Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Heed the nuclear wake-up call

This year, a tragic mix of earthquakes and nuclear power at Fukushima rocked us with a global wake-up call. How has the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded? By hitting the snooze button.

Even as we write, they continue to shuffle their feet at a zombielike pace while debating implementation of the most timid reforms. For residents of seismically situated San Luis Obispo, this comes as no surprise. The NRC’s sleep-inducing obfuscation began just one year ago today, at their SLO “seismic workshop.”

A year before the Fuku-shima tragedy, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility met with the chairman of the NRC. We requested that the NRC work in partnership with California agencies on the state’s recommended seismic studies, so that we, “the public,” could feel confident that the results were vetted with the oversight of our state.

The NRC denied our request, and instead chose to hold a two-day “seismic workshop” in San Luis Obispo. The workshop was heavy on utility and NRC panelists, less so on state and outside agency participation. Public comment made it clear that the jargon-laden lexicon was not well understood by civilian stakeholders. But then, our request to the NRC was not one requiring scientific explanation, it had been one of public policy: Don’t talk at us; please work with us.

Since the NRC seismic workshop, the world has refocused on nuclear seismic vulnerabilities from Fukushima to the recent earthquake near reactors in Virgina. Have we any greater reason to trust the NRC? Last week, on Sept. 2, The Tribune published an investigative story by the Associated Press that relied heavily on internal NRC emails, some featuring the workshop spokespeople.

In 2010, Annie Kammerer, NRC seismologist, stated at the SLO workshop, “Now, of course, when you look at a risk of a nuclear plant — something that happened — it’s never the result of just one component. There’s a whole series of bad things that have to happen. The plants are designed with a lot of robustness and margin and defense in depth.” And yet, Ms. Kammerer seems less confident in the current AP story:

“In a March 15 email, for example, an NRC earthquake expert questioned releasing data to the public showing how strong an earthquake each plant was designed to withstand. The seismologist, Annie Kammerer, acknowledged that recent science showed stronger quakes could happen. ‘Frankly, it is not a good story for us, she wrote to agency colleagues.’ ”

Past “assurances” by the NRC ring hollow with utility customers in California, especially those who remember how the NRC and PG&E’s negligent oversight led to more than $4 billion in seismic retrofits when the plant was first licensed. Our state has used the relicensing of Diablo as a venue to update our seismic knowledge, but the NRC isn’t asking for new studies, raising questions reported in the AP story:

Kammerer’s boss, Brian Sheron, who heads the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, wrote in a March 14 email: “And isn’t there a prediction that the West Coast is likely to get hit with some huge earthquake in the next 30 years or so? Yet we relicense their plants .”

Glib assurances in public; skeptical diffidence in private. At the conclusion of the 2010 workshop, state senator and seismologist Sam Blakeslee warned the NRC to proceed with utmost care regarding seismic hazards:

“ if it becomes clear that that level of duty is not being taken by the NRC, the state of California will act to protect the public, to protect ratepayers, and to make sure that we have a reliable power source in the state of California.”

In June 2011, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board of the NRC issued a “52 month delay” in the relicensing of Diablo Canyon, due in part to addressing mandates of the California Coastal Commission. It is an acknowledgment of some state jurisdiction, but note that the NRC itself is still not requiring any seismic updates from PG&E.

Californians are urged to join the bipartisan effort led by Sen. Blakeslee and Congresswoman Capps to ensure that the state seismic studies are completed and independently peer-reviewed. Ratepayers can follow our state’s actions as they move through California’s Public Utilities Commission and Energy Commission. We have heard the wake-up call. It’s time to rise and get busy.

Rochelle Becker is executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. Visit www.a4nr.org for full documentation of this issue.