Diablo Canyon relicensing hits the four-year mark




Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct an error and clarify a point. NRC-required seismic evaluations are not related to relicensing efforts. Also, though the CPUC denied PG&E's request to use customer funds for relicensing, the utility may reapply for the funding if and when all seismic studies are completed.

Four years ago, Pacific Gas & Electric began the process of relicensing the two reactors at their Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in Avila Beach.

It was Nov. 24, 2009, and a last-minute alert by the utility brought just about every media outlet from across the county to the PG&E Education Center for a chance to see the top brass stand alongside county and local school district officials to make the big announcement. Excitement and optimism were in the air.

That was four years ago. Since then, a series of events—some completely out of the utility’s control—has made what many people thought would be an easy case for relicensing look increasingly complex, and—according to some—increasingly unlikely.

That relicensing process has since been postponed for the time being, as the federal regulator of the country’s nuclear facilities—the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—has required all plants to reevaluate safety components in response to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan.

First, there was the Central Coastal California seismic imaging project—high-energy seismic testing, as it came to be known—that PG&E needed to perform to get a better understanding of the geophysical landscape surrounding the plant. The necessity arose due to, among other things, the discovery of the Shoreline Fault just 600 meters from the plant’s power block in 2008.

The seismic testing project drew strong opposition from different segments of the community, and though it was given the OK by the State Lands Commission, the California Coastal Commission handily rejected the idea. PG&E is now going back to the drawing board and hasn’t announced whether it plans to pursue testing again next year.

Following the disaster in Japan, the NRC responded to public concern by requiring all U.S. plants to conduct updated seismic safety evaluations.

Then in June 2012, a U.S. appellate court ruled that the NRC had to do better than its “Waste Confidence” plan to store spent fuel onsite for “at least 60 years” after a plant has been decommissioned, before any plants can be relicensed.

Then the California Public Utilities Commission denied PG&E’s request to use ratepayer money for relicensing, though the utility may reapply for the funding if and when all seismic studies are completed.

The State Water Board issued a moratorium on once-through cooling systems, which Diablo Canyon uses to cool its reactors, by 2024, when the first reactor’s license expires. Alternatives to the OTC system include installing possible cooling towers in the hills of Avila Beach, according to a recent report paid for by PG&E. That idea hasn’t gone over so well with residents.

Most recently, in February 2013, a report released by the agency tasked with managing and operating the state’s power grid found that Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant isn’t essential to keeping California’s electricity flowing, prompting county officials to begin envisioning a future without the plant’s economic and energy-related benefits.

Diablo’s current licenses are set to expire in 2024 and 2025.

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