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Boxer: NRC has dropped the ball on nuclear safety

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer lit into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday for not living up to its mission of protecting the public and the environment by acting on recommendations following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Boxer, D-Calif., wielding the Environment and Public Works Committee’s gavel for one of the last times before the GOP takes control of the Senate next month, noted at the hearing that the Fukushima catastrophe – meltdowns caused by damage from a tsunami triggered by 2011’s huge earthquake – still isn’t completely under control, and “is a warning to us that we must do more to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants here in the United States.”

Diablo Canyon Power PlantYet despite the NRC’s assurances, “the reality is that not a single one of the 12 key safety recommendations made by the Fukushima Near-Term Task Force has been implemented at nuclear reactors in this country,” Boxer said, adding the agency’s “failure to heed these experts’ warnings is especially relevant at California’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant.”

“Even after learning of newly-discovered strong earthquake faults close to the power plant, the NRC has declined to act on its senior inspector’s warning that the reactor should be shut down if it did not come back into compliance with its seismic licensing requirements,” she said. “Approximately 500,000 people live and work near this power plant, and it is my responsibility and yours to protect them. The commission must make safety the highest priority.”

Among the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing was former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, who also is a former member of the California Seismic Safety Commission.

Blakeslee had authored AB 1632, which required PG&E to conduct seismic hazard research of the faults near the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. PG&E just published the Coastal California Seismic Imaging Project Report two months ago, and “the results were astonishing,” Blakeslee said in his prepared testimony. The report documents the presence of a number of earthquake faults discovered after the design and construction of the plant that have been found to be larger and more dangerous than previously understood.”

“There is no getting around the fact that PG&E has consistently downplayed seismic hazards on the coast near its nuclear plants,” he said. “Especially disturbing is that during these past decades the NRC has repeatedly relaxed its seismic standards to accommodate the operation of Diablo Canyon.”

“It is time to end this hodge-podge of licensing rationalizations,” Blakeslee said. “We know a great deal more about seismic issues than we did when Diablo Canyon was licensed. It’s time for the NRC to reassess the seismic standards for the plant and submit them to a formal licensing amendment process. The thing that both PG&E and NRC fear most is a public hearing in which they would have to justify what they have done. It is also what we need most to assure seismic safety, and it is what the public deserves.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.