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California's Nuclear Battlefields

SAN FRANCISCO — When the California Public Utilities Commission held a hearing on July 7 with Pacific Gas & Electric to discuss the relicensing of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, the room was packed. In addition to the representatives from utility giants PG&E and Southern California Edison as well as several nuclear-watchdog groups, the audience was filled with citizens from across the state and beyond, all there to voice their feelings about the plant. 

“We don’t think that the commission should be approving any application for renewal from these nuclear power plants,” said Barbara George, who was attending the hearing on behalf of Women’s Energy Matters. “The commission made a mistake in not stopping this whole nuclear power plant construction when the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] refused to look at seismic issues. These power plants shouldn’t be running for one more day.” 

The hearing was representative of the larger conflicts surrounding nuclear power in California. The crowd was diverse, with nuclear physicists, doctors and representatives of several watchdog groups rubbing shoulders with old-school protesters in tie-dye holding dog-eared “No Nukes” signs, presumably recycled from prior, related protests. 

Yet those assembled, so different in appearance and background, were united in their message: Shut down Diablo Canyon. When Administrative Law Judge Robert Barnett, who presided over the hearings, provided the audience members the opportunity to voice their feelings, not one of them spoke in favor of the plant. 

“Japan is the size of California, and has 54 nuclear power plants,” said Fusako DeAngelis, a Japanese-born and raised immigrant whose family still lives in Japan. “If it was only a tsunami and earthquake, people could go back, clean up and restart their life. But because of the power plant disaster, they cannot … we have to develop electricity from an alternate resource.”

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 11, government and industry officials are waiting to see what the long-term effects will be on the U.S. nuclear power industry. Many experts, including NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, worry that implementing new legislation to keep U.S. reactors safe could take years and cost the industry billions of dollars.



In California, where two nuclear reactors sit on the most seismically active coastline in the country, the battle over the future of nuclear power is already intensifying. 

According to data provided by the Nuclear Energy Institute, as of June 2010, nuclear power was responsible for 15.5 percent of California’s supply of electricity, making it the second most popular form of electricity generation in the state behind natural gas. 

With the prominence of nuclear energy in the state, California has long been a hotbed of anti-nuclear activism.  

In 1976, Humboldt Bay Power Plant was shut down in the midst of seismic concerns, then decommissioned in 1983 after PG&E decided that conducting the necessary seismic retrofits wouldn’t be cost effective. 

In 1981, more than 1,900 people were arrested during a 10-day blockade at Diablo Canyon Power Plant. In 1992, plant operators at San Onofre elected to shut down its Unit 1 reactor rather than pay $125 million in required modifications to continue operations

More recently, there have been efforts to secure government funding to clean up the Santa Susana Field Laboratory. Santa Susana is a facility located just 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles, and in 1959 it became the first reactor in the U.S. to suffer a partial core meltdown, an accident that some experts claim was worse than the Three Mile Island disaster of 1979

“Thirty-one years after the Santa Susana reactor melted down, I’m still pushing to get the contamination cleaned up,” said Dan Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of California Santa Cruz and president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear-watchdog group. “The site had 10 nuclear reactors, four of which at least had accidents. They had a plutonium fuel fabrication facility, and they had a hot lab where they cut apart irradiated nuclear fuel from around the country. It’s one of the most toxic sites in California.”

In 2006, Boeing Co., owner of the facility, agreed to a $30 million settlement on a suit filed by locals claiming the facility was responsible for causing health problems in the area. 

For many, however, of far greater concern than the remaining contamination at Santa Susana is the potential damage that could be caused by a Fukushima-like event at one of California’s currently operational coastal power plants. 

 “We have a potentially catastrophic situation where there are several reactors, designed in the 1960s, that are sitting on seismically active and eroding coastlines,” said Hirsch.

Officials at Southern California Edison, the operator of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, have acknowledged that the plant has only been designed to withstand a 7.0 earthquake, much less powerful than the 9.0 temblor that hit Japan. 

Plant officials, however, insist that current safety measures are adequate.  

“We have a 30-foot-high reinforced-concrete tsunami wall that runs the whole length of the back of the plant, and in terms of seismic readiness, the plant is designed to withstand .67 G of ground acceleration,” said Christopher Abel, the community outreach manager for the plant. “That design limit is about twice what seismic evaluations that have been done around the plant tell us is a credible number for maximum ground acceleration in an earthquake that can be produced by the faults around here.” 


Despite such reassurances, many skeptics of nuclear power remain unconvinced. 

California has had a moratorium on nuclear reactor construction since 1976, pending a long-term solution to radioactive waste disposal. And while no new nuclear plants can be built in California, existing plants remain a cause of both safety and financial concern. 

