Dr. Nunzio J. Palladino, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, sharply criticized the nuclear power industry in his first major appearance on Capitol Hill yesterday, and then the NRC suspended the operating license of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California.
In an extraordinary day--mostly bad -- for the nuclear power industry, the NRC ordered an independent review of all the plant's calculations about safety during an earthquake.
Palladino charged the industry with "serious quality-assurance breakdowns" at several plants. Nuclear utility management "has to reorient its thinking" if the industry is to retain public confidence, he said. Palladino, who as President Reagan's appointee was widely expected to help in Reagan's effort to promote nuclear power, added that the discovery of so many problems during his 4 1/2 months as NRC chairman "sort of clouds the high degree of confidence" he once had in atomic energy.
"After reviewing both industry and NRC past performances in quality assurance," Palladino told the hearing, "I readily acknowledge that neither have been as effective as they should have been in view of the relatively large number of construction-related deficiencies that have come to light."
Members of the House Interior subcommittee on energy in turn unanimously lambasted the NRC for causing what Rep. Manual J. Lujan (R-N.M.) called "an issue of confidence" on the part of the public. The committee then dispatched the NRC to make its decision on Diablo Canyon.
On a 4-to-1 vote, the NRC withdrew the low-power operating license it issued in September to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for its $2.3 billion Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo. A separate vote to formally halt the fuel loading that had been ready to proceed was unanimous. Commissioner Thomas Roberts, the newest board member and the sole vote against suspending the license, said in a dissent that the suspension was unwarranted because there had been no prior hearing on it and because the situation posed "a minimal threat to public health and safety."
Diablo's license will be restored and fuel loading allowed only when a consultant, chosen by PG&E and approved by the NRC, verifies that steps have been taken to correct 13 design and calculating errors and that all other computations related to the plant's earthquake-proofing are correct.
More than 1,600 demonstrators were arrested over the past two months and several lawsuits and administrative actions are pending to insist that the plant was inadequately designed for its location 2 1/2 miles from the ancient Hosgri fault off the California coast.
On Sept. 28, PG&E reported that it had reversed drawings used to locate certain pipes and their supports, invalidating their certifications of strength. In probing that blunder, two more sets of errors in design and calculation were found, including a misapplication of the stress level numbers along the Hosgri fault and the use of incorrect pipe weight information and outdated criteria for pipe strength.
The suspension was needed "because of the seriousness of the violations," the NRC order said, adding that if they had been known earlier, "the license would not have been issued until the questions raised had been resolved."
To say the problems were just on paper, as PG&E did earlier, NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky told the hearing, "is like a bank saying 'have faith in us' even though the bank is not keeping adequate records."
PG&E spokesman Chris Piper said the company was "disappointed" by the suspension, "especially since nothing has been discovered to date that would indicate the plant is not safe." He said the company still hopes to get Diablo on line before next summer.
Byron S. Georgiou, legal affairs secretary to California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who had pushed for license revocation at Diablo, said state officials were "pleased because the unprecedented action recognizes that the license was mistakenly issued." He said it was "a major victory and a vindication" of Diablo's critics and those of the NRC.
Senior PG&E Vice President George A. Maneatis earlier argued that the fact a PG&E engineer discovered and reported the first problem at Diablo "vividly illustrates that no matter how embarrassing or costly an error may be, it will be reported." But Brown had noted that the engineer, John L. Horn Jr., was not assigned to quality control and had made the discovery "out of simple curiosity, as an accident."
William J. Dircks, NRC executive director of operations, testified that four other plants under construction also have "quality-assurance breakdowns with broad repercussions": Marble Hill in Indiana, Midland in Michigan, the South Texas Project near Houston and the Thomas Zimmer plant in Ohio.