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Critics cite 'severe seismic risk' at California nuclear power plants

State and federal legislators voice concerns about the earthquake risk at two California nuclear power plants – as well as the adequacy of safety protocols in place there.

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A March 17 aerial view of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, which sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in California's San Luis Obispo County. State and federal lawmakers have challenged the earthquake preparedness California's two nuclear power plants, as recent evidence indicates that both are in regions more seismically active than previously believed.

Mark Ralston / AFP Photo / Newscom

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California legislators at the state and federal levels are ratcheting up pressure on the Golden State’s two operating nuclear power plants – both, like Japan’s stricken Fukushima I, located in seismically active regions near the Pacific coastline.

California’s nuclear power plants – one in San Onofre, just north of San Diego, and the other in Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo – together provide nearly 15 percent of the state’s electricity. Scientists and nuclear industry watchdogs note that the aging facilities began operations in the 1980s and have both been cited for maintenance and safety issues in recent years.

At a legislative hearing Monday, state lawmakers challenged what they called the overconfidence of engineers and plant employees, pointing out that Japan’s earthquake was many times worse than Fukushima’s safety measures had been designed to withstand. They also raised concerns that recent geological evidence indicated a higher earthquake risk for both plants than their designers anticipated.

In the wake of the Fukushima I disaster, “we really need to go back and take a hard look at safety assumptions for systems and safety practices in the plants themselves,” says Naj Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering.

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