April 7th UPDATE:
Reuters is now reporting that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has "privately expressed doubts that some of the nation's nuclear power plants are prepared for a Fukushima-scale disaster, undercutting their public confidence since Japan's nuclear crisis began, documents released by an independent safety watchdog group show."
According to an April 6 press release, the Union of Concerned Scientists said in documents obtained as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request filed a month before the Japan earthquake, NRC technical staff doubted the effectiveness of key safety measures adopted after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Perhaps that is why the NRC declined an invitation to address the Arizona Corporation Commission at its hearing last week on safety procedures at Palo Verde.
This also seriously calls into question the public position of each of Arizona's three Republican Corporation Commissioners, Gary Pierce, Bob Stump and Brenda Burns, who each favor adding more nuclear reactors in Arizona.
On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this week, one comedy segment was entitled "Polish that turd!" TDS correspondents put remarkably positive spin on blatantly disastrous events that had occurred in recent news. Those comedians immediately brought to mind the claim Brenda Burns made in the Palo Verde hearing that Three Mile Island was a success story.
Please, WAKE UP Arizona.
Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, roughly 50 miles west of Phoenix, is the largest nuclear generating facility in the US. Understandably, concerns about the plant's safety were reawakened after the recent 9.0 earthquake and the resulting tsunami devastated Japan's east coast and compromised the Fukushima Daiichi generating facility.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates privately owned utilities in our state, held a hearing ostensibly on safety procedures and precautions at Palo Verde.
However, in opening statements by each of the five commissioners, it became obvious the hearing instead would be a time for Arizona Public Service, the largest IOU (investor owned utility) in the state, to claim that what happened in Japan could not happen here.
Commissioners Gary Pierce, Bob Stump and Brenda Burns all made it clear they would like to see Palo Verde expanded from 3 reactor units to 5. Brenda Burns went so far as to declare the Three Mile Island disaster a success story. Commissioners Paul Newman and Sandra Kennedy instead expressed concerns and asked hard questions to try to get beneath the surface of the happy talk.
KTVK Channel 3 senior reporter Steve Bodinet filed this (video) report on the hearing. Bodinet asked me to respond.
APS' Chief Nuclear Officer Randy Edington spoke for about an hour straight, describing the design differences between Palo Verde and Fukushima. He also explained the regulatory agency structures in the US and internationally.
Several times, Edington mentioned taking "aggressive action to implement lessons learned" from Fukushima. Which is, of course, a good thing. But having said it repeatedly, it came off as just another tactic to convince everyone that there can be no such disaster at Palo Verde.
One of the main problems at Fukushima has been loss of power to the cooling units, which normally operate on regular alternating current (AC) to keep from causing a Chernobyl scale disaster. US nuclear facilities are built with backup systems in the event something disrupts the normal power supply for cooling the reactors. For backup, Palo Verde has diesel generators. The facility also has batteries intended to last for three days as a redundant backup.
Nobody believes Palo Verde is at risk of damage from a tsunami. However, there is always the possibility of unforeseen catastrophe. State geologist Lee Allison explained the (very remote) likelihood of seismic activity that could impact Palo Verde. He said that most earthquake activity in Arizona has been in or near Flagstaff and Chino Valley.
According to Allison, the most likely cause of seismic activity near Palo Verde would be from earth fissures. These are "pervasive ground cracks measuring up to a mile or more in length, and up to 15 feet wide and 40 feet deep." He said the fissures are caused by overpumping of groundwater. Though his website cites that the state legislature in 2007 recognized that fissures presented a hazard to people, property and infrastructure, Allison specifically downplayed this threat to Palo Verde.
Representing Don't Waste Arizona, Steve Brittle testified that he has reviewed the disaster plans for both Palo Verde and for Maricopa County and believes both are seriously inadequate. To put yesterday's hearing in perspective, Brittle noted that anti-nuclear activists in Japan, decades ago, foresaw and publicly noted the vulnerability of Fukushima to the kind of disaster now unfolding.
Executive Director of Arizona Pirg (Public Interest Research Group), Diane Brown, also testified. Earlier in the day, AZ Pirg posted a new report on near misses at US nuclear generating facilities. Brown says that "these incidents – like the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan – illustrate that nuclear power carries with it risks that are simply not worth taking." (emphasis mine)
Comments they made in opening remarks also highlight this blogger's concerns about both Gary Pierce and Brenda Burns (in Burns' case, I expressed those concerns before the November election and before the first published post of the Arizona Eagletarian).
In spite of the dramatic support by three of the five Arizona Corporation Commissioners for expanding an inherently dangerous technology for electricity generation, the time is now for genuine renewable power sources (solar and wind) to expand. And for the public to demand vigilance in maximizing the safety of existing nuclear generation.