Situated on a coastal bluff overlooking the majestic Pacific Ocean, the industrial landscape of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant forms a sharp contrast with the natural beauty of its surroundings. Lush rolling hills with scattered trees level out to the flat concrete surface of the plant’s compound. Two large dome structures which house the plant’s nuclear reactors tower over the rest of the complex like sentries standing guard over California’s central coast. The juxtaposition of natural beauty with the concrete of the plant’s structures is simultaneously wondrous and confounding — one could not imagine a more beautiful site for a nuclear power plant, nor a worse eyesore on this gorgeous coastal stretch just north of Avila Beach.
Diablo Canyon’s secluded location also keeps it largely isolated from the public psyche. While tensions have existed for years between the plant and environmental activists of the San Luis Obispo area, many in California are not even aware of the plant’s existence. Despite being one of only two currently operating nuclear power plants in the state of California, Diablo Canyon has enjoyed minimal exposure in mainstream media for the past 20 years.
However, all that changed when the 8.9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan led to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Almost instantly, media attention was focused on Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo, and the San Onofre nuclear power plant in San Clemente because of their similarities to the Fukushima Daiichi plant. All three are located on the coast along earthquake fault lines, and in the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, many are becoming concerned about the safety of nuclear power plants in areas of high seismic risk.
Diablo Canyon has received a disproportionately larger percentage of this media attention because Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the plant’s operator, is currently applying for an extension on the operator’s licenses for its two nuclear reactors until the years 2024 and 2045, respectively.
This has raised concerns about the Nuclear Regulator Commission’s (NRC) ability to serve as an effective watchdog for the nuclear industry. The NRC has so far failed to heed Rep. Lois Capps (D-San Luis Obispo) and Sen. Sam Blakeslee’s (R-San Luis Obispo) request that they halt processing of PG&E’s application until 3D seismic studies can be conducted on the Shoreline Fault discovered in 2008 by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist Jeanne Hardebeck. Little is known about the Shoreline Fault other than that it is much closer to the reactor than the larger Hosgri Fault located five kilometers offshore. The NRC maintains that ongoing safety oversight is adequate to consider any seismic issues that arise from the results of the study, but many contend the NRC is ignoring the significance of the Fukushima disaster by proceeding with business as usual.
Jane Swanson, spokesperson for the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, the legal intervener between the San Luis Obispo community and the NRC, says the events at Fukushima warrant a departure from the status quo.
“If not now, when are we going to decide nuclear power is not worth the risk?” Swanson said. “PG&E says the probability of a bad deal happening at Diablo is so low you don’t need to worry about it. The NRC says that too. Guess what they were saying at Fukushima seven weeks ago?”
Diablo Canyon is marred by a troubling history of downplaying seismic hazards. PG&E initially denied the existence of a fault line near Diablo Canyon while applying for a construction permit in the mid-1960s, but the Hosgri Fault was discovered in 1969 after the construction was approved.
Then, in 1976, the NRC adopted figures from a seismic study conducted by the USGS that stated Diablo Canyon’s current design would not withstand the largest possible earthquake generated by the Hosgri Fault. PG&E protested, but eventually retrofitted their structures to withstand these new thresholds.
In 2006, the California legislature directed PG&E to conduct 3D seismic studies to address uncertainty about seismic hazards offshore from Diablo Canyon. PG&E denied this uncertainty, but in 2008 USGS seismologist Jeanne Hardebeck discovered the Shoreline Fault while working in collaboration with PG&E’s own long-term seismic study team. While the exact location of the Shoreline Fault is still undetermined, estimates place it less than a mile from the reactor.
PG&E spokesman Paul Flake said Diablo Canyon remains committed to seismic safety.
“PG&E has always been focused on safety, and at Diablo Canyon, seismic safety has always been priority number one,” Flake said. “That’s why we are continuing to conduct seismic studies, including 3D studies, to make sure that we have all the data that we need to keep the plant and our community safe.”
The Shoreline Fault is smaller than the Hosgri Fault, and projections made by PG&E seismologists place the greatest earthquake it is capable of producing at a magnitude of 6.5. By comparison, the Hosgri Fault is rated to produce a magnitude 7.5 earthquake.
Sen. Blakeslee, who grew up in the Central Coast area and holds a Ph.D. in earthquake studies from UC Santa Barbara, calls the seismic studies conducted by PG&E “woefully inadequate.” He authored the 2006 bill that called for PG&E to conduct offshore 3D studies prior to the discovery of the Shoreline Fault. He explains that while the Shoreline Fault is capable of producing a smaller earthquake than the Hosgri Fault, it is actually ground acceleration that matters for seismic safety.
