Newsletter: Will Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant Become the Next Fukushima?

Aerial picture of Diablo Canyon plant
Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo. Photo by Lionel Hahn, REUTERS


Greg Schwartz is an award-winning investigative journalist recently hired by Anthropocene Alliance to uncover corporate and political corruption — or simple regulatory failure — impacting our members. Our goal is to place his stories in the media as well as distribute them directly to our members and friends. Four have been published so far.

This story addresses a paradigmatic failure — the decision to recommission a shuttered nuclear power plant in central California. Though there aren’t any A2 members in San Luis Obispo County, we have many members elsewhere in the country negatively impacted by nuclear plants or nuclear contamination: in Northern California, Colorado, Michigan, the Navaho Nation (Arizona), Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Wisconsin. Intensive lobbying by the nuclear industry does not change the fact that nuclear power is uneconomical, dangerous, and unnecessary to satisfy the clean-power needs of consumers in the U.S. and around the world.

Upcoming Newsletter stories — derived from Greg’s reporting — will focus on the critical work of A2 members in San Francisco, Gulfport, and New Haven. If your community would benefit from Greg’s penetrating investigations, please contact A2 Co-Founder and Director of Strategy, Stephen F. Eisenman:

Environmental groups concerned about cost and safety issues at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast thought they’d scored a big win in 2018 when a Joint Proposal was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)  to retire the aging plant by 2025. But like a zombie, Diablo Canyon’s operating life was resurrected until at least 2030 this past summer when California Governor Gavin Newsom rammed a last-minute bill through the California legislature to keep the plant going.

Michael Peck — Diablo Canyon’s senior resident safety inspector from 2007-2012 — says the plant should’ve been shut down years ago due to a faulty licensing process that disregarded crucial seismic data indicating the plant is vulnerable to a Fukushima type of nightmare. The 2011 Fukushima catastrophe — deemed a man-made disaster due to regulatory collusion — was the direct cause of nearly 4,000 deaths and remains an ongoing calamity; disposal of vast quantities of radioactive wastewater stored onsite is an intractable problem

[A 6.4 magnitude earthquake this week in Northern California was a reminder that the ”big one” could come at any time. – editor’s note]

Now retired, Peck remains dismayed at the “circular logic” which he says the NRC used to overrule his report that dissented on how the newly identified fault lines were addressed. “My issue was with PG&E’s failure to… preserve engineering margins. Federal Regulation required PG&E to apply for and the NRC to approve an Amendment to their Operating License based upon the new seismic analysis, but… NRC’s Diablo Canyon project manager directed PG&E to change their license without the Amendment,” Peck explains. He went on to claim the violation wasn’t just reckless, but criminal.

“In my 28 years as a senior nuclear inspector, I’ve never seen such a disregard for nuclear safety requirements as I saw at Diablo Canyon.”

“PG&E and NRC failed to use legally binding requirements to amend the Operating License with these new methodologies….I suspect this path was chosen because outside experts and NRC technical reviewers would not agree with PG&E and NRC management’s conclusions, which in accordance with the existing Operating License, would require the plant to shut down,” Peck says. “In my 28 years as a senior nuclear inspector, I’ve never seen such a disregard for nuclear safety requirements as I saw at Diablo Canyon.”

Then there’s nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates, who says the danger at Diablo Canyon is even worse than Peck thinks. He testified to CPUC in 2017, arguing the plant should be closed ASAP because it likely wouldn’t even survive the 7.5 quake that the NRC says it could, much less the stronger one that worries Peck.

In extending Diablo Canyon’s lifetime to give himself political cover from “worst case scenario” power blackouts, Gov. Newsom is putting his faith in PG&E and NRC to acknowledge seismic issues that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more to remedy. Is this the same Gavin Newsom who ripped PG&E in 2019 for the utility’s greed and mismanagement following two years of wildfires and rolling blackouts? Is he now willing to gamble that this same utility will value safety over profits at Diablo Canyon? PG&E’s sordid history suggests that’s a dangerous bet.

A longer version of this story was published as the lead story in Counterpunch on December 12.

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Greg M. Schwartz

Greg M. Schwartz

Greg is an award-winning investigative reporter who specializes in covering environmental justice issues with a track record for shining a light on crooked science and regulatory capture. He has a Master's degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Kent State University in his native region of Northeast Ohio, where he also served on the May 4th Task Force. He has spent most of his adult life in California, where he's also a freelance music journalist with a preference for socially conscious rock 'n' roll bands.

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