Editorial: Nuclear regulators should expect the absolute worst

In our personal lives, it’s understandable when the misfortunes of others spur us to act. A close friend is diagnosed with cancer, for instance, and we make an appointment for the checkup we’ve been putting off. Or, the next-door-neighbor’s home is burglarized and we get around — finally — to replacing that broken lock on the window.

That reactive attitude, however, isn’t so easy to forgive when it comes to large corporations that we trust with our health and safety — airlines, utilities, car manufacturers, food and drug companies — and the public agencies that police them.

We raise this issue in relation to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the actions it has taken following the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear crisis in Japan.

In the wake of that disaster, the NRC is now scrutinizing disaster plans and conducting inspections of all of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors to ensure they can safely shut down in the event of multiple incidents that could knock out power, lead to fires and flooding, make roads impassible, etc., etc.

Better now than never.

But why did it take the experience in Japan to trigger planning for such a crisis?

Are NRC officials so lacking in imagination that they could not contemplate a scenario in which multiple events could occur simultaneously?

That’s surely not the case — especially because nuclear power opponents and watchdogs have repeatedly raised the possibility that an earthquake and a nuclear accident could occur simultaneously.

Such a scenario, though, has been regarded as unthinkable — until now.

Now, the NRC is eyeing nuclear plants around the nation to assess whether they are prepared to withstand a Fukushima-like crisis; last week, the agency released results of inspections at all 104 U.S. reactors.

As Tribune writer David Sneed reported, more than 20 problems were logged at San Luis Obispo County’s Diablo Canyon. Among the findings:

Inspectors found that several procedures required workers to go to locations that could be inaccessible due to high radiation.

A fire truck storage building could “yield” during an earthquake — making it difficult to reach the truck.

Emergency hoses that would supply water to the plant would be obstructed by “recent security modifications.”

Six backup diesel generators could be susceptible to failure by virtue of being in the same location and of similar design.

Certain emergencies could require bringing in equipment by highways and access roads that might be inaccessible.

The NRC did not find any of the issues significant, though nuclear industry watchdogs have disagreed.

We aren’t going to debate whether the problems identified at Diablo are minor, major or somewhere in between. We just want each and every one corrected, sooner rather than later.

PG&E has indicated that it has indeed fixed some and is in the process of dealing with others.

That’s good, but assurances aren’t enough.

We strongly urge the NRC to follow through to ensure the fixes are made — and to keep the public informed along the way.

We also hope that among the other “learnings” the NRC takes away from its study of Fukushima, it concludes that it must always expect the worst — no matter how unlikely that may seem.