NRC on Diablo nuclear safety

June 20, 2011

Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission informed Santa Barbara County Supervisors June 16 that Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is operated safely and is not a threat. [SantaBarbaraIndependent]

Assurances were offered after inspections were made of nuclear power plants throughout the U.S., including two reviews at Diablo, in the wake of the nuclear disaster that disabled six reactors in Fukushima, Japan, in March.

Overall, the inspections showed “no safety-significant issues, Anton Vegel, director of Region IV Division of Reactor Safety, told the board. In the event of a 7.5 earthquake, the largest that federal regulators say is possible near the power plant, Vegel said: “We have the resources and procedures to safely shut down.”

Several Santa Barbara County supervisors expressed skepticism over the report and whether the NRC keeps enough distance from the industry to fully protect the public’s safety.

They pointed out that a nuclear accident at the Diablo power plant, some 100 miles away, could have major consequences from the fallout of airborne radiation, threatening crops, property values, health and tourism.

Concerns about the plant were fueled by the 2008 discovery of a new fault line—the Shoreline Fault—only 300 yards off the coast from the site, as well as PG & E’s plans to re-license two reactors.

Critics, including Republican state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, would like a seismic study to be completed before regulators consider re-licensing the plant.

Until the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, the NRC has maintained that re-licensing should proceed independently of a seismic study. The agency now said it will wait until the seismic study is completed before giving any final recommendations on re-licensing.

Santa Barbara supervisors, meanwhile, voted to send letters to the NRC and PG&E arguing for the completion of the new seismic study before proceeding with re-licensing application.

Meanwhile, PG&E plans to reduce the amount of spent fuel stored at the Diablo nuclear facility, according to the Tribune.

Spent fuel at the Fukushima plant contributed to the crisis that followed Japan’s devastating tsunami that swept through the area.

While regulators note that a natural disaster of that magnitude is unlikely at Diablo, nuclear watchdog and safety groups nonetheless would like to see the waste transferred to dry-cask storage. Diablo Canyon stores 81 percent of its spent fuel on site in pools.

While dry cask storage is considered less risky, the NRC maintains that pools are safe and pose no pressing safety or security threats that would require immediate transfer of the nuclear waste.

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The statements by the NRC reps in the article seem to be at odds with the presentation made by NRC staff at the 6/15 Embassy Suites meeting, where the overriding safety concern at Diablo was how to reverse a persistent culture of failure to look for potential safety problems before they become emergency issues. The NRC first noted this trend in 2008 and has seen very little progress by PG&E to reverse it. It’s an all-too-human trait: it it isn’t a problem it doesn’t exist.