The Diablo Canyon Syndrome – A History of Nuclear Negligence at Diablo – Dan Hirsch

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An EON Video Report by James Heddle and Mary Beth Brangan

Déjà vu All Over Again & Again –
What More Do We Need to Know to Shutdown Diablo Now?

Daniel Hirsch lays out the long, sad history of PG&E and NRC nuclear negligence and incompetence at Diablo Canyon in this excerpted testimony before Senator Barbara Boxer’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, Dec. 3, 2014.

Hirsch heads and is a lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of California in Santa Cruz. His testimony shows that from Humboldt Bay to Bodega Head to Diablo Canyon PG&E has consistently chosen nuclear sites on earthquake faults and the NRC has consistently failed to enforce its own seismic safety standards.

Lest We Forget

This is a video and transcript of Hirsch’s testimony in a December 3, 2014 meeting of the U.S. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, chaired by then California Senator Barbara Boxer re: Seismic Safety at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant.

Panelists included Hirsch, Dr. Sam Blakeslee, a geophysicist, former Republican California state senator, and former California Seismic Safety Commission member, and Anthony Pietrangelo of the National  Energy Institute (NEI), a nuclear power advocacy group. 

Dr. Blakeslee’s testimony is here

The full historic hearing can be viewed here

EON Graphic

The Boxer Legacy

During her decades of service in the U.S. Congress – first as a California Representative from 1983 to 1993, then as Senator from 1993-2017 – Democrat Barbara Boxer was an indomitable and consistent advocate for sane, safe, responsible state and national nuclear policy.

Hirsch’s historically detailed testimony in this hearing reveals the classic textbook example of PG&E’s and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s longstanding private-public partnership in the perpetual project of corporate regulatory capture. 

In a rational society, the patterns, events and conditions Hirsch describes should have been enough to cause the immediate shuttering of Diablo Canyon in 2014.

Their urgency is even starker today as attempts are being made to extend Diablo 2 aged, dangerously embrittled reactors’ operation for 20 more years beyond their scheduled shutdown dates in 2024 and 2025. 

Administration of Diablo’s operation has been stuck on stupid for a long time. 

It’s high time to hit the Off Switch.


Senator Boxer:           I’m just thrilled with this panel…. Dan Hirsch is someone I’ve worked with… is the word forever apt here? Honestly, I don’t know how far back it goes, but I think it was before I was in the United States Senate. We’re talking decades of… And I just think he is tremendous. He’s a lecturer, University of California Santa Cruz, and that doesn’t begin to describe his contribution to safety from toxics and the rest. I’m very happy you’re here. I’m very grateful to you for sticking around because I know this has been a long wait, but as you could tell from the first panel, these issues are matters of life and death and that’s why we took the time we took and I didn’t want to rush your panel. I have a lot of time here, so we’ll go back and forth. So Mr. Hirsch, do you want to please begin and we’ll give you six minutes….

Dan Hirsch:    I have a written statement…

Senator Boxer:           We will put in the record.

Dan Hirsch:    Thank you. Chairman Boxer, thank you so much for the invitation to appear here today. The Japanese parliamentary investigation into the Fukushima tragedy concluded that it was caused by a too cozy relationship between the reactor operator and its regulator that allowed the nuclear plant to be built to withstand only an earthquake and tsunami far smaller than actually occurred. These problems plague the American nuclear regulatory system as well. My testimony will focus on an examination of one case study, Diablo Canyon, that suggests the Fukushima lessons have not been learned here. This is particularly important in light of the extraordinary new seismic discoveries near the site and the inadequate response to them by the NRC. Unless the underlying dysfunctional nature of nuclear regulation in this country rapidly undergoes sweeping reform. A Fukushima-type disaster or worse can occur here perhaps on the California coast. Diablo was designed and permitted based on the claim that there were no active earthquake faults within 30 kilometers of the site.

            We now know, however, that there are at least four large active faults nearby, all capable of more ground motion than the plant was originally designed for. Each time there was a new belated seismic discovery at Diablo, however, the commission gave PG&E a pass. Rules were relaxed, safety margins reduced, public hearings denied. The most recent discoveries of increased seismic risk have met the same fate. At the construction permit hearings in 1970, the intervener asked for a few hours to present evidence of nearby faults. PG&E and the commission staff objected and the NRC refused to permit the matter to be heard. One board member-

Senator Boxer:           Say that one more time. That last point.

