Greens targeting last CA nuclear plant

diablo Canyon power plantEnvironmentalists who hope to shut down California’s last remaining nuclear power plant are expected to attend a State Water Resources Control Board meeting on Tuesday in Sacramento to make their case that the Diablo Canyon facility is unsafe.

The board will take up possible changes in state rules affecting Diablo Canyon’s cooling water intake structure, a common feature of power plants build next to large bodies of water that are crucial to reducing excess heat during power production but that also can hurt nearby ecosystems. Diablo’s two nuclear generators, which produce more than 2,200 megawatts total, are located on the Pacific Ocean 13 miles south of San Luis Obispo.

It’s considered highly unlikely that the state water board would do anything dramatic. Federal law leaves the most important decisions on nuclear plants to federal authorities. But greens believe that their years of raising questions about the San Onofre nuclear power plant helped clear the way to the decision to shutter the north San Diego County facility in 2011 after it had severe problems with defective steam generators at both its towers.

The owner of the Diablo Canyon plant, Pacific Gas & Electric, has quietly made major progress toward keeping the plant in operation through 2045. This is from a July 13 greentechmedia account:

The license renewal process for Diablo Canyon, California’s last remaining operational nuclear power plant, has just been restarted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).


Diablo Canyon’s reactors became operable in 1985 and 1986 and their licenses expire in 2024 and 2025. … PG&E started applying to the NRC for a 20-year license extension in 2009, but Japan’s Fukushima incident put the extension on hold until new seismic studies for Diablo Canyon were completed and submitted to the NRC and California Public Utilities Commission.


In September of last year, the seismic study conducted by PG&E to determine the safety of the Diablo Canyon plant found that the facility was “designed to withstand and perform [its] safety functions during and after a major seismic event.”

Seismic study sure to face questions

This study is sure to face sharp criticism at the state water board meeting next week. A preview of the criticisms can be seen in a San Francisco Chronicle story on the seismic report earlier this month.

Activists who never wanted Diablo in the first place have been pushing hard to close it, particularly after California’s only other commercial nuclear plant — San Onofre, north of San Diego — shut down in 2012.


They argue that PG&E has consistently underestimated earthquake threats to the plant, and that PG&E has a long record of snafus at Diablo, such as replacing the steam generators and vessel heads without first conducting a necessary seismic test. PG&E, in contrast, says the plant boasts a solid safety record.


“Our point is, this is a pattern with them,” said Jane Swanson, with Mothers for Peace. “They keep screwing up — and this is a nuclear plant.”

A different dimension to this energy fight

But this battle has different overtones than many fights over energy sources, which often involve declarations that fossil fuels should be scrapped entirely as soon as possible because of their role in generating the greenhouse gases believed to contribute to global warming. Some defenders of Diablo Canyon say it’s their side that has the moral high ground because the plant is a crucial component of an intelligent policy to address climate change. This is from the Chronicle:

California law forbids building more nuclear plants in the state until the federal government comes up with a long-term solution for dealing with the radioactive waste. And with San Onofre closed, nuclear advocates say the state needs Diablo Canyon in order to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear plants generate electricity without pumping carbon dioxide into the air, and unlike solar power plants and wind farms, their output doesn’t vary from one hour to the next.


“We really need to have a low-carbon, base load source of electricity,” said Jessica Lovering, a senior analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland think tank focused on energy and the environment. “Taking offline the last nuclear plant would be pretty detrimental to carbon emission reduction goals.”

The California Coastal Commission at some point is also likely to have some regulatory say over any relicensing of Diablo Canyon.

PG&E is believed to consider the plant to be a cornerstone of supply generation for decades to come. But as the greentechmedia account noted, the giant utility “has not yet made a decision about whether to move forward with the relicensing process” — despite building a case for an extended permit for nearly a decade.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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