“You might think of it in terms of ‘how loud is a thunder clap?’” Sen. Blakeslee said. “It’s due in part to how close you are to the lightning. You may have a magnitude 7.0 earthquake, but if you are 100 miles away versus two miles away, you will experience a dramatically different ground acceleration.”
Sen. Blakeslee says the Shoreline Fault is now understood to be the more threatening of the two.
“Because this newly discovered Shoreline Fault is closer to the facility than the Hosgri … it has the potential to create greater strong motion [for Diablo Canyon] even though it may produce a smaller earthquake,” Sen. Blakeslee said.
The 8.9 earthquake that Japan experienced on March 10 was four times greater than the 8.6 projected by Japanese seismologists. USGS seismologist Hardebeck said the reason projections indicated such a smaller earthquake was Japanese seismologists did not believe multiple segments of the fault line would rupture at the same time. Hardebeck said a much larger earthquake than is projected could occur at the Diablo Canyon site if a rupture starting on either the Shoreline or Hosgri Faults spread to the other.
“It seems entirely plausible that an earthquake could start along one of these faults [and] jump to the other and create a much larger earthquake,” she said.
PG&E said that the real issue for the Fukushima Daiichi plant was not the earthquake, but the tsunami that followed.
“A lot of people are understandably concerned because of what happened in Japan,” Flake said. “But there are major differences between Diablo and Fukushima. Diablo Canyon is located on a bluff 80 feet above sea level. The Fukushima plant is located less than 30 feet above sea level. I think not too many people are aware that the Fukushima plant was able to withstand the earthquake. What caused the problems for their cooling system was the tsunami, because it knocked out their emergency generators.”
Flake said that the threat of a wave large enough to knock out power to Diablo’s generators is very slim.
“At Diablo Canyon, both the power plant as well as our back-up generators are at about 80 feet above sea level, so they are very high.”
Sen. Blakeslee said, however, that the potential for increased ground motion as well as the possibility that an earthquake could jump from one fault to the next creates considerable concern.
“Such an earthquake would not only be larger than forecast, but much closer to the facility, which is really a deadly combination,” Sen. Blakeslee said.
“A Bad Idea”
Tensions have existed between Diablo Canyon and the residents of San Luis Obispo County since the mid 1960s, when PG&E announced it would begin construction of a nuclear power plant at the Diablo Canyon site. Between the early 1970s and mid 1980s, thousands were arrested for civil disobedience protesting the development and licensing of the Diablo Canyon plant.
The San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace was one of the first organized groups to take on the plant. Recognizing a need for legal opposition to Diablo Canyon, Mothers For Peace has been the legal intervener between the NRC and the residents of San Luis Obispo since 1973.
“When we first read that PG&E was going to build a nuclear power plant, we didn’t know what that was,” spokesperson Swanson said. “After we learned that there was no solution to nuclear waste and that the utility wasn’t responsible for it because the federal government agreed to take it off their hands, it didn’t take us too many Mothers for Peace meetings to decide [Diablo Canyon] was a bad idea.”
Since the Fukushima disaster, support for The Mothers For Peace has grown due to concerns about Diablo Canyon’s location along two fault lines, the Hosgri and Shoreline Faults, the latter of which very little is known. Swanson says that the day after the disaster in Japan, the group received many requests for more information about getting involved.
“As soon as the horror of Fukushima began to hit the news, the Mothers for Peace website and my personal email and phone were just flooded with people saying things like this: ‘I’ve watched you Mothers For Peace for years and I always thought you were a bunch of crazy ladies but now I see you’re right. How can I help?’ Literally thousands like that,” Swanson said, her eyes growing wide.
With so many people asking what they could do, The Mothers For Peace decided a public display of concern was in order. On April 16, approximately 300 people showed up at the Avila Beach Pier to call for a halt in the licensing process for all nuclear power plants under review by the NRC, and the decommission of Diablo Canyon.
“People came to us looking for leadership [and] in response, we organized the April 16 rally,” Swanson said.
Calling for a direct decommission of the plant is something that The Mothers for Peace has not done in years, Swanson said. However, the disaster in Japan has reignited their desire to see the plant closed down for good. Taking the microphone at the rally, Swanson led the protesters in an impassioned chant of “Shut it down! Shut it down!”
Swanson said this kind of public statement was a new experience.