Dan Hirsch:    In 1970, interveners wanted a few hours to be able to present evidence of undiscovered faults. Both PG&E and the commission staff objected. The licensing board refused to permit the testimony. Tom Pigford, a member of committee of the board dissented saying, “Shouldn’t we find out before we pour concrete if there are earthquake faults?”

Senator Boxer:           Thank you.

Dan Hirsch:    He lost and they went ahead and poured the concrete and almost immediately was revealed that there was an offshore fault, the Hosgri fault, much larger than the plant was designed for. But instead of withdrawing the permit or requiring a full upgrade to deal with the new fault, the NRC waived the normal requirements of the license and granted an exception for the Hosgri. Only minimal retrofits were required but it didn’t end then. Within days of granting the operating license, NRC. Egg on his face had to rescind it because it turned out that PG&E had used the wrong blueprints for putting in the retrofits. Mirror image blueprints, placing the retrofits in the wrong places. They had to do it all over again, leading to a cost moving from $320 million to over $5 billion. The cost over end largely passed on to the rate payer.

            But, we were sure, don’t worry, we’re sure there can’t be any more faults out there. And then a few years later, the second and the third nearby faults were discovered, the Los Osos and San Luis Bay faults. Again, we were told, don’t worry, there can’t be any more surprises. And then in 2008, the US geologic survey found the fourth fault that wasn’t supposed to exist, the shoreline fault, coming within 600 meters of the plant. PG&E and NRC said, “Don’t worry. The three recently identified faults were well within the license limits,” but then something absolutely remarkable happened. Dr. Michael Peck, the senior resident inspector for NRC at Diablo actually went and checked the license and what he discovered was that all three of those faults, according to PG&E itself, had ground motions greater than the plant license allowed.

            He said that it should be shut down until the problem was fixed. So PG&E proposed instead of fixing the plant, to amend the license to remove the provisions they were violating. But even that didn’t work because they couldn’t meet the criteria for license amendment. So they withdrew it, and that should have been the end of the matter. The plant should have been shut down until it was retrofitted. But instead, NRC allowed PG&E to in essence, amend the license without amending the license, all to avoid a public hearing. And then Peck took the gutsy step of filing the dissenting professional opinion, which this September as expected, the NRC rejected. But here’s where the story gets most troubling with developments essentially not reported to the public until today. On the very same day, NRC issued to the news media its denial of Dr. Peck’s dissent, PG&E released an 1800 page study required by the state of the seismic situation near the facility and they discovered that the Shoreline fault which they hadn’t even known about until a few years earlier, was twice as long as they previously thought. That a number of the faults are now estimated to produce larger magnitude earthquakes than they had thought just a few years ago. And that again, all of these are estimated to produce ground motions in excess, it was permitted in the license for all faults except the Hans Cree. It’s deja vu all over again. Repeat of the problem we’ve seen year after year. And unless we fix these problems, regulated entities pressing for weakening of safety requirements and of regulators viewing themselves more as allies of the industry rather than protectors of public safety, we will not have learned the lessons of Fukushima. And a Fukushima type disaster is just waiting to happen here. All it takes, just as that Fukushima, is an earthquake larger than the plant was designed to withstand. It could happen tomorrow.

Senator Boxer:           Thank you for your testimony. It’s quite riveting and you tell it in most straightforward way, and that’s what I know about you and what I’ve always admired. You just give us the facts and you let us understand the drama just by giving us the facts. And this is dramatic testimony and I’m very grateful. Can you please confirm to your knowledge, because you may not know this but I’m asking you, can you confirm that NRC has thus far always accepted estimates of how strong an earthquake might occur at Diablo Canyon that use questionable science to minimize the risk Mr. Hirsch?

Dan Hirsch:    That’s been the pattern over and over again. When the Hosgri was discovered belatedly, 80% of the plant was already constructed. And so, rather than require them to upgrade it to the shaking that you could get from that earthquake, they allowed them to use a bunch of fudge factors.

Senator Boxer:           Uh-huh.

Dan Hirsch:    Four different fudge factors so that they could in the end do almost no retrofitting. Commissioners Galinsky and Bradford on the commission at the time, dissented vigorously and said that this was carving out to the essential safety margins that were needed. What’s intriguing is that after the Hosgri was done and they created an exception for it, they’re now using even less protective assumptions now that these new faults have been discovered. And that’s why I was struck by the difference between the first panel and this panel. I wasn’t even sure which planet I was on. I was getting all these assurances.

