made it impossible for the plant to be run in accordance with its license.

“This is a really scary situation,” said Damon Moglen of Friends of the Earth. “PG&E and the NRC both know that earthquakes are possible that far surpass those for which the reactors are designed and licenses, but, they have decided to look the other way. Given the overwhelming risk of earthquakes at Diablo Canyon, federal and state authorities would never allow nuclear reactors to be built on this site now."

On Monday the Associated Press reported that a formal dissent by Dr. Michael Peck, formerly the NRC’s senior resident safety inspector at Diablo Canyon, reveals in detail that new seismic data shows that the reactors are vulnerable to earthquakes, rendering the current licenses for the plant invalid. Peck filed his report, known as a Dissenting Professional Opinion, in July 2013 and requested it be made public, but the agency has neither released nor ruled on it, despite the agency’s policy that DPOs must be ruled on within 120 days.

In his dissent, Peck says that since the 1960-era reactors were built new information has emerged about potential earthquakes in the area that means the plant is operating “outside the bounds of the existing Diablo Canyon design basis and safety analysis" -- in other words, in violation of its federal license.

“Continued reactor operation...challenges the presumption of nuclear safety,” Peck asserted. “The reactors should remain shut down pending demonstration that...safety functions can be met at the higher seismic stress levels.”

In response to release of the suppressed report,  Environment and Public Works Committee chair Sen. Barbara Boxer announced that she would hold hearings on the situation at Diablo and said: "The NRC's failure to act constitutes an abdication of its responsibility to protect public health and safety."

Seismic safety has been a major concern at Diablo Canyon since construction on the reactors began in 1968. Over the years, it has become increasingly clear that the reactors are surrounded by seismic faults. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, a report issued by the NRC itself ranked the Diablo Canyon reactors as the most likely in the nation to be hit be an earthquake stronger than they were designed to withstand.

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Expert Contact:
Damon Moglen, Senior strategic advisor, (202) 352-4223, dmoglen@foe.org

Communications Contacts:
EA Dyson, (202) 222-0730, edyson@foe.org (East Coast)
Bill Walker, (510) 759-9911, bw.deadline@gmail.com (West Coast)

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