Itâ€™s no small wonder when the mere involvement of nuclear energy elevates a matter of simple procedural method into the national limelightâ€”but thatâ€™s the way of the world at Diablo Canyon.
A June 2 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found that the current licensing behind a dry-storage system for the plantâ€™s spent fuel rods lacked adequate analysis of potential fallout after a terrorist attack.
Owner of the coastal facility, PG&E, drafted plans for the storage casks in 2004 when construction on a national repository in Nevada stalled. According to the Mothers For Peace web site, soon after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a license for the casks, Mothers for Peace, the Sierra Club, and former SLO County supervisor Peg Pinard brought a lawsuit against the NRC, howling at the lack of transparency in the process.
Despite all the hubbub, the outcome of the courtâ€™s landmark decision appears to be just another study or two by the NRCâ€”maybe. Frankly, the commission isnâ€™t really saying.
â€œWeâ€™re reviewing the courtâ€™s decision,â€? said Victor Dricks, a spokesman with the NRC.
During the original licensing process, the NRC dismissed the need for an Environmental Impact Study looking into the possible outcome of a successful terrorist attack. Calling the possibility of such an event â€œremote and speculative,â€? the bureaucratic deferral effectively bypassed the public-input stage.
â€œWeâ€™re hoping now that the NRC will take this decision to heart,â€? said Mothers for Peace board member Liz Apfelberg.
PG&E initially hinted at its intentions to appeal the June 2 ruling, but a June 6 call to the power companyâ€™s head office revealed no progress toward further litigation. Storage-cask construction will continue as scheduled, on pace for a completion date hovering in the third quarter of 2007.
PG&E does not seem concerned about the possibility of future inspections. â€œWe simply donâ€™t believe a thorough review would call for any new changes,â€? company spokesman Jeff Lewis said.
The opposing groups want PG&E to redraft plans to include bolstered cask fortification, as well as better distribution of the units around the lot to minimize the nuclear bullâ€™s-eye effect.
Lewis asserted that the casks are adequate as is and that breaking up the cluster would just create more targets. In lieu of fresh mandates from the NRC, he said, the ruling has no direct effect on the storage casks under construction.
â€œItâ€™s a miscommunication that the court found Diablo to be a terrorist threat,â€? Lewis said. â€œItâ€™s really just a procedural thing within the NRC.â€?
â€œPG&E is making a mistake,â€? Mothers for Peace attorney Diane Curran retorted. â€œ[This process] requires a public discussion. They canâ€™t say â€˜Weâ€™ve reached our own conclusion, and thatâ€™s all there is to it.â€™â€?
Although it remains a matter of contention how much responsibility PG&E actually bears in the matter, open season began on the Bush NRC just hours after the ruling hit the wire. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer lambasted the agency for potentially threatening the safety of county residents.
â€œPresident Bush and Administration officials make constant public statements about the terrorist threat,â€? he said in a faxed statement. â€œYet the NRC in this case concluded the danger of a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility is so minimal that the environmental effects of an attack did not have to be considered, resulting in denying Californians the right to know about potential harm.â€?
Diablo Canyon officials say that the plantâ€™s subterranean storage pool will fill up by 2010, at which point at least some dry-cask units must stand ready.