Californians weigh nuclear safety after Japan's quake

8:24 PM, Mar 21, 2011   |    comments
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In the wake of Japan's damaged nuclear reactors, California lawmakers are reviewing whether nuclear power plants and gas pipelines in their state are safe from earthquakes.

"The events in Japan provide a teachable moment on the wisdom of placing large sources of radiation near earthquake faults," Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer in nuclear policy at University of California, Santa Cruz, told the Associated Press. He planned to testify before lawmakers Monday.

Democratic Sen. Ellen Corbett, who chairs the state's Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness, said she hopes to allay public fears in the aftermath of Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which have damaged several reactors northeast of Tokyo.

U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week for safety inspections at the San Onofre plant, 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and the Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo. Boxer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said at a Senate hearing Wednesday that 7.4 million people live within 50 miles of the San Onofre plant.

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On Thursday, President Obama ordered the NRC to do a "comprehensive review" of all 104 U.S. nuclear power reactors spread across 65 plants. He said they're designed to withstand major natural disasters, but the United States has a "responsibility" to learn the lessons from the Japanese nuclear crisis.

His comments followed a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a private nuclear industry watchdog, that faulted the NRC and the industry for allowing U.S. nuclear power plants to operate with known safety problems. For example, the report said emergency cooling-water valves failed in 2009 at the Diablo Canyon plant.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which runs Diablo Canyon, told the AP that it's the only U.S. utility that employs a fully staffed seismic department. "Our geological experts, using state-of-the-art technology, have determined that potential impacts of all nearby faults fall within all design safety margins and that Diablo Canyon remains seismically safe," said Diable Canyon's Vice President James Becker.

PG&E and Southern California Edison, which operates San Onofre, maintain their plants were built to withstand the largest quakes expected in the region and safety systems are in place, according to AP.


By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY

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