Saturday, November 1, 2014     Volume: 29, Issue: 14
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New Times / Breaking News Story


Public prohibited from seismic meeting

BY MATT FOUNTAIN

                  When Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Allison Macfarlane was asked by U.S. Congresswoman Lois Capps about the agency’s understanding of the seismic hazards surrounding the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, the chair pointed out there is a super-special, multi-party committee currently assessing the issue.

                  “We’re observing this process and are looking to see what the outcome is,” Macfarlane told Capps before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Power on Jan. 28.

                  Though the NRC may have been observing a recent workshop of the committee in question—the Senior Seismic Hazard Analysis Committee (SSHAC)—the public wasn’t allowed to.

                  On March 19, the SSHAC met in Oakland to kick off a three-day joint meeting of what they call the Southwestern region of nuclear plants—Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon, Southern Edison’s San Onofre Generating Station, and Arizona Public Services’ Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Tonopah, Az.—to discuss what data is needed to determine possible earthquake-generated ground motion surrounding the three plants.

                  Though the three utilities co-sponsored the meeting—which is paid for by ratepayers—this particular meeting in Oakland was hosted by Southern California Edison.

                  PG&E previously hosted SSHAC workshops in San Luis Obispo in November 2011 and 2012 which were not only open to the public but also videotaped and archived.

                  But when members of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, an advocacy group for California ratepayers, made the trip from the Central Coast to the meeting, they were allegedly ordered to leave by a representative for GeoPentech, the seismic consultant for Southern California Edison. According to Alliance attorney John Geesman, the three members were immediately told that attendance was limited to official invitees.

                  In a letter the next day to Mike Peevey, President of the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates how the state’s energy companies spend ratepayer funds, Geesman said that he voiced his objections to PG&E’s senior seismic engineer, Norm Abrahamson. According to Geesman, Abrahamson said that the other two utilities had requested that attendance be restricted.

                  “I have yet to hear a compelling rationale for keeping these seismic

updates covert, and the fact that they are entirely funded by ratepayers makes doing so indefensible,” Geesman wrote to Peevey. “It would be hard to imagine a quicker way to undermine public confidence in the eventual results of these studies than shrouding them in secrecy.”

                  Though the workshops are unquestionably wonky and technical, “interested parties can view interactions” there, according to NRC guidelines.

                   "... a great advantage can be gained if the NRC (or any other relevant regulatory body or bodies) follow the entire process, primarily by attending the workshops as observers,” the federal guidelines read. “Although observers in a SSHAC workshop are precluded from the technical discussions, we suggest that organizers allot some time at a specified time at the end of each day or each workshop to open the floor to questions and comments from observers."

                  In response, a Southern California Edison representative argued they were not in violation of NRC guidelines, and insisted the public will be privy to the information via the Internet in the future.

                  “All sponsoring utilities agreed that Southwest United States Ground Motion Characterization [SSHAC] Workshop would be limited to resource experts, regulators, and sponsors in order to foster the open exchange of ideas and information that is intended for this process,” Jennifer Manfré, Southern California Edison’s principal manager for media relations, wrote in an email to New Times. “Content from the workshop will be posted on a publicly-accessible website at a later date.”

                  Follow-up questions to Manfré were not acknowledged.

                  PG&E, however, says that these meetings were broad and collaborative with the other two utilities in attendance, and its representatives weren't in a position to put their foot down when it came to a collective decision at a multi-party meeting.

                  “We are just one participant in this particular meeting and we do not have the authority to unilaterally open the meeting to the public as it involves other utilities,” PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones wrote in an emailed statement. Jones noted that prior PG&E-hosted, Diablo Canyon-specific SSHAC meetings have been open and transparent, and that all material from the recent Oakland meeting will be posted on www.swus-gmc.com and available to the public.

                  “Per our own commitment, SSHAC meetings focused solely on PG&E data are open to the public. PG&E specific SSHAC meetings are publicized in advance in local media and on our website to encourage public participation,” Jones wrote. “Any commitments made or actions taken that affect Diablo Canyon in [the March 19] meeting will be discussed during our next San Luis Obispo-based SSHAC public meeting.”

                  A date for that meeting has not yet been scheduled.

                  The SSHAC process is a response to a requirement by the NRC that all U.S. utilities are required to update seismic hazard analyses for all nuclear reactors following fallout from the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster in Japan.

                  Separately, Diablo Canyon’s relicensing application has been voluntarily put on hold while it worked to complete seismic studies. The facility’s two reactors licenses are currently set to expire in 2024 and 2025.