PG&E must work closely with public safety panel

Once again, PG&E is reassuring us that the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant can withstand the strongest earthquake and the most powerful tsunami that could possibly occur on the Central Coast.

And once again, opponents of Diablo Canyon aren’t buying it.

So where does that leave those of us who fall somewhere in the middle? Those who aren’t necessarily opposed to nuclear power but worry about the safety of operating a nuclear plant in an area crisscrossed by earthquake faults?

Are we to trust PG&E, rely on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to protect us, or try to draw our own, independent conclusions?

Given the complexity of the research, independent evaluations aren’t easy; PG&E bases its findings of safety on reams of technical data that few of us have the patience or the scientific background to fully review, comprehend and critique.

That’s why it’s important to have independent experts — who are neither friends nor foes of PG&E — review the data.

We hoped the Independent Peer Review Panel, appointed by the California Public Utilities Commission, could fill that role. But to do that job well, the panel needs to know how PG&E reached its conclusions.

Unfortunately, the peer review panel has been left with questions that PG&E has yet to answer.

Chairman Chris Wills, a geological engineer with the California Geological Survey, said the panel spotted gaps in the data and found that some of PG&E’s conclusions were not supported by the research.

Another panel member, county Supervisor Bruce Gibson, faulted PG&E for being uncooperative and secretive, and for refusing to respond to issues the panel raised in reports. “We are left now with unresolved questions going into the NRC process, said Gibson, who has a doctorate in geophysics.

For the record, this isn’t the first time Gibson has accused PG&E of being uncooperative in its dealings with the peer review panel. He had the same criticism last year, when PG&E released a seismic report — also highly favorable to the plant — to the public before seeking comment from the panel.

It might be tempting for supporters of Diablo Canyon to dismiss Gibson’s criticisms as the complaints of aliberal environmentalist. Yet Gibson — while he’s always been a strong advocate of ensuring the safety of the plant — has never called for its shutdown.

PG&E denies that it failed to work with the Independent Peer Review Panel. The company says the panel’s comments were considered in the drafting of the report submitted to the NRC, and it points to the number of times it met with the panel: 12 times since 2010.

We fail to see how the number of meetings is relevant. If members of the panel had additional questions or concerns, PG&E should have made every effort to respond as fully as possible, and as soon as possible.

The panel is, after all, reviewing the data on behalf of the public. And if a panel of independent experts doesn’t share the utility’s certainty that the plant can safely withstand a huge earthquake, how can PG&E expect the public to be confident the plant is seismically safe?

Rather than adopt a “just trust us” strategy, we strongly urge PG&E to work closely with the Independent Peer Review Panel in the coming months to provide the further clarification the panel is seeking. If there are still differences of opinion at the end of that process, then explain them and tell us why they matter.

Odds are, the Diablo Canyon Power Plant will never be threatened by a cataclysmic quake, but given what’s at stake, we believe every effort should be made to ensure seismic studies were properly conducted and analyzed.

The Independent Peer Review Panel can be an invaluable part of that effort. We urge PG&E to embrace that.

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