Safety a top topic in Diablo Canyon's annual performance review

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s first-ever alert last week and long-term difficulties solving safety problems were the main topics of discussion at an annual plant performance review Tuesday in San Luis Obispo.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission held the town hall-style meeting to give the public the chance to discuss the plant’s safety performance in 2009 and ask questions of NRC experts.

NRC officials said the plant operated safely overall last year, but inspections showed that on some occasions operators failed to identify and solve low-level safety issues that were not a cause for immediate concern. This is the second year in a row this problem, which the agency calls a “substantive cross-cutting issue,” has been documented at the plant.

Additional inspections this year will target the problem-solving issue, said Michael Peck, senior NRC inspector at the plant. Ken Peters, the plant’s director, said Pacific Gas and Electric Co. agrees with the NRC findings and the utility has undertaken numerous steps, including additional training, to deal with the problem.

“We are absolutely dedicated to improving our performance,” he said.

The public was also concerned about an alert at the plant last Wednesday, when testing of a new valve on a fire suppression system in a lube oil storage area resulted in unsafe levels of carbon dioxide being released into the room.

The accident rose to the level of an alert because it posed an immediate threat to health and safety. No one was injured, but for much of the day, no one could enter the room without a breathing apparatus. The cause of the accident is still under investigation, Peck said.

Anti-nuclear activists said the problem-solving issue and the alert fit into a long-term pattern of failing to deal with problems at Diablo Canyon.

Jane Swanson, spokeswoman for the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, described it as a “downward spiral in management.”

“Many of these problems occur with alarming regularity,” she added.

This pattern of problems is one reason Mothers for Peace objects to PG&E’s application to extend the life of the plant’s two reactor licenses an additional 20 years to 2045.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.