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Reactor reaction

A judge calls for hearings over PG&E's re-licensing funding

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As Pacific Gas & Electric rolls forward with its re-licensing efforts for the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, state regulators may have put a kink in the wheel, at least financially.

The California Public Utilities Commission decided that concerns raised by a number of organizations regarding PG&E’s intention to use ratepayer revenues to fund its re-licensing of the aging facility do, in fact, merit some discussion.

The utility filed a request in January 2010 with the commission, the state’s regulatory agency that oversees privately owned utility companies, to use ratepayer money to recover all costs associated with renewing the 2,240-megawatt facility’s operating license. The tab is expected to come to approximately $85 million.

On Jan. 28, the commission’s Administrative Law Judge Robert Barnett ruled that objections raised by the ratepayer advocacy group the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, and co-interveners the Sierra Club, California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG), and Environment California, should be considered before signing off on the authorization.

In November 2010, PG&E, along with the Division of Ratepayer Advocates and the Utility Reform Network, filed a joint motion with the commission seeking a settlement on the latter two groups’ concerns over re-licensing funding.

Barnett, however, questioned whether that settlement should be approved and ratepayer funding be authorized before geological studies of the region surrounding Diablo Canyon are completed and reviewed by state authorities.

PG&E Spokesman Kory Raftery told New Times the utility has worked with—and will keep working with—all regulatory agencies, including the California Public Utilities Commission, through the license renewal process.

“We’ll continue to do what is right for our customers, and we’ll follow the process as set forth by regulators,” he said.

Critics have raised questions as to whether Diablo Canyon should be renewed for another 20 or more years in light of the late-2008 discovery of a new seismic fault line—known as the Shoreline Fault—less than a half-mile offshore from the plant.

New seismic threats, coupled with concerns about PG&E’s record of maintaining its aging equipment—and the California Public Utilities Commission’s oversight of the company—have led some county residents to question the urgency of license renewal.

In the 1980s, miscalculations at Diablo Canyon cost PG&E customers approximately $4.4 billion after PG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to properly investigate earthquake faults during Diablo’s original licensing, Alliance Executive Director Rochelle Becker said in a Jan. 31 news release.

“San Bruno was tragic,” David Weisman, outreach coordinator for the Alliance, told New Times. “But San Bruno plus radiation could be a catastrophe.” In September 2010, an aged PG&E gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, a small suburb of San Francisco, killing eight people and destroying more than 40 homes. 

According to a release by the Alliance, if it weren’t for the interveners to the settlement, the California Public Utilities Commission would have likely funded PG&E’s application for license renewal and ignored directives by the California Energy Commission; the Coastal Commission; and Assembly Bill 1632—legislation introduced by former Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee in 2008—which have all said advanced, three-dimensional seismic studies should be completed before ratepayer funding is used for license renewal.

The Alliance argues that economics and the reliability of nuclear power operations are the sole jurisdiction of the state—an argument supported by the NRC and the U.S. Supreme Court—and that intervention at the state level is the only way to protect ratepayers from seismic miscalculations at Diablo Canyon.

The NRC, however, hasn’t required PG&E to complete updated seismic studies prior to license renewal.

Following Barnett’s ruling, the California Public Utilities Commission will hear testimony from all parties involved beginning Feb. 18 and concluding May 2.

This latest twist in the ongoing saga of the future of Diablo Canyon follows a recent series of NRC-sponsored public meetings in San Luis Obispo, the first of which, on Jan. 20, had PG&E execs handing over a two-year study on the seismic landscape surrounding Diablo Canyon.

In its report, PG&E significantly downgraded the threat posed by the Hosgri Fault, the major earthquake fault in the area. When the plant was designed in the 1980s, the Hosgri was estimated to be able to produce a 7.5-magnitude earthquake, and PG&E says the plant was built to withstand such a quake.

According to PG&E officials, the Hosgri, Shoreline, and neighboring Los Osos and San Luis Bay faults are now estimated to be able to produce earthquakes no greater than a magnitude 6.5. PG&E seismologist Norm Abrahamson explained at the meeting that new technology has given the utility about 10 times more information about the Hosgri Fault than what was available in the 1980s.

The meeting was only supposed to bring information to the public, as the NRC has yet to review the report. NRC officials revealed they’ll need roughly a year to get through the study.

PG&E says it will now begin a three-year process of conducting the long-awaited 3D seismic studies.

As is usually the case when the NRC comes to town, not everyone left the meeting satisfied. Weisman pointed out that the massive report was only made available online to the public two days before the meeting and that no NRC seismologist was present to ask or answer substantial questions. He said most of the information went over everybody’s heads.

The NRC also discussed the results of its latest plant safety evaluation at another meeting on Jan. 27, when, after a month of on-site inspection by NRC inspection team leader Greg Pick, the agency confirmed PG&E had taken or planned actions to manage the aging components of the facility, as PG&E had stated in its license renewal application.

“What I really like to do is go and walk around,” Pick said about the inspection process. “And we did not find any issues that would affect aging management of the plant.”

Liz Apfelberg, a spokesperson for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, criticized PG&E’s assertion that managing aging is an “ongoing process.”

“The root problem revealed in this report is that PG&E cannot yet demonstrate that the effects of aging can and will be managed 34 years into the future,” Apfelberg said at the meeting. “Unless and until that can be accomplished, license renewal is not justified.”

“Diablo Canyon has very thorough programs currently in place to monitor, manage, and maintain all of our systems, equipment, and components, and has long been a strong-performing nuclear facility when it comes to safety and security. And we will not take that for granted,” said PG&E Spokesman Raftery. “We will continue to place our focus on doing what’s right to ensure we keep the public and the plant safe each and every day.”

The current operating licenses for Diablo Canyon’s two reactors are set to expire in 2024 and 2025. PG&E filed its license renewal application with the NRC in November 2009. The new licenses, if approved, would extend the reactors’ operation to at least 20 years from their current expiration dates.

Of the 104 operating nuclear reactors in the country, the NRC has renewed licenses for 61 units and is currently going through the renewal process for 21 more, including Diablo Canyon’s two reactors. To date, the NRC has never denied a utility’s application for license renewal.

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

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