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California Wants Quake Studies on Two Nuke Plants

California's two coastal nuclear generating plants need to have new seismic studies completed in the wake of the Japan disaster and before they seek extensions of their current operating licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), state officials said during a special legislative hearing in Sacramento on Monday.

The pronouncements from elected officials and state regulators came as the Select Senate Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness probed the state's natural gas and electric utilities on their preparations for an event of the magnitude of the March 11 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan.

State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, who represents the area on the central California coast where Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s (PG&E) Diablo Canyon nuclear generating plant is located, asked PG&E representatives at the hearing if the utility would be willing to suspend its current pending license renewal application at NRC until the additional seismic work is done, but they said they were not authorized to make that commitment. Blakeslee pressed the point, and Jim Boyd, vice chair of the California Energy Commission (CEC), said his agency also hoped that the seismic work would be done first.

As PG&E decided to more forward with relicensing Diablo Canyon into the 2040s, Boyd said NRC several years ago told the CEC that "seismic activities are not taken into account in the relicensing process, and if it were an issue, the federal commission would address it on a real-time basis. We continue to believe that these studies need to be done, and perhaps the nexus of our studies and the ones the NRC has now been directed to do in the wake of Japan will see that the work is done."

Boyd said he is not saying that seismic threats exist for the two California nuke plants beyond what has already been done, but the state doesn't know and needs to find out if the threats, in fact, are real before finishing a relicensing process.

"Like the Japanese plants, our plants are older coastal plants, and they have significant inventories of spent fuel on the site, located near major earthquake faults," Boyd said.

A western region NRC spokesperson told NGI Tuesday that this was correct in a very narrow, generic sense, but that in fact in the case of PG&E's pending case an anti-nuclear group, Mothers for Peace in the San Luis Obispo area near the nuclear site, raised questions about the seismic issues at Diablo and that is one of five issues the NRC will examine as part of the relicensing process. Further, in the wake of the Japanese situation, the NRC has been directed by President Obama to review the seismic assessments and mitigation measures at each of the more than 100 operating nuclear plants in the United States.

"Events in Japan are leading us to relook at the safety of all nuclear plants in this country," the NRC regional spokesperson said.

Blakeslee, who holds a doctoral degree in geophysics, said the PG&E seismic research originally done on Diablo Canyon was "woefully inadequate." The state legislator said he started seven years ago trying to get a legislative mandate to overcome the lack of past data. In the wake of Japan there are many "hard questions" that needs to be asked, such as the question of "certainty-vs.-uncertainty."

"Japan illustrates that there was significant offshore uncertainty in a seismically active setting," said Blakeslee, asking a PG&E nuclear plant director if there is still no concern about uncertainty. "PG&E acknowledges that there is uncertainty, but it has no concern about it," he said. A PG&E representative said the utility has had a contractor working on three-dimensional studies of the earthquake risks offshore Diablo Canyon since last October.

At one point the legislator specifically asked if PG&E will suspend or withdraw its NRC relicensing application "until which time that we have studies in hand as requested by [existing state law] AB 1632 through the CEC?" The utility representative said he could not give that assurance and said PG&E continues to work with the NRC.

"I would ask sincerely that PG&E suspend or withdraw its application, and to the extent that it does not, I will be pursuing legislation, so I ask that feedback come as soon as possible," Blakeslee said.

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