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No more once through

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State water regulators put the official kibosh on the preferred cooling system for coastal power plants. Newly adopted regulations phasing out so-called once-through cooling systems are certainly going to have an impact on SLO County’s local power plants and may be enough to force the retirement of one.

The State Water Resources Control Board unanimously approved regulations that require 19 coastal power plants to phase out once- through cooling. Such cooling systems suck billions of gallons of ocean water to cool the machinery. Consequently, ocean life ranging from fish larvae to large mammals can be sucked into the intake pumps and killed or trapped against filter screens and drowned, which prompted the regulations in the first place.

Both SLO County power plants—Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and Morro Bay—utilize once through cooling and will have to phase the system out to comply with the water board regulations. The Morro Bay plant must comply by Dec. 2015. Diablo Canyon has until Dec. 2024, when the plant’s current license will expire. The Morro Bay plant has six months after the regulations are finalized to produce a compliance plan—the California Environmental Protection Agency and Office of Administrative Law have to sign off.

“We’re not ready to disclose what we’re going to do, not at this point,” said David Byford, a spokesman for Morro Bay power plant owner Dynegy.

One option, he acknowledged, could be to simply shut down the plant if meeting the state regulations would render it unprofitable. The board nixed an early proposal that allowed plant operators to make arguments against compliance based on financial infeasibility.

Nuclear power plant operators, however, got a bit more leeway from the water board. Board members required that an independent third party of nuclear experts review the cost feasibility and come back with results in three years. The independent review could lead to a “variance” for nuclear power plant operators, Pacific Gas and Electric spokeswoman Cindy Pollard said. “We continue to support a cost-benefit test as the most appropriate approach to evaluate compliance.”

According to PG&E, doing away with once-through cooling and switching to a closed cycle system would actually create particulate matter and smog. And doing so, Pollard added, would cost $4.5 billion to retrofit Diablo Canyon.

Gordon Hensley, of San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper, echoed the statewide perception that the water board took a good step, but didn’t go far enough.

“We got most everything we wanted,” he said. “We wish that they had been stronger on the nuclear power plants.”

He further criticized the idea that compliance could be thwarted by economics.

“I think for the lay public they’re probably thinking, ‘What’s the big deal? We’ve got to have the energy,’” Hensley said. “And that’s not what the argument’s really about; it’s about protecting the marine resources.”

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