Letters to the Editor

4 years after Fukushima: The real lesson

PG&E will soon submit its post-Fukushima seismic re-evaluation of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, eerily timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the tragic accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan.

While the NRC recognized “what” happened in Japan, it has not paid nearly enough attention to “why.” Why, for example, was Japan — with such vast experience in seismology and engineering prowess — caught unprepared when a force of nature trumped its vaunted technology? PG&E’s new report may proclaim the merits of its complex probabilistic analyses, but the NRC’s review of PG&E’s studies will likely require waivers of the reactor’s design basis before any relicensing approval. It appears unlikely the NRC will heed the National Diet of Japan’s “Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission” conclusion:

“The accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. We believe that the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.”

The problem that created Fukushima was not geological; the problem was not technical. The problem was behavioral. It was a case of regulators and utilities behaving badly. And here, the similarities between Tokyo Electric Power Co. and PG&E come home to roost.

The unfolding saga of collusion between the California Public Utilities Commission and PG&E has unearthed more than 65,000 emails as part of state and federal investigations. Buried in the deluge of emails is direct evidence involving Diablo Canyon. A series of emails between a PG&E senior vice president and Michael Peevey, former president of the PUC, presents a more disturbing scenario.

Just before the Fukushima disaster took place, PG&E was seeking ratepayer funds for a license renewal of Diablo Canyon. The Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility was a legal participant, contending that it made no sense to pay for a full license renewal process until all the seismic studies mandated by the state were completed. One month after Japan’s disaster struck, PG&E issued a news release announcing its request that the NRC withhold final issuance of a license renewal; however, all the other license renewal processes were to continue unabated. As discovered within the avalanche of emails, PG&E’s vice president made sure the PUC understood its request to obtain license renewal money would also remain unimpeded, despite the “stop and study” public facade. PUC President Peevey encouraged PG&E to move forward on license renewal, offering to have his chief of staff meet with the assigned judge and expedite the schedule.

All communications between commissioners and parties in a PUC proceeding must be publicly documented , with notice served to all parties; only then can ratepayers be assured that all have equal, transparent access to the decision-makers. Neither PG&E nor the PUC did so, and the emails provide evidence of the incestuous relationship between regulators and utilities the Japanese deemed a recipe for disaster.

The NRC also has been less than transparent in its dealings with the public. In the aftermath of Fukushima, it published a “FAQ” document stating:

“Large tsunami such as the one that hit Japan typically are caused by “subduction” faults. There is only one such fault near the U.S. coastline — off the northern part of the West Coast. There are no coastal plants in this region. The closest plant, in Southern California, is well protected against tsunami.”

At the same time as the NRC issued this “reassurance,” it was also sitting on a tsunami study commissioned by the NRC in 2003 for Diablo Canyon. Two weeks after the Fukushima disaster, the study’s author, Dr. Robert Sewell wrote the NRC:

“Unfortunately, the recommendations went unheeded at that time, and the NRC was not then willing to open up the prospect of re-evaluating the tsunami design basis for DCPP (Diablo Canyon Power Plant). Furthermore I was told at that time that there was disbelief that a tsunami could truly damage a rugged nuclear power facility (something that the recent Japanese event has now proven otherwise). (m)y concerns with the plant remained and do even more so today (in general, for all coastal NPPs).”

The NRC suppressed Sewell’s 2003 report for 11 years and only made it public when forced by Freedom of Information Act requests.

As one NRC staff email confessed shortly after Fukushima, “You may recall that we were instructed (verbally!!) not to make the report public, nor our evaluation of the report.”

When the Sewell report was made public, it disclosed: In the event of an underwater landslide, “11 of the 13 scenarios produce run-up also exceeding the main plant grade level at DCPP, and have the potential to damage structures and safety.”

Surely, this is a serious threat worthy of further investigation.

The opacity and collusion of state and federal regulators regarding PG&E and Diablo Canyon provide all the ingredients for a disaster that could rival the Japanese experience. If we are to avoid the fate of future Fukushimas, we must redouble our efforts to secure open and transparent communications and seek true, “ground up” reform of our regulatory structure.