Senator Boxer:           Well, welcome to my world, Dan.

Regulatory Capture as The Norm

Dan Hirsch:    Yeah. All these assurances that [they] were on top of it. But what I see by looking at the historic record, is that the NRC has been wrong every single time on Diablo and never seems to get embarrassed. Every time they claim there’s no additional fault, there’s a new one. Every time there’s a new fault, they say it can’t produce more shaking and then it turns out that it does. And what I’m most worried about is that you can’t make the earthquake go away by changing the input assumptions on a piece of paper. Nature isn’t going to cooperate with the fiction. That’s what happened at Fukushima. The regulator allowed them to build the reactor for a fictional earthquake and tsunami.

Senator Boxer:           Right.

Dan Hirsch:    Much less than could occur. And that’s what’s happening at Diablo and at many other plants around the country.

Senator Boxer:           Right. I would say when you say you thought you’re on another planet, if you took this question outside of this room and we just went up to a person on the street in any town near a nuclear power plant, not near nuclear power plant, and you said, “Do you think we should be building nuclear power plant near earthquake faults?” They would start laughing and say, “You mean to say you guys allow that?” I mean that is the biggest no-brainer known to mankind.

PG&E’s Rap Sheet

Dan Hirsch:    And Senator Boxer, look at the record in California for PG&E alone, they built a plant at Humboldt Bay which now has had to be shut down because of the discovery of an earthquake fault that they had claimed wasn’t active. They wanted to build one at Bodega Head and they actually dug the foundation for it. A huge hole called hole in the head by the locals and someone, seismologists crawled into it on a weekend and found a fault in the hole, right where the reactor was going to go. So that’s why there’s no reactor at Bodega Head. So then they turned their attention down to Diablo.

Senator Boxer:           Right. You just can’t manipulate like that. This is shocking. This is, in my view, unethical. This is dangerous and I just hope that what comes out of this today via the media who I hope will hear this point, is that we have new information about these earthquake faults and an inspector came in from the NRC and said, “PG&E is not operating Diablo Canyon in compliance with its license requirements because of these faults.” And he said, “The reactor should be shut down until PG&E comes back into compliance.” So I want to ask the three of you a yes or a no and hope you’ll be able to do that. Do you think that NRDC’s… I’m sorry, NRC’s decision to allow PG&E to study its seismic vulnerabilities for as many as four more years before any safety upgrades are required can substitute for NRC’s responsibility to ensure that licensees comply with the terms of their operating license? In other words, it’s a long question. They say you’ve got four more years before you have to make any upgrades as opposed to ensuring that they make them sooner, would you say now or four years?

Dan Hirsch:    Now. The earthquake may not wait four years.

Senator Boxer:           Good point.

Getting Beyond ‘Paralysis by Analysis’

Dr. Sam Blakeslee:     We are very familiar with paralysis by analysis and the threat now is unequivocally so great as a result of these new studies, that action is required immediately.

Senator Boxer:           Sir?

Anthony Pietrangelo of the National  Energy Institute (NEI):                      

Licensees should allow it to be continued to operate because there are measures in place to deal with beyond design basis, external hazards like seismic or flooding or rain or hurricanes. That was the response to Fukushima that the industry, as ordered by the NRC in 2012, implemented.

Senator Boxer:           Do you agree with that?

Dan Hirsch:    May I respond to that?

Senator Boxer:           Yes, please.

Dan Hirsch:    I sat through the licensing hearings for Diablo many years ago where the issue of the functioning of the emergency plan in an earthquake was raised. The intervener said that the freeway, the only way in and out is highway one and the one-on-one and the overpasses, could easily come down to an earthquake and you have to have a functioning emergency plan according to the law. And the NRC ruled, and I was stunned. I’ve never quite seen something with so much logic, it’s been twisted into such a pretzel. The NRC ruled that they didn’t need to have an emergency plan that would function after an earthquake because it was not credible, their term, that there would ever be an earthquake and a nuclear accident Diablo simultaneously. Well, no one that was ever talking about them being two separate events. We’re talking about an earthquake that causes an accident and then people can’t get out.

            And so, to say that there are good systems for dealing with this, if there’s a “beyond design basis event,” which means something occurs that they didn’t design for, really begs the question that is the whole problem. Fukushima wasn’t designed for the earthquake that could occur.

