May 2, 2011 10:28 PM by Nancy Chen

Dissecting Diablo: Whistleblowers and safety culture

Two months after the 9.0 earthquake hit Japan, the country is still struggling to contain its nuclear nightmare.

And the debate over our nuclear plant--Diablo Canyon--is as hot as ever.

KSBY News sat down with key people involved in its history, including a former decisionmaker on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a nationally known expert on nuclear safety.

For a plant that's operated about 25 years, it has an incredibly storied past, packed with both trouble and triumphs.

In our own backyard, the nucleus of an atom is split, releasing energy used to generate electricity.

And it's all happening in a coastal zone with four known earthquake faults.

The biggest question--one that's more pertinent than ever after the fukushima meltdown--are we safe?

"We don't think we should be asking that question and ending up with a question mark," said local State Senator Sam Blakeslee, who has repeatedly called for more seismic studies. "We should be able to state that we are."

In 1984, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reinstated the license for initial testing at Diablo Canyon, Victor Gilinsky was the only commissioner who voted against it.

"When you say something is safe, it's because its intrinsically dangerous, and you operate within certain narrow boundaries, and within those it's safe," he said.

We asked him if he would build Diablo Canyon where it is today, given all the hindsight he has now.

"I would say I would not build plants in earthquake prone areas, and generally speaking, unless there were a tremendously formidable construction, I think it's a general rule that one wants to stay away from potential natural hazards," he said.

PG&E, however, stresses Diablo Canyon is safe, able to withstand shaking from the biggest possible earthquake here.

"Our systems and structures are built for the shaking, the vibratory motion that earthquakes produce," said Ken Peters, the Diablo Canyon Vice President of Engineering.

But USC professor and nuclear safety expert Najmedin Meshkati says one big factor is missing from the discussion.

"You cannot automate out human error," he said.

Meshkati says we need to re-examine the systems in place at all nuclear power plants with current technology and that PG&E needs to improve its safety culture from the top-down.

"We need really to try to learn lessons and improve safety culture and the human performance and safety practices, not necessarily the hardware," he said.

PG&E argues the plant is retrofitted to withstand the groundshaking from an earthquake up to magnitude 7.5.

The two biggest fault lines near Diablo are the Shoreline and Hosgri faults, and the utility company says the biggest quake one of those could produce is magnitude 6.5.

But Blakeslee isn't so sure.

"The fault could end up being much, much larger and the longer the fault, the greater the earthquake potential," he said. "And so we need to understand is the Shoreline fault isolated or is it in fact part of a much bigger fault system?"

Among those who know the ins-and-outs of Diablo the best are the 1,200 people who work there.

PG&E says it encourages employees to speak up about problems at the plant.

"We have our corrective action program, where anyone from the security guard, janitor or whoever that might be, engineer, can all put in things into the corrective action program so we can go after it and investigate it," said Cary Harbor, Diablo Canyon's director of maintenance services.

The Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee is a state-mandated watchdog created when Diablo Canyon was licensed.

In a report last year, it found that PG&E does a good job in terms of getting and evaluating employee comments about plant safety.

But critics charge that a history with whistleblowers who say they've been punished sends the wrong message to the employees of today.

One high-profile case is Neil Aiken, a former senior control room supervisor, who testified about safety problems at Diablo in 1997.

"I saw an increase in the number of circumstances where I thought they were making the wrong choice," he said in an interview with KSBY News in 1999. "They would compromise safety a little bit for increased productivity."

Within three years, PG&E claimed he was mentally unstable and fired him.

"They trashed his reputation, claimed he was mentally ill and a security risk, and the man lost his job," said local activist Jane Swanson, a spokesperson for Mothers for Peace. "That has had quite a chilling effect on workers to this day."

According to the New York Times, the Department of Labor later concluded that PG&E maneuvered to have psychiatrists find "paranoid delusions" in Aiken because of his complaints.

Still, the NRC said there was no evidence of any retaliation against Aiken.

In 2000, the Times reported he reached a settlement with the company.

But current PG&E employees say they have a stake in the safety of Diablo Canyon too.

"We're all citizens of the local community so we live in the area," Peters said. "I'm an Arroyo Grande resident. Our families live here."

Living here, in the enormous shadow of a very tiny atom.

One thing most experts agree on--more studies need to be done; PG&E says 3-D seismic studies are now underway.

Coming up tomorrow, we'll show you the history behind Diablo Canyon.

There have been quite a few surprises and some expensive mistakes, paid for by ratepayers.

And on Wednesday, we'll be taking a look at life without Diablo and just what would happen to our area's energy and economy if it left.



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