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A Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant safety designation just downgraded because of unauthorized changes in the emergency warning procedures for boats offshore, federal officials said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) tentatively decided that a color-coded inspection finding in the emergency preparedness category should shift from green to white. Green represents the lowest level of safety concern, and white indicates a low to moderate level of concern.

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In 2005, PG&E, which operates the Avila Beach, CA-based plant, changed its emergency response plan for the area five to 10 miles offshore of the plant in the event of a radioactive leak or other emergency. Specifically, the changes failed to include adequate procedures for notifying boaters, San Luis Obispo County and the U.S. Coast Guard.

“This change in implementing procedures decreased the plan’s effectiveness,” the NRC wrote in a letter to Ed Halpin, PG&E’s chief nuclear officer. “The finding does not present an immediate safety concern because even without appropriate protective action requirements from the licensee, the local governments, in following their procedural guidance, would still have ordered adequate protective actions for members of the public in affected areas.”

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The NRC verified the violation during a 2013 inspection, after PG&E brought it to the agency’s attention.

The utility corrected the problem in 2013, PG&E spokesman Blair Jones said.

“In accordance with the NRC’s process for responding to a preliminary finding, PG&E looks forward to reviewing our previous emergency plan with the NRC staff to illustrate how traffic in this section of the ocean would still have been protected by actions under the overall response plan,” he said.

The NRC has 90 days to determine if the preliminary change in the safety findings will become final. If it does become final, there will likely be additional oversight by the NRC, said Lara Uselding, NRC spokeswoman.

That oversight could come in the form of increased inspections of the plant’s emergency preparedness.

The last time Diablo Canyon had a white inspection finding was 2005, Jones said. It related to an inspection of emergency planning drills. All subsequent inspection findings in that area have been green.

Based on inspection results, the NRC grades the safety of nuclear power plants in 17 areas of operation using a color-coded system. The four color codes range from green to red, which denotes the highest level of safety concern.

If there ever were an emergency at the plant, it would be up to state and local officials to decide what protective actions vessels offshore from the plant would take, Uselding said. This would most likely be an order for the vessels to evacuate the area around the plant.

“Therefore, at no time was the public going to be allowed to stay in an area that had the potential for radioactivity if an event had occurred,” she said.

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