The latest battleground of the California nuclear landscape is over the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County. Diablo Canyon is home to two reactors, whose licenses will expire in 2024 and 2025. 

“At the state level, we cannot oppose the relicensing of nuclear plants based on safety problems, as only the NRC has the authority to do so and they are a federal agency,” said Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. “However, the state has complete jurisdiction over the economics of nuclear power plants. They shut down the Rancho Seco and Humboldt plants because they were no longer cost effective, and if the economics of Diablo Canyon don’t add up, it’s likely that that plant will be closed as well.”

In order to extend the operating license of Diablo Canyon until 2045, PG&E needs approval from the NRC, a federal agency. However, to continue being able to charge ratepayers for electricity produced by the facility, the company also requires approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). In 2010, PG&E filed an application with the CPUC to charge its ratepayers $85 million to recover costs for the relicensing of Diablo Canyon’s two reactors.  

The July 7 CPUC hearing dealt with this application. In the wake of Fukushima, PG&E had requested an extension asking the NRC to hold off final certification of relicensing until seismic studies were completed and submitted to the NRC. However, nuclear-watchdog groups have been wary of such an arrangement, indicating that PG&E’s simple submission of its in-house studies to the NRC as a trigger for relicensing would pre-empt any of the peer-review processes that the state requires on such data. 

“When Diablo Canyon was first licensed nearly 40 years ago, PG&E’s in-house staff told the NRC staff that there weren’t any earthquake faults of concern,” said David Weisman, outreach coordinator for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, in a statement released prior to the hearing. “No independent eyes reviewed those studies — no further questions were asked — and 15 years later ratepayers were saddled with $4.4 billion in seismic cost overruns. It is a mistake we can ill afford today.”


At the hearing, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility voiced a motion to have PG&E’s license application dismissed rather than merely suspended, on the grounds that the data that has already been gathered may be irrelevant in terms of cost estimation. The organization also said that the 2011 cost projections could be in need of drastic revision, based on the conclusions of the current seismic studies, which will be completed in 2015.  

PG&E, on the other hand, has called for a review of the cost-recovery proposal submitted to the CPUC to be suspended until, according to statements released by that company's attorneys, “PG&E completes advanced seismic studies in the area around Diablo Canyon Power Plant.”

“There’s a suggestion … that somehow the work that has been done to date in this proceeding will be rendered obsolete as a result of the seismic studies that are ongoing,” said Mark Patrizio, PG&E’s legal representative at the hearing. “PG&E disagrees that this is a legitimate conclusion to be drawing at this time.”

Patrizio added that "a lot of work has been done already," related to the cost-recovery proposal. He also noted that once the seismic studies are finished, PG&E's current proposal can be amended.

“If those studies indicate that work needs to happen at the plant to ensure continued safe operation, that work will very likely have to be done immediately,” Patrizio said. “It won’t wait until the end of the existing operating licenses.”

Becker, on the other hand, remained unconvinced. She countered that the proposal still needed to be dismissed because "nothing in PG&E's application will have relevance" once the studies are completed and independently reviewed. 

She also voiced concerns regarding potential additional costs associated with the studies, which could eventually burden taxpayers if the cost-recovery proposal is approved.

“We have never seen PG&E stick to a number that they didn’t like in the 30 years that we’ve been before this commission,” Becker said.  “In the early 1980s during construction we didn’t review PG&E’s seismic issues, and we ended up with $4 billion in cost overruns, because by the time we looked again, the plant had to be rebuilt.”

The Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility pointed out a further flaw in PG&E's proposal, in that it does not reflect lessons learned from Fukushima, lessons that were outlined in a July 12 report issued by the NRC

"Is the PUC just going to go ahead with whatever PG&E says, absent the lessons learned from Japan? It makes no sense whatsoever," Becker said. “It certainly doesn't make sense for those of us who live in the shadow of these nuclear power plants, hundreds of miles away from this commission."

Judge Barnett noted that the CPUC has not met its 18-month deadline to resolve the proceeding, adding that if the CPUC keeps the case open, it can only do so for 60 days at a time, a process he described as “a pain in the neck, let me tell you.” Judge Barnett did not say when he will rule on the dispute.

Although these hearings were preliminary, and no decision has been passed to dismiss or suspend the application, experts agree that without PUC clearance to recoup relicensing costs, the plants’ future is unclear.

"We don't know what these seismic studies will show, or what additional work will be required, but that's the point; we don't know, and neither does PG&E," Becker said. "If nobody knows how much relicensing will really cost, and PG&E doesn't, then they shouldn't be allowed to move forward using ratepayer money."



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