Diablo Canyon: NRC Insider’s Dissent

August 27, 2014
Dave Lochbaum

Several recent news articles covered a report filed by Dr. Michael Peck, an NRC engineer, within his agency. The Friends of the Earth (FOE) obtained the non-public report and posted it online.

NRC resident inspectors Tony Brown (left) and Michael Peck (right) examining an emergency coolant pump at Diablo Canyon on March 2, 2011. (Source: NRC)

NRC resident inspectors Tony Brown (left) and Michael Peck (right) examining an emergency coolant pump at Diablo Canyon on March 2, 2011. (Source: NRC)

Dr. Peck had been the NRC’s senior resident inspector at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California for several years. He was working for the NRC when Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) informed the NRC in late 2008 about the discovery of the Shoreline Fault just offshore of the site. His job assignments included evaluating the impact of this discovery on Diablo Canyon’s safety. Dr. Peck researched the history of earthquake protection requirements at Diablo Canyon and assessed how the Shoreline Fault fit into this picture.

As chronicled in my November 2013 report Seismic Shift: Diablo Canyon Literally and Figuratively on Shaky Ground, Dr. Peck found two kinds of problems:

(1) PG&E had not completely evaluated whether ground motion from an earthquake along the Shoreline Fault could damage vital plant components, and

(2) the evaluations PG&E had performed of other related issues used methods and assumptions that were unacceptable to the NRC.

Dr. Peck’s findings led him to conclude that the homework required for Diablo Canyon to continue operating safely had not been completed satisfactorily and therefore neither the company nor the NRC had adequate legal basis for the plant’s operation. He filed reports via two internal NRC processes—the non-concurrence and differing professional opinion (DPO) processes—to register his convictions and compel the agency to address them. The NRC is still assessing his latter DPO report, the one obtained and posted by FOE.

Peck Was Right

There is little doubt that Dr. Peck’s findings are correct. UCS obtained internal NRC emails and memos in January 2014 in response to our Freedom of Information Act request. These documents relate to the NRC’s review of a license amendment request (LAR) submitted by Diablo Canyon in October 2011. The company sought the NRC’s approval for its handling of the Shoreline Fault.

The documents indicate that the NRC’s reviewers found the request unacceptable and planned to reject it. For example, we obtained an NRC email dated February 8, 2012, about an upcoming call among NRC reviewers to discuss the company’s LAR. At the bottom of page 3, the NRC staffer wrote:

“c. Staff plans to reject in whole or in part the LAR on the following bases:”

“i. LAR does not meet the provisions in the new SRP [NRC Standard Review Plan]”

“ii. Reevaluation of the RCS [reactor coolant system] for the seismic and LOCA [loss of coolant accident] loads not yet completed”

“iii. Licensee has not provided a seismic PRA [probabilistic risk assessment]”

In October 2012, the company withdrew its license amendment request rather than have the NRC formally reject it.

Recall that Dr. Peck’s findings were that the company’s evaluation was incomplete and that the completed parts used methods and assumptions unacceptable to the NRC. The documents obtained by UCS by FOIA substantiate his findings.

That the company used methods and assumptions unacceptable to the NRC is not speculation. The company conceded this point in a document it submitted to the NRC in December 2011. That document detailed the departures in its license amendment request from the NRC’s accepted protocols. The company did not identify a difference or two—it sent the NRC over 300 pages with several departures per page. Hence, there are literally hundreds of departures from the NRC’s accepted standards in the company’s evaluation of the Shoreline Fault.

It is clear and undeniable that Dr. Peck’s findings are correct: the company’s evaluation of the Shoreline Fault and its implications on safety at Diablo Canyon is incomplete and does not use methods and assumptions accepted by the NRC.

Dr. Peck concluded, based on these findings, that Diablo Canyon lacked proper justification for continuing to operate. He focused solely on the NRC’s regulations as they applied to Diablo Canyon.

NRC Is Treating Diablo Canyon Differently

For our Seismic Shift report, I researched four decades of history when the NRC, and its predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission, faced similar situations. In all prior cases, I found that the NRC/AEC did not allow nuclear facilities to operate with similar unresolved earthquake protection issues. For example, in March 1979—two weeks prior to the Three Mile Island accident—the NRC ordered a handful of nuclear power reactors to shut down and remain shut down until earthquake analysis and protection concerns were corrected.

Thus, Dr. Peck’s findings are irrefutable and his conclusion consistent with nearly four decades of precedents.

What is not clear is why Diablo Canyon continues to operate with inadequately evaluated protection against known earthquake hazards.

The NRC’s job is to establish and then enforce safety regulations to protect public health. It is simply not getting that job done at Diablo Canyon.