As a newly elected freshman lawmaker and former geophysicist, I raised a few eyebrows when I authored a 2005 Viewpoint in The Tribune cautioning that significant seismic uncertainty exists around Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. I questioned, “Is the entire facility safe from tsunami and earthquake damage that could be generated by large offshore faults?” I called for rigorous independent study and analysis of the seismic zone around the facility.
PG&E’s vice president penned his own Viewpoint in The Tribune mocking my suggestion that much uncertainty remained about the facility and derisively suggesting that PG&E “look[s] forward to helping [Blakeslee] understand how we are assuring that Diablo is seismically sound ...”
To avoid dealing with these difficult questions about seismic safety, some tried to politicize this as a pro-nuclear versus anti-nuclear debate.
But I kept demanding answers. Regulators shrugged off my concerns, claiming their perfunctory reviews were sufficient oversight. PG&E asserted that adequate seismic work had already been performed. PG&E’s in-house seismic consultants confidently insisted that the plant is designed to withstand an earthquake larger than the estimated capability of the nearby Hosgri Fault.
Fed up, I authored AB 1632, legislation requiring the California Energy Commission to assess the vulnerability of California’s aging nuclear power plants.
Then, in 2007, while the CEC was preparing its AB 1632 report, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake rocked Japan. The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear plant in the world, experienced ground motion shaking nearly twice what was anticipated when the plant was designed. The quake caused significant damage at the facility and minor radioactive leaks. The plant was immediately shut down.
A year later, the CEC released its AB 1632 report echoing my call for advanced seismic studies around Diablo Canyon. PG&E responded that these high-tech studies were unnecessary, stating, “ ... we believe there is no uncertainty regarding the seismic setting and hazard at the Diablo Canyon site.”
Weeks after PG&E’s assertion, the USGS announced the discovery of a significant new fault potentially running directly underneath Diablo Canyon. The characteristics of the Shoreline Fault, as well as its relationship with the Hosgri Fault, remain largely unknown — as detailed seismic studies have not yet been performed.
Just this week, spokesman Kory Raftery stated that PG&E still has not committed to performing the advanced seismic study called for by the CEC.
Over the past few years, the failure by regulators to provide adequate independent oversight and responsibly enforce accountability measures has led to catastrophic human and environmental disasters.
The Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill, the most significant environmental tragedy in the history of the nation, was largely a regulatory failure. Regulators adopted a passive check-the-box mentality, failing to ask difficult questions or provide rigorous oversight.
Last fall, San Bruno was rocked by the explosion of a natural gas pipeline that killed eight people. The aging pipeline was identified in 2007 as one of the top 100 highest risk sections. Though funds were approved for PG&E to fix that very pipeline, the utility delayed the work and the Public Utilities Commission did not require the work be completed.
Now, the world watches in shock as events in Japan unfold. The massive earthquake has caused explosions at three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, resulting in a major nuclear disaster. The devastating series of unexpected events revealed unknown vulnerabilities at the nuclear facility and in its backup safety systems.
Commissioner Akira Omoto of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, who was involved in the construction of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility, admitted that the engineering assumptions and redundant fail-safe systems believed by experts to guard against a nuclear disaster simply proved inadequate in the end.
“We thought we had taken adequate precautions ... but what happened was beyond our expectation,” he told Reuters.
Within four years, two separate earthquakes have knocked out two nuclear facilities. Both nuclear power plants were believed to be constructed to withstand the strongest seismic events possible in their respective areas.
Japan’s top experts were proven wrong. Twice.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to rubber-stamp every relicensing application, without exception.
PG&E is now rushing to relicense Diablo Canyon a full 13 years before its current licenses expire, continuing to dismiss any concerns about the safety of the facility. PG&E confidently maintains that the facility is not vulnerable to a seismic event. The people of Japan were told the same thing.
The public counts on lawmakers and regulators to put the public’s safety ahead of the agendas of powerful interests. Our greatest risk is arrogantly asserting that California is immune to this type of disaster before obtaining the necessary scientific data to adequately understand the risks posed by the complex fault systems off our coast.
I will continue in my six-year fight to protect my community and ensure California is responsibly managing seismic and nuclear risk.
State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, represents the 15th District. He is a geophysicist with a doctorate in earthquake studies from UC Santa Barbara for his research in seismic scattering, micro-earthquake studies and fault-zone attenuation.