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CPUC denies PG&E Diablo funding application 

Matt Fountain

An administrative law judge dismissed Pacific Gas & Electric’s application, filed nearly two years ago, to use customer money in its efforts to keep the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant operating for another 30 years.

PG&E has requested $80 million in ratepayer funding to pay for its federal license renewal for both reactors at Diablo Canyon. On Dec. 21, Robert Barnett, an administrative law judge for the California Public Utilities Commission, the state’s chief energy regulating agency, ruled that PG&E’s application shouldn’t be considered until long-awaited seismic studies for the region around the plant are complete.

“With a final seismic studies report expected in December 2015, there is no reason to keep this proceeding open,” Barnett wrote in his ruling. “PG&E would have us suspend this proceeding until it keeps its advanced seismic studies, but offers no substantial reason to suspend rather than close this proceeding.”

The dismissal was granted without prejudice, meaning the company may re-file the application once the studies are completed.  

“PG&E has known all along what our state expected them to do and has flaunted those orders, wasting time and money in the process,” Rochelle Becker, executive director for the ratepayer advocacy group the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, said in a prepared statement.

“We’d already know by now whether the seismic footing at the Diablo Canyon site was secure,” she added. “Instead, it took the unavoidable public scrutiny that arose after PG&E’s San Bruno explosion and the Fukushima meltdowns to shed light on their inaction.”

PG&E officials didn’t seem phased by the ruling, despite previous claims that dismissing the application would lay to waste years’ worth of work and essentially make them restart the application process at square one. ∆

“There’s nothing here,” PG&E spokesman Tom Cuddy told New Times. “It’s simply a ruling that we expected and anticipated, and we plan to continue moving forward with the seismic studies.”

Cuddy said the company is wrapping up the first of three phases of its studies, what they call the “low-energy” phase, during the week of Dec. 19. The next step, the 3-D “high energy” phase, is expected to be completed by the end of 2012, if all necessary offshore permits are obtained within their expected timelines.

Cuddy said PG&E expects all three phases to be complete by 2014, and the studies will then be peer-reviewed before coming back to the CPUC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“Nothing is more important and no commitment is more fundamental than the safety of our customers,” Cuddy said.

PG&E has argued that it is cost-effective and in its customers’ best interests to renew the licenses of Diablo’s two reactors for an additional 20 years beyond their current expiration dates. In turn, the company has requested permission to have those customers pick up the tab, which comes to about $85 million.

In November 2010, the CPUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates and the Utility Reform Network (TURN) watchdog group reached a settlement with PG&E, shaving off $5 million from the amount the utility was seeking from customers.

In March 2011, following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake in Japan and well-publicized radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, another customer advocacy group, Californians for Renewable energy (CARE), filed a motion to dismiss PG&E’s application.

Under pressure, PG&E and TURN asked the CPUC to “suspend” its application so the utility could complete its long-awaited seismic studies.

But the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility filed a motion with the CPUC to reject the suspension and dismiss the application outright until those studies could be completed and independently peer reviewed.

PG&E countered that it was already two-thirds of the way through the application process, which required a time investment one would expect from an $80 million settlement.

“We believe that a suspension of the proceedings is preferable, as a dismissal would obviate the settlement agreement reached among PG&E, the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, and the Utility Reform Network,” PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones previously told New Times. “Additionally, dismissing the proceeding would remove from the record all of the testimony filed in support of cost recovery.”

At the time, Alliance Executive Director Rochelle Becker testified before Judge Barnett that any information in PG&E’s application would be obsolete by the time the studies are completed.

“We don’t know what the NRC is going to come out with as far as new requirements for technology,” Becker testified at a July 2011 CPUC hearing. “We don’t know whether they will be cost-effective or not cost-effective. We don’t even know how many faults we are dealing with at Diablo Canyon. So many things are up in the air … .”

Cuddy said Barnett’s ruling won’t impact the company’s continued efforts for license renewal, and they expect a favorable ruling when they return to the CPUC after the studies are completed.

Licenses for the plant’s two reactors are currently set to expire in 2024 and 2025.

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