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Was the Diablo deal a payoff to the Coastal Commission?

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Last week the California Coastal Commission said that it would allow PG&E to build a controversial radioactive waste storage facility at Diablo Nuclear Power Plant. The only condition the commission made in its unanimous approval of facility was that Diablo must open a 3-mile stretch of coastline to the public. After the announcement was made, some environmental groups cried foul and described the deal as a payoff between the energy giant and the Coastal Commission.

“It was really a lack of will; an agency scared for its funding and its future. It’s not what San Luis Obispo deserved,� said Rochelle Becker of Mothers for Peace.

But both Diablo and the Coastal Commission refute that claim.

PG&E spokesman Jeff Lewis skirted the question of whether Diablo was happy with the increased access by talking about security concerns and the measures PG&E has taken since 2001 to make it more difficult for people to get near Diablo.

“This is a step that brings people closer to the plant. It’s in contrast to what’s come down from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,� he said.

From his office in San Francisco, Coastal Commission staff member Tom Luster sounded much happier about the deal. He also denied that it was payoff. The reason, he said, was because his agency’s decision had nothing to do with radioactive storage.

“Basically, we can’t say no to a project if it’s nuclear waste. Had the project raised issues that conflicted with the Coastal Act in other ways, we could have denied it,� he said.

However, the plan will affect access to the coast and so the commission was able to require mitigation before they signed off on the construction.

But how could it affect access if all of Diablo’s 12,000 square acres are already off-limits?

Luster explained it like this: As the commission did its research, it realized that no other radioactive waste sites were available and it didn’t look like any will be in the near future.

“We had to assume that it would be there longer than the power plant. And once the power plant goes away and is decommissioned, but for this storage area, there would be shoreline access available,� he said.

Becker scoffed at what she called the lack of perspective in that logic. The analogy she made was if the state of Nevada signed off on the federal government’s plan to store nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, and in return only asked that the people could hike on the mountain when the facility was finished.

Some people might think this payoff is worth it, she said, because of an energy shortage. “But in the long run, my grandchildren will never receive a kilowatt of energy from this power plant. They will only be left with the risks of abandoned radioactive waste dumps on our coast.�

Because of the three other lawsuits regarding the storage that Mothers For Peace is currently involved in, they won’t challenge the Coastal Commission’s approval.

And so over the next two years, a Coastal Commission working group will figure out just how the access will work. While specific details have yet to be worked out, Luster said that county laws would regulate the requirements. For instance, the minimum width of accessible land would be about 10 feet.

The work group will also have to take into account different sensitive environmental areas, and will have to plan explanatory signs to help the public understand that this access “is not for people to roam about the entire northern property at Diablo Canyon,� Luster said.

An interesting side note to the issue is how the new access will affect local surfers. The 3 miles of coastline, which has been off limits since 1985, sits just south of a nationally famed spot called Hazards.

Mike Chaney, owner of Central Coast Surfboards in San Luis Obispo, moved to the area in the early 1970s. He said that back then no one even thought of surfing in that area.

Since then, the surfing population in the county has increased exponentially. But, Chaney said, even with the increase in exploration that growth has caused, he’s still never heard of anything worth surfing out there.

“It seems likely that there would be something surfable down that stretch of beach,� he said. “But I don’t know. It could be unusable too for all I know.�

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