For more than a generation, residents and elected officials here have wrestled with the issue of whether the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is safe to operate when we know that earthquakes are inevitable — and that a large earthquake is possible very near the plant. What risks are we willing to accept in return for the benefits that facility brings?
With the recent release of PG&E’s latest seismic investigations, this tough question comes back to center stage. In the coming months and years, state and federal regulators will render their formal decisions as to whether, how long and under what conditions Diablo Canyon should continue to operate, based on these reports and other information. That process is complex and technical and largely conducted in offices far outside SLO County.
Many members of our local community will offer their opinions on this matter as well — as they should.
We’re already familiar with the entrenched geography of this debate: For some, Diablo Canyon must remain open because it provides high-quality jobs and carbon-free electricity in abundance. For others, it should be closed immediately because it’s inherently dangerous and leaves a morally-dubious legacy of nuclear waste.
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Both regulators and the public need to come to thoughtful judgments on this important matter, and there is serious work to do to get there. I submit that regulators need to get beyond their formal, process-driven decision making — and that community members should expand their conversation beyond the often-heard polar arguments of support or opposition.
For instance, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s overrule of Dr. Michael Peck’s dissenting opinion seems largely process-driven: The NRC found a path to allow plant operation under the current license, without directly addressing Peck’s concerns about structural reliability. We are due a clear explanation of why.
Furthermore, I believe the NRC needs to revisit its overall approach to risk assessment. Note that the investigation of hazards and threats is provided to the commission by the party being regulated. Also, the NRC’s current “probabilistic” hazard analysis poses concerns about how to assess extremely rare events that have devastating consequences .
For community members, coming to a thoughtful public judgment on these issues is perhaps a greater challenge. The information to be considered is highly technical and spans several specialized scientific and engineering disciplines. Again, these complex data sets are developed and provided by PG&E. Clearly, a considered public judgment will require trust that the conclusions of the technical studies are valid — and importantly, that the uncertainties in these conclusions are understood.
Establishing any level of trust will depend on a careful independent review of all the technical data. The Diablo Canyon Independent Peer Review Panel (IPRP) established by the California Public Utilities Commission is central to this important effort.
Unfortunately, this important public process has not started with a positive step: PG&E chose to finalize its entire report and release it to the public before it sought any comment from — or even contacted — the peer review panel. It appears to me that PG&E’s public relations staff advised them to get their story to the public before any detailed questions might be asked. So, we have a front-page story and Ed Halpin’s simultaneous opinion piece assuring us that all is well.
Important questions need to be posed and answered before we accept any of these conclusions. For instance, Halpin tells us that PG&E conducted these studies with “state-of-the-art mapping technologies.” Recall, however, that in designing the high-energy offshore 3-D surveys (which were ultimately rejected by the Coastal Commission), PG&E’s approach was far from state-of-the-art, and driven in large part by cost and schedule.
I have no opinions — pro or con — regarding PG&E’s conclusions. My IPRP colleagues and I do have some work to do. My copy of the report (standing a foot tall and weighing 32 pounds) arrived just after the story and opinion pieces appeared in The Tribune.
I expect the result of the IPRP review to be thorough and that PG&E will respect the IPRP role. The results of our review of PG&E’s techniques and conclusions need to be explained clearly to the public.
We need a carefully considered judgment on all issues of safety at Diablo Canyon. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.