Did the NRC and PG&E collude to hide danger?
December 16, 2014
Statement by Friends of the Earth
Internal emails show that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. may have worked together to counteract widespread news coverage. Numerous outlets reported that the former chief inspector of the Diablo Canyon power plant had warned superiors of new seismic data suggesting that the aging nuclear plant on the California coast is operating with an invalid license and may not be safe from previously unknown earthquake faults.
Friends of the Earth obtained more than 100 pages of NRC emails through a Freedom of Information Act request. Many emails were heavily redacted, but nonetheless show that the NRC knew the exact date and time PG&E would release a long-awaited report on the plant’s Diablo Canyon’s seismic safety, and the NRC responded by simultaneously releasing its verdict rejecting the former inspector’s dissent. The documents also show that while the NRC denied collaborating on release of the reports, they had worked for weeks on a media strategy based on prior knowledge of the PG&E report.
Friends of the Earth and its FOIA request partners, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Mothers for Peace and the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, have filed an appeal with the NRC demanding release of the redacted emails and their attachments.
“These emails leave little doubt that the NRC and PG&E colluded to spin the story against mounting evidence that Diablo Canyon may not be able to withstand the powerful shaking possible on these previously unknown faults,” said Damon Moglen of Friends of the Earth. “We know from the San Bruno pipeline scandal that PG&E is not above backdoor tactics to try to influence a government regulator, but this is a new and shocking example of such collusion on an issue that could affect the safety of hundreds of thousands of lives.”
On Aug. 25, a news report revealed the existence of a report by former Diablo chief inspector Michael Peck (known as a Differing Professional Opinion or DPO) and that the NRC had kept it secret for more than a year. The dissent called for shutdown of the plant unless it could be proven that the plant had a valid license and could withstand shaking on several faults that were unknown at the time it was designed and built.
On Sept. 10, the NRC announced it had ruled against Peck. Within hours, PG&E released a lengthy and long-overdue seismic safety study to the State of California. It contained the startling admission that faults near the plant are much longer than previously known and interconnected, making possible a quake that could produce much more shaking than Diablo was built to withstand. But those admissions, buried in the avalanche of material released that day, went mostly unmentioned in news coverage.
The emails show that as early as Aug. 21 — with the news story imminent — NRC public affairs staffers were working on a “Communications Strategy on State Report.” Attached to a message with that subject was a document entitled “State Report Messaging,” which likewise related to PG&E’s as yet unreleased seismic report. In the emails released to Friends of the Earth, the messaging memo was redacted except for the heading “Draft Talking Points: State Report.”
Subsequent emails show that PG&E told the NRC exactly when the state report would be released, and that in response, the NRC’s public affairs staff scrambled to make sure that the rejection of Peck’s dissent would be made public the same day.
The original FOIA request was filed Sept. 18. Asked that day by journalists about the allegations, NRC spokesperson Lara Uselding repeatedly denied any collusion, stating: “We know of no collaboration between the NRC and PG&E regarding the individual timing of releases.”
“Rather than acting to address the fact that PG&E is operating Diablo Canyon without a valid license and in a place where no reactors belong, the NRC has sought to protect PG&E’s financial interests rather than public safety,” said Moglen. “This is a replay of what happened with the San Onofre reactors where the NRC also downplayed safety problems. Yet that plant eventually closed despite repeated assurances that things were okay.”
Documents requested under the FOIA can be viewed on the Friends of the Earth website.