Recent scrutiny of about 2,400 internal PG&E emails has raised even more questions about the utility’s hotly disputed seismic assessment of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. These documents were obtained by the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility during a California Public Utilities Commission investigation into the conduct of PG&E’s seismic studies program.
Ultimately, the CPUC must decide whether PG&E’s toxic corporate culture — blamed by many for the San Bruno pipeline tragedy — has also corrupted the most expensive seismic re-evaluation of a nuclear plant ever conducted anywhere in the world.
Should ratepayers pick up the tab when an important scientific investigation is hijacked by the utility and then debased into public relations happy talk?
Shortly before this past September’s release of PG&E’s $64.3 million ratepayer-funded study — trumpeted by the company as proving “the facility remains seismically safe and able to withstand the largest potential earthquakes in the region” — the external consultants responsible for assembling PG&E’s follow-up submittal to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sounded an alarm.
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“Things are going horribly,” Dr. Stephen Thompson wrote. “These reports are in bad shape and will be a blight on PG&E if they go out as is.” He recommended delay, but this “was immediately rejected” by PG&E management.
Noting the seismic study was “in very sad shape,” Thompson’s supervisor, Dr. William Lettis, requested an “urgent discussion” with PG&E’s chief internal seismology engineer. “I think it would be wise for PG&E to talk with the NRC about a 3 to 6 month delay” in filing the follow-up submittal, Dr. Lettis wrote. He described the flawed study harshly: “This is another issue I would like to discuss with you, in terms of PG&E Geosciences credibility.”
PG&E management elected to push forward anyway. The schedule with the NRC remained intact. The emails indicate that the conclusions of the $64.3 million study never changed after July 2, 2014, — two weeks before Dr. Thompson’s warning of “a blight on PG&E.”
The PG&E documents also indicate what was omitted from the report. According to meeting notes from a Dec. 6, 2013, briefing to Chief Nuclear Officer Ed Halpin, the report was supposed to include a deterministic analysis of (1) the Hosgri Fault linked to faults up to Mendocino Triple Junction; (2) the Los Osos Fault linked to the Hosgri Fault; (3) the San Luis Bay Fault linked to the Hosgri Fault; and (4) the Shoreline Fault linked to the Hosgri Fault.
Despite PG&E’s claim that the September report proves Diablo Canyon can withstand the largest potential earthquakes in the region, none of the first three analyses is mentioned anywhere in the report’s 1,700 pages. Nor is there any deterministic assessment of a San Simeontype earthquake “directly beneath the plant” — something the California Energy Commission had emphasized in 2008 when urging PG&E to initiate the seismic studies.
These developments all took place outside the purview of the state government’s Independent Peer Review Panel of seismic experts, which the CPUC had assembled to monitor and evaluate PG&E’s conduct of the studies. With an authorization to spend so much ratepayer money on a matter of such public controversy, did PG&E really expect to escape independent scrutiny of the multiple decisions and assumptions any scientific inquiry must entail?
It did. The PG&E emails show a conscious and sustained effort by PG&E management to evade the oversight of the Independent Peer Review Panel. Despite repeated requests by the CPUC staff that PG&E share preliminary results with the review panel, PG&E decided as early as March 19, 2014, that the panel would be kept in the dark until “the seismic report is finalized.” As one of Chief Nuclear Officer Halpin’s lieutenants explained in early April of 2014, “Our sense is, they will not be happy not getting an advanced review before we issue but we really have no choice at this point.”
Even after PG&E promised the review panel it would equally weigh three tectonic models of the Irish Hills because “(t)here is no preferred model based on available data,” the company’s formal submittal to the NRC shifted the allocation to a 40-40-20 split and admitted “noticeable differences in hazard” between the three models. Unsurprisingly, it was the model showing the largest impact on hazard that PG&E downgraded to 20 percent.
PG&E is the only utility licensee in the history of the commercial nuclear power industry to ever face felony prosecution by the U.S. Department of Justice for obstruction of justice and corruption of a federal investigation. The CPUC and the NRC must put a stop to similarly egregious misconduct in PG&E’s seismic analysis of Diablo Canyon.