PG&E May Have Secretly Altered Earthquake Standards for California's Last Nuclear Power Plant


Montaña de Oro State Park is a place where the rolling hills of the Central California coast drop from steep cliffs into crashing waves that are home to diverse sea life ranging from starfish and anemones to sea lions and migrating whales. Nestled among the wildflowers along the craggy bluffs of this majestic natural reserve is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon.

I grew up in the small beach town that bumps heads with Montaña de Oro and the ominous plant, aptly named for the devil himself. I recall the piercing screech of testing sirens, sounding the potential for a nuclear disaster to render our homes toxic and dangerous. Since Los Osos is located directly along a large and intricate web of earthquake fault lines, it was no mystery how that disaster would likely come to be.

At least, we were assured, the nuclear plant was regularly checked and tested, and would withstand even a significant amount of tectonic action. We had better regulations in place than Japan, didn't we? Diablo could not be the next Fukushima Daiichi because everything here was up to California's strict codes that take the Big One into account, or so we thought.

Surprise! This week a group of environmental activists brought a lawsuit against PG&E and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because, as it turns out, federal regulators secretly revised Diablo’s license “to mask the aging plant’s vulnerability to earthquakes,” as the San Francisco Chronicle put it.

“The suit claims that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and [PG&E] last year changed a key element of the plant’s license related to seismic safety without allowing public input as required by law — or even notifying the public at all. The changes concern the strength of earthquakes that the plant ... can withstand,” reports the Chronicle.

The public PG&E failed to notify consists of my parents, cousins, teachers, childhood friends, and their children. It’s heartbreaking to read about a nuclear disaster an ocean away, but it’s terrifying to realize that the same thing could happen here in California because of a greedy, negligent corporate coverup.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is specifically set up to review the decisions of federal agencies. The group behind the suit wants the court to shut down the plant until the necessary changes are in place. They want public hearings to take place to amend Diablo Canyon’s license. So far PG&E denies all of the allegations.

As the Chronicle points out, this isn’t the first time PG&E has been “accused of back-channel dealings with government regulators.” In 2010 it was accused of a similar hush-up effort when its natural gas pipeline in San Bruno exploded.

The local community, as well as global environmentalists, has long voiced safety concerns about Diablo Canyon and an effort is building to shut it down completely. After the plant's original construction in the '60s, several previously unknown fault lines were discovered nearby, including the Shoreline Fault which is just 600 yards from Diablo's twin reactors. 

"Environmentalists have long argued that the plant wasn’t designed to survive the shaking that some of the newly discovered faults could produce," states the Chronicle. "And last year, Michael Peck, one of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s inspectors at Diablo, recommended shutting down the plant until the commission determined that its equipment could withstand a strong quake from those faults. The commission rejected the idea."

When my parents first bought their house in the mid-90s, the county provided them with a small supply of iodine tablets (which protect against radiation exposure) and instructions for what to do in the unlikely case of a nuclear emergency. They never thought they’d have to use them. Now the odds aren’t looking great. It’s time to shut down California’s last remaining nuclear plant before it’s too late.

Read the details of the lawsuit here, and sign a petition to shut down Diablo Canyon here.

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