One morning last March, I wolfed down an espresso and headed to the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. It had been only 10 days since Japan’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, washing away the plant’s emergency generators and forcing the plant into nuclear meltdown. The danger of operating nuclear power plants in earthquake country was on everyone’s mind.

As an energy reporter for Capital Public Radio, I was at the Capitol to report on a Senate hearing on earthquake preparedness at California’s two nuclear power plants, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre. The assignment was a simple 60-second story, but as the hearing unfolded, I got the feeling that there was a much bigger story to be had.

During the hearing, one state senator quickly drew my attention. He grilled executives from PG&E, the utility that owns the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, and sounded unconvinced when they assured him that the plant was seismically safe. In one exchange, he challenged the company’s staff seismologist over the scientific techniques the utility had chosen to evaluate earthquake faults near the plant.

The senator was Sam Blakeslee, who represents the district that encompasses Diablo Canyon. A self-described pro-business, pro-energy Republican, Blakeslee was an unlikely candidate to confront the utility. But the senator also happens to be a geophysicist with a Ph.D. in earthquake studies.

Watching his heated exchange with PG&E representatives, I was reminded of Jack Godell, the fictional nuclear plant whistleblower portrayed by Jack Lemmon in the 1979 film “The China Syndrome.” Like Godell, the typically buttoned-down Blakeslee seemed like he was on the verge of an outburst as he confronted issues he believes make a nuclear plant unsafe.

In 2008, Jeanne Hardebeck, a research geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, discovered a new earthquake fault running just a few hundred yards from the Diablo Canyon power plant. It was also in close proximity to another major fault called the Hosgri, raising the possibility that the two faults could erupt together and produce a major earthquake near the plant.

But PG&E reported that it had studied the fault and believed the plant was safe. Then, the utility announced that it would apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to seek an extension of the plant’s operating licenses, even though its existing licenses would not expire for another 14 years. Blakeslee was among many in the state who thought that relicensing was premature and called for additional studies of the new fault line. 

In the U.S., all nuclear power plants initially were licensed to operate for 40 years, and many aging plants now are reaching the end of that period. The NRC allows nuclear plants to apply for a 20-year license extension; so far, 71 of the country’s 104 reactors have been relicensed. No applications for license renewal have been rejected.

Concerned that Diablo Canyon would be authorized to operate until 2045 before adequate information about the newly discovered fault line could be developed, the California Energy Commission, Blakeslee and other elected officials called on the NRC to suspend relicensing of the plant. The NRC’s reply surprised them.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s first response to us was that we don’t take seismic issues into consideration in relicensing,” said James Boyd, former vice chairman of the California Energy Commission, whose term ended in January. “It’s not an element of the relicensing process.”

While reporting on the Diablo Canyon story, one of the most surprising things that I learned was how the NRC oversaw the relicensing of aging nuclear power plants. As reactors approach the end of their original lifespan, utilities can apply for a 20-year license extension without conducting a thorough review of the plant’s actual condition after decades of wear and tear, and without a re-evaluation of newly discovered hazards, such as the new earthquake fault at Diablo Canyon.

According to the NRC, key safety issues are dealt with as part of the agency’s regular operational oversight of the plants and therefore do not need to be addressed during relicensing. But as I continued to work on the story, I found that there were surprising problems with this approach.   

In fact, some states, like California, were pushing back on the industry and the NRC to address critical safety issues as part of the relicensing process. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration filed a lawsuit against the NRC, contending that it did not enforce its own regulations for mitigating severe accidents in the relicensing of the Indian Point power plant. In Vermont, state officials are fighting to shut down the Vermont Yankee plant, citing concerns that the utility that owns the plant cannot be trusted to operate it safely, even though the NRC already has granted the plant a 20-year license extension. 

The Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with Al Jazeera English’s “People & Power,” decided to take a closer look into the oversight of the country’s aging nuclear fleet and produced a half-hour documentary, “Danger Zone.”

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Joe Rubin

Joe Rubin is an investigative journalist and innovative storyteller. "iWitness," the interview series he helped create for PBS' FRONTLINE/World, won the 2009 Webby Award for the best online news and video series. As a videojournalist, Rubin helped usher in an era of backpack, NPR-style television reporting from five continents for programs such as ABC's "Nightline" and FRONTLINE/World. Rubin's documentaries have ranged from a look at present-day Cuba through the prism of vintage car mechanics to an investigation into the maddening hunt for notorious Serbian war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Several of Rubin's projects have tackled environmental issues, including a documentary he produced for Al Jazeera English about a showdown in California over its global warming reduction law.