Senator Boxer:           Mr. Hirsch, your written testimony describes numerous instances in which the NRC used irregular licensing and other processes to find a way to allow Diablo to be built and operated. Could you once again just summarize that? In other words, there’s been a parade of these things over the years and I know and you’ve done it but if you could summarize all the, if you will, errors in judgment the NRC has made leading up to this point?

The NRC Rap Sheet

Dan Hirsch:    One of the best ways of telling whether the five commissioners who testified here earlier today really have it under control is to empirically look at the track record of how well the NRC has done. So let’s look at that record for Diablo. They built it claiming there were no earthquake faults that were active within 30 kilometers. They said you only have to design the facility for a ground motion of 0.4 g. Then the Hosgri was discovered and they said, you don’t have to use the normal assumptions for the Hosgri. We will let you use four different fudge factors that take the estimated ground motion from 1.15 g, which is what USGS said would be the normal figure, and reduced it down to something less than 0.6. They used pencils and erasers to try to lower the estimated ground motion rather than deal with the ground motion that was there.

            But then they made an actual finding, the licensing board, that is highly unlikely that there are any more faults that we haven’t discovered. And we’re absolutely certain that the Hosgri fault is not connected to the San Simeon fault and that there’s high quality assurance of how the plant is being built. And then the day that the utility people were flying back from Washington with their operating license, it was discovered that they had put the retrofits in all the wrong places. And then they said there can’t be-


Senator Boxer:           Explain what you mean by that, they put them in all the wrong places? Mean, physically and-

Dan Hirsch:    The two units at…

Senator Boxer:           Yeah.

Dan Hirsch:    Diablo units one [and] unit two.

Senator Boxer:           Yeah.

Dan Hirsch:    And they were built to mirror image blueprints of each other. So when they got into going into one unit to put the retrofits in, they used the wrong set of blueprints. The ones that were the mirror image of the unit they were putting it in. So the pipe snubbers and the whip restraints were put in the wrong places and they had to go back and do it all over again. Complete breakdown in quality assurance. But they said, “Don’t worry, we’re fine now. There can’t be any more faults.” Then they found the San Luis Bay and Los Osos were active and they said, “Don’t worry, those can’t cause more ground motion than in the license. They can’t cause more than the 0.4 g.” But then Dr. Peck went and actually looked at PG&E’s estimates and they were estimating those three new faults, shoreline, Los Osos and San Luis were producing from 0.6 to 0.7 g. Anyone knows that’s a lot higher than 0.4. They were way over the level.

            So now they’re doing, as Dr. Blakeslee indicates, it’s the same thing. They’re sharpening the pencils again and they’re saying, let’s change the assumptions and let’s reduce the safety margins further and drive our estimate of the ground motion down further rather than upgrade the plant. And look in real terms, you either fix the problem or you try to use your pencil to make it pretend to go away but nature doesn’t let things disappear. It was a 9.0 quake at Fukushima. The plant wasn’t built for it. There was a massive tsunami. It wasn’t built for it. And let me make one last point here. The chart that you showed so effectively of the 12 recommendations that haven’t been carried out.

Senator Boxer:           Yeah.

Dan Hirsch:    Those are tiny steps they were supposed to take to deal with Fukushima. The baby steps, and they haven’t done them.

Senator Boxer:           Right.

Dan Hirsch:    What they haven’t done are, even thought about the big steps. Reactor containment in this country are not required to be designed to withstand a meltdown accident. The evacuation plan isn’t required to work in the case of an event that requires it. You don’t have to have offsite power that will stay in place long enough to keep the fuel cooled over the long periods as we saw at Fukushima. The big problems they aren’t even thinking about and the small problems they’re not fixing. And they’re just hoping that we get lucky. And that’s the problem with earthquakes, it’s just tossing dice.

Senator Boxer:           Right.

Dan Hirsch:    When will one of those faults move? It’s not up to the NRC.

Senator Boxer:           Right.

Hiroshima Times 1000

Dan Hirsch:    It’s not up to the Nuclear Energy Institute or PG&E. Nature’s going to decide when that fault moves. And the question is the plant going to be ready for it? And right now, it’s not. One more point back there a thousand times the long-life radioactivity of the Hiroshima bomb in each of those reactors.

Senator Boxer:           Say that again.

