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What's the hurry? 

PG&E rushes to renew Diablo plant licenses far in advance of the due dates

click to enlarge RUSH JOB :  Consumer advocates, environmentalists, and state agencies are lambasting PG&E’s license filing for the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • RUSH JOB : Consumer advocates, environmentalists, and state agencies are lambasting PG&E’s license filing for the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility.

Critics accuse Pacific Gas and Electric Company of trying to bypass crucial state oversight by applying to renew the operating licenses for the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant many years in advance of the deadlines. Not only consumer and safety watchdog groups question the move but also the state’s main agency for energy policy.

PG&E top brass and county officials held a Nov. 24 press conference to announce the company had applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to renew the licenses for both Diablo Canyon reactors, whose current licenses will expire in 2024 and 2025. New licenses would extend their operation 20 years from those dates.

Between 2007 and 2009, the company spent $16.8 million on a feasibility study analyzing plant equipment and operation to determine whether to apply for the extension. The money came from PG&E’s operation and maintenance fund—in other words, customers. The study results have yet to see the light of day.

 Neither the California Energy Commission (CEC), the state’s primary energy planning agency, nor the public have had access to the findings. There’re concerns the application to the NRC is premature and such issues as the potential for outages from earthquakes and the aging of the plant have not received adequate scrutiny.

In a 2008 Integrated Policy Report Update, the CEC raised such other issues as long-term nuclear waste disposal, the actual cost and benefits of nuclear power, and potential conversion of once-through cooling at the plant to a closed-cycle wet cooling system. The commission recommended that PG&E complete and release the feasibility study to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the CEC for review prior to filing for a license renewal.

According to PG&E spokesperson Jane Oliviera, the company has taken these issues into consideration in the study, which she told New Times will be made public when the company files with the CPUC early next year.

“Our plans are to make those filings with the CPUC early next year to address the CEC’s recommendations and the CPUC’s requirements,” Oliviera said. “Through the process, the NRC will have numerous public input within their extensive review of the license extension application. So the public will be involved in the open dialogue within that process.”

Critics maintain the company is trying to shut out the public and state regulators by immediately submitting the application to the NRC, where citizen participation can be laborious and expensive, requiring a lawyer to file an intervention.

The consumer watchdog group Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility (ANR) in a 2007 report to the CPUC predicted that PG&E would use the feasibility study to seek license renewal without CPUC review. It reported the company has a history of underestimating future operating costs and overestimating the service life of plant components and systems. Therefore, the report said, the feasibility study has little value 15 years before the operating licenses would renew.

According to ANR Outreach Coordinator David Weisman, the relicensing procedure technically only takes five to six years, according to NRC regulations. “So why the rush?” he asked, likening PG&E’s current application to going to the DMV for driver’s license renewal 15 years in advance.

“Do you need to wear glasses when you drive?” Weisman asked. “Well, you might in 15 years. But what relicensing does is, you go now, they check your eyes now, they say you’re OK and then you don’t have to go back.

“There’s an advantage to them doing this now when everything is ship-shape rather than waiting another decade until things begin to fall apart,” he said.

From a consumer standpoint, Weisman maintained, this end run will end up costing ratepayers millions. Already, he pointed out, PG&E customers have paid for a study they have not seen, and will shell out millions more as the filing process continues, a fact PG&E did not dispute.

“The energy license renewal is a multiyear process and the cost for that will be included in the CPUC filing that PG&E will make in the first quarter of 2010,” Oliviera said. “And since the continued operation of Diablo Canyon will benefit customers, PG&E will be requesting the CPUC approve the cost to be covered through customers.”

Economic concerns are tied in with safety and environmental issues. A bill by Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee would have required PG&E to conduct three-dimensional geophysical reflection mapping in response to the discovery of a seismic fault less than a mile offshore from Diablo Canyon, but was vetoed by the governor in October.

In 2007, the largest nuclear facility in the world, the Japanese Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, was knocked offline by a powerful earthquake because of a reported lack of seismic retrofitting, ultimately costing ratepayers there more than $12 billion in new costs.

On another front, a legal battle continues as PG&E’s license is being challenged in the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals by San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, a group opposed to nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and nuclear waste.

Vice President Jane Swanson told New Times that regardless of PG&E claims to the contrary, Diablo poses many unresolved safety and security issues.

“Extending the license is just illogical,” Swanson said. “You’ve got the earthquake fault combined with the accumulation of nuclear waste, and we see this as a major unresolved safety issue. And storing radioactive waste on a earthquake fault for another 20 years will add to that risk.”

On Oct. 23, maintenance workers at Diablo discovered misalignment of a set of switches that allow control room operators to remotely open cooling water valves. Though plant administrators maintained the problem was not a risk to public safety, the NRC said in a press release the misaligned switches had the potential to impair operators’ abilities to respond in the event of a severe accident.

In response, a four-person team of NRC specialists began a special inspection of the plant Nov. 30, expected to last several days. The team is due to publish its report in January.

“If a plant has that recent record of human and operating error,” Swanson added, “it doesn’t make sense to ask to extend that life another 20 years.”

The Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee will hold a two-day public meeting at the Avila Lighthouse Suites in Avila Beach on Dec. 9 and 10 to respond to public inquiries on that incident, and provide general information on plant operations. More information is available online at dcisc.org .

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

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