“I am a retired fifth grade teacher,” she said, her face flushing. “I’ve never spoken that way in my life, but I am mad!”
Business As Usual
Because of safety concerns about the Shoreline fault, Sen. Blakeslee and Rep. Capps have been requesting the NRC halt its processing of PG&E’s license renewal application until offshore 3D seismic studies can be completed.
Congresswoman Capps’ press secretary Ashley Schapitl pointed out that Diablo Canyon’s current licenses won’t expire for over 10 years, while 3D studies will be completed within five.
“San Onofre nuclear power plant’s license expires sooner than Diablo Canyon’s and they haven’t even applied for re-licensing yet,” Schapitl said. “In [Congresswoman Capps’] view there is certainly enough time to pause the process until these studies are completed.”
The NRC contends that this is unnecessary.
“Seismic issues are not considered as a part of the license review process,” said NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks. “Seismic issues are looked at constantly as a condition of PG&E’s operating license … seismic concerns are too important to wait until license renewal.”
In response to public concern, PG&E sent a letter to the NRC on April 10 requesting that final decision be withheld on their license application until 3D seismic studies can be completed.
“PG&E heard the concerns of our community about what happened in Japan, and we are trying to be responsible in these times,” Flake said. “So far we haven’t received a response. I don’t know how they will respond, but that is our request.”
Dricks said the NRC currently has no intention of halting its review of Diablo Canyon. He maintains that any pressing seismic threats uncovered by the study can be taken care of by the existing safety procedures.
“If necessary, the plant would be required to make changes to ensure it could continue to operate safely,” Dricks said.
Katcho Achadjian, California assemblyman for San Luis Obispo, supports the NRC’s decision not to halt the re-licensing process.
“Moving forward [with re-licensing] doesn’t stop the 3D studies,” Assemblyman Achadjian said. “If the license is approved and the results of the study are not in [PG&E’s] favor, it will be dealt with.”
Despite expressing concerns about the plant’s safety, Assemblyman Achadjian said he is confident the NRC will protect the interests of the public.
“You’ve got to have faith in the higher authority,” Achadjian said.
Sen. Blakeslee does not share this faith in the NRC. On the contrary, he feels the NRC has proven time and time again they are willing to put the interests of the nuclear industry before the safety of the American public.
“I’ve become increasingly concerned the NRC is more interested in keeping reactors running than keeping the public safe,” Sen. Blakeslee said.
He also criticized the policy of the NRC to accept results from studies performed by the utility itself.
“When a regulator relies almost exclusively on information from the regulated entity it makes it difficult for the regulator to get independent, objective analysis, and that is what is needed on safety issues of this importance,” he said.
The Mothers for Peace are similarly dissatisfied with the actions of the NRC. Swanson said the NRC is not doing enough to learn from the Fukushima disaster and instead moving forward with re-licensing nuclear power plants across the nation before information from Japan can be collected and studied.
“We’re not asking for this out of the blue,” she said. “The NRC itself in 1979 self-proclaimed after Three Mile Island that they wouldn’t process any licenses for 18 months until they learned what the hey happened there.”
A Moral Obligation
Sitting on a bench after the April 16 rally on the Avila Beach Pier, Swanson is looking tired. The sun has been shining over San Luis Obispo, and she wipes a thin layer of perspiration off her forehead before continuing.
“Look at this grey hair,” she says, holding out a lock for inspection. “I started this work when I was in my 20s. Now I have [eight] grandchildren. I didn’t know it would take over my life, but it has.”
Some might say Swanson is fighting a losing battle. Despite the public concern surrounding seismic safety at Diablo Canyon, the NRC has made it clear they have no intention of delaying the re-licensing process. Instead, all statements made by the NRC in relation to Diablo Canyon confirm her accusations that they are conducting “business as usual.” The NRC has said many times they are confident in the ability of their oversight programs to protect against any currently unknown safety issues related to the Shoreline Fault.
The executive director for NRC operations said phase one of the agency’s post-Fukushima investigation into the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants has not identified “anything that requires immediate action,” in a statement made on April 28 at the agency’s headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.
Despite all this, Swanson refuses to give up.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘If you don’t like Diablo so much why don’t you move away?” Swanson says, her face hardening as though preparing to take on an unseen foe.
“Because we are the only ones doing this work,” she continues. “If we move away, then PG&E and the NRC can do whatever they want. Without a legal intervener there would be no one to hold them accountable to federal law. It would be immoral to leave.”