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Democrats and Republicans split over possible dangers of nuclear power plants

Congresswoman Lois Capps.
Congresswoman Lois Capps.
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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Democrats on Capitol Hill want a hearing to examine the safety of nuclear power plants in the United States. A California Congresswoman is asking whether the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants are tough enough to survive a big quake and its aftermath.

The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant north of Santa Barbara operates in the district of Democratic Congresswoman Lois Capps. She has written to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ask whether Diablo Canyon can withstand the “sort of earthquakes scientists predict” it could experience.

Capps says she's "been concerned for a while because since the last review of the licensing, there’s been a whole new fault discovered. So that on top of events in Japan, I want a thorough review of their preparedness and their ability to respond."

Capps says Diablo Canyon is built to withstand a 7.5-magnitude quake. PG&E, which operates the plant, says it was built on an 85-foot bluff to protect it from tsunamis. One of the reactors at Diablo Canyon is 25-years-old. PG&E has applied to renew its operating license for another two decades.

But Republican Congressman Brian Bilbray of San Diego cautions about jumping to conclusions when it comes to nuclear power plants in quake prone California. Bilbray says there are geographic and design differences between San Onofre and Fukushima.

"First of all," he says, "our earthquake fault is inland, over about 80-100 miles, so a major earthquake would not create the tsunami on the San Andreas the way the other ones," he says. "The big difference is that our backup systems are in the hillside, sealed up, and even if they were breached, are designed to operate underwater."

Bilbray points out that the Japanese quake was 10-times larger than the so-called “big one” in California, referring to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.