Dan Hirsch:    1000 times, the long-life radioactivity of the Hiroshima bomb is in each of the diablo reactors and 10 times that in the spent fuel pools. And the only way it stays in place is if the cooling isn’t lost. And an earthquake, as we’ve seen at Fukushima, can destroy the cooling. And it’s not just the 500,000 people within the immediate area, you could wipe out for practical purposes, a substantial portion of our state. That radioactivity has to stay inside those domes and the only way that happens is if the reactors are built to withstand the worst thing that can happen.

Anthony Pietrangelo (NEI):     Can I correct Mr. Hirsch for a moment? I mean that-

Senator Boxer:           Let me just finish and yes you can, sir. You can have your time to give your perspective on it but please finish. And while you’re at it, Mr Hirsch, do you happen to know how many of the rods were permitted for those pools and whether were over those rods as it was designed-

Dan Hirsch:    Again the problem: they built the pools to handle only a few fuel rods, and then they kept re-racking and re-racking, making them more and more compact. So the National Academy of Sciences has indicated that under some loss of coolant events, you could not only have the fuel in the pools lose their cooling but they could catch fire because the zirconium cladding tends to burn when it gets hot in the presence of air. It doesn’t happen for every accident sequence but can happen for some. And that, as I say, there’s 10 times more long-lived radioactivity in the pools than there are in the reactors. You have to prevent there being an event that the systems can’t withstand.

Regulatory Fictions

            I have seen for decades of watching the NRC, that they basically, at industry urging, create regulatory fictions. One example, Governor Brown, when he was governor the first time in California, was an intervener in the Diablo proceeding. And his experts said that you needed to have a security plan that could protect against 12 attackers. PG&E and NRC said, “Absolutely impossible. There’ll never be an attack involving more than three people in the United States.” 9/11 was 19. So over and over again, they’ve been wrong and the reason is because it’s cheaper to pretend that a smaller threat can exist.

Senator Boxer:           Well, it’s all follow the money. And 500,000 people, one of them sitting in front of me who’s living in a circumstance where if I don’t do my job and NRC doesn’t do its job, there could be a terrible situation. Now, if you’re conservative, you want to do the conservative thing. And it seems to me a pretty straightforward thing. You either suspend operation until you’ve retrofitted the plant in the right way and fix it and start it up or that’s it. Those are the two options. You can either fix up the plant or you can suspend operation. So it seems to me that what the NRC has apparently done which is to give them four years, and what they’re doing to change science which we’re used to around here, give people’s views of scientists and climate they change, they pronounce what they want about it. But I don’t, I listen to the scientists and I am very suspicious when you tell me that they have changed their analysis of how much the plant will shake just to, by happenstance, meet the levels that are allowed in the license.

            This is scary, and I don’t want to overstate what I feel because I don’t want to impugn people but I do want to say, there’s a lot at stake here. I’ve gone through some horrific things in California including an explosion of a pipeline where people died and it turned out they weren’t inspections, they weren’t upgrades. I’ve gone through a traumatic experience with San Onofre where they made an upgrade, but it was faulty. And there but for the grace of God, that place is shut down and it’s clear to me what the options are. I just want to say to all three of you, you’ve been terrific, all of you. I think the fact that there was a little give and take, that way, this way, is always good. And I think that what for me, is the critical piece here is the safety of that little daughter.

            And yeah, that’s it. That’s why I’m here. I’m not here for any other reason. There’s no other reason I’m here. And I will continue to push hard on this but I also want to say to the two of my constituents, how important your work is back home. What you did to get the information about the new earthquake and Governor Schwarzenegger, then signing that, congratulations. What if we didn’t know about it? I mean, you can only be as good as the information that you have. So I want to thank all three of you. This has been a really long day for us here to get to this but I think when it comes to the safety of 500,000 people, if we have to do this again, although I must admit I won’t have this anymore and won’t Mr. Petrangelo be excited when this gavel goes over to my buddy Jim Inhofe who sees things a bit differently.

But you know what, I still have a role, a voice, and we’ll still continue to work together.

Thank you very much. We stand adjourned.


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James Heddle and Mary Beth Brangan are co-founders of EON – the Ecological Options  Network.  The EON production SOS – The San Onofry Syndrome: Nuclear Power’s Legacy received it’s World Premier at the Awareness Film Festival in Los Angeles, CA October 10, 2023, where it won the Grand Jury Award for feature documentary.  SOS was co-directed by Heddle, Brangan and Morgan Peterson, who also served as editor.