We read with great interest Jane Swanson’s May 19 Viewpoint challenging assurances made by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission about nuclear power plant safety following events at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear site in Japan on March 11.
Mothers for Peace has had a long-standing interest in the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Despite the fact that we frequently agree to disagree, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission appreciates its participation in the regulatory process as we share the common goals of ensuring the safety of Diablo Canyon, protecting public health and safety and the environment.
This said, however, there are several misstatements in Ms. Swanson’s column that deserve correction.
Following the Japanese accident, NRC decided to assess the capabilities of the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants to respond to severe events like fires and flooding in combination with earthquakes following major losses of plant equipment and off-site power. The comprehensive inspections NRC undertook were a prudent response to the most significant nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. It is the action of an independent regulator that continually asks probing questions of itself as well as its licensees and continually searches for ways to improve nuclear power plant safety.
We did identify some areas for improvement at Diablo Canyon, and Pacific Gas & Electric has indicated it will take appropriate actions to correct deficiencies. But largely overlooked amid the flurry of news reports is the fact that overall, none of the findings are significant enough to undermine our confidence in the ability of Diablo Canyon and other plants to respond to catastrophic accidents.
Despite Ms. Swanson’s claim, there was nothing “irrational” about the NRC’s refusal to prepare an environmental analysis on the consequences of a terrorist attack on Diablo Canyon. In response to a 2006 lawsuit filed by the group, NRC had argued before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that this was not required by law. When the court rejected that argument, the NRC prepared the assessment. The Mothers For Peace called it inadequate and sued the NRC again. The 9th Circuit Court has ruled in favor of the NRC.
The NRC is an independent regulatory agency respected around the world for its high standards and low threshold for concern. Our inspection process is designed to identify problems long before they become safety significant. Ms. Swanson noted that the NRC has identified many inspection findings at Diablo Canyon. This is true. But it is important to note that all of these findings had very low safety significance.
At our June 15 public meeting scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at the Embassy Suites Hotel, NRC staff will brief the public on the plant’s 2010 safety performance. Overall, Diablo Canyon operated safely during 2010 and is doing so now.
Despite Ms. Swanson’s claims, PG&E has made progress in addressing the human performance issues identified by the NRC during its rigorous inspections. However, more progress needs to be made in addressing issues involving problem identification and resolution. NRC intends to conduct focused inspections in this area to ensure that occurs. We invite interested members of the community to attend our June 15 meeting to discuss these issues and meet face-to-face with NRC with staff.
Victor Dricks is senior public affairs officer for NRC’s Region IV.