Editor’s Note: This article originally incorrectly stated upon first reference that iodine helped prevent radiation poisoning. The correct term is potassium iodide.
Inside Cal Poly’s public safety office there is a red phone to be used in case of an “unusual event”— specifically, a mishap at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, 12 miles west of campus on the Pacific Coast. How “unusual” such an event may be is subject for recent debate.
PG&E, the company that operates Diablo Canyon, announced in November that a previously undiscovered fault was found less than a mile away from the plant. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced on April 10 that the fault posed no additional threat to the power plant based on the information that PG&E provided.
Some concerns have been raised about the quality of the information currently available. Both the California Energy Commission and San Luis Obispo Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee want PG&E to use more up-to-date mapping technology.
In December, Assemblyman Blakeslee introduced a bill that would require that PG&E to use three-dimensional geophysical mapping in order to more accurately determine the risk. PG&E opposes the bill.
“Results of these surveys might alter fault parameters that are used in existing seismic hazard assessments,” said a report by The California Energy Commission. The state required report came out the same day PG&E announced the discovery of the new shoreline fault.
PG&E has this statement up on its Web site concerning potential risks to the power plant from an earthquake: “DCPP (Diablo Canyon Power Plant) is one of the strongest structures on the face of the earth; built to withstand the largest earthquake deemed credible from the nearest earthquake fault. PG&E is the only utility in the country that employees a fully staffed seismic department with a mission to continually assess the current state of seismic knowledge as well as large earthquakes around the world. This information is then applied to DCPP so we can be sure that the facility remains safe based on up to date science.”
Diablo Canyon is not a primary concern among emergency personnel in case of a major earthquake, said Ron Alsop, Emergency Services Manager for the County Office of Emergency Services. Dam failure and roadway damage are more pressing because of the immediate impact they have on the county’s response, he said, adding that there are PG&E employees to work on any problems at Diablo Canyon immediately after they occur.
When asked if the current fault mapping techniques were adequate to determine the safety risks, Alsop said, “Yes and no.”
“It’s adequate with what we know but the challenge is what we know is constantly being updated,” he said, adding that the Office of Emergency Services was fully supportive of legislation that provides more information not only about the faults near Diablo but throughout the county.
Cal Poly is included in “protection action zone eight,” which means that the state of California is primarily responsible for any emergency steps that would be taken, whereas zones one through five are the responsibility of FEMA.
In the case of an emergency, Cal Poly takes direction from the county, said David Ragsdale, Cal Poly’s Manager of Environmental Health and Safety, adding that Cal Poly has plans in case there is a need to shelter or evacuate the students and faculty. The specifics of these plans are not available to the public because of safety concerns over allowing anyone to know where a large group of people would be evacuated. “Homeland Security has had us pull out of public information,” Ragsdale said.
Cal Poly has a text message alert system that notifies students of any kind of emergency affecting campus.
The lack of information leaves Cal Poly students uncertain about what to do in case of an emergency at the plant.
Rachel Ellis, animal science senior, said that if something happened at Diablo Canyon, she would probably call her mother. She did know that taking potassium iodide could help to prevent some contamination.
The Office of Emergency Services Web site states that “Potassium iodide protects the thyroid gland against exposure to radioactive iodine in the unlikely event of a radiation release from a nuclear power plant emergency.” The Web site also said that the best protection against radiation is evacuation or sheltering.
Cal Poly has a small supply of potassium iodine on campus for emergency personnel, Ragsdale said.
The Office of Emergency Services lists two main factors in determining a course of action in the event of an emergency: The amount of radioactive material released and the speed and direction of the wind.
The warning sirens are the first notice to the general public of an emergency. When they go off, people are asked to go inside and turn on the radio and television to a local station. Information about evacuations will be broadcasted as part of the Emergency Alert System.
If an evacuation is ordered, residents are advised to leave the protective action zones and to stay with friends or family that live over the grade. The general evacuation areas are north to Camp Roberts in Monterey County or south to the Santa Maria Fairgrounds. Those without a car or a ride can go to one of three staging areas for Cal Poly students on the event of any campus evacuations, Alex G. Spanos Stadium, the corner of Mont Bishop and Highland Drive and in the G1-R2 parking lot by Grand Ave. and Slack Street.