Nuclear-power shake-up

Judge rules that PG&E cannot pass costs of relicensing Diablo Canyon on to ratepayers. Meanwhile, the plant’s seismic vulnerability remains uncertain.


California may be one step closer to becoming a nuclear-free state.

Last month, a California Public Utilities Commission judge ruled that PG&E may not use ratepayer funds to finance the mandatory federal relicensing process of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. The operating licenses for the two reactors at Diablo Canyon will expire in 2024 and 2025.

Because relicensing is a time-consuming and costly process, the utility had hoped to shift it entirely onto customer’s bills. The cost to renew the power plant for another 20 years would be $80 million.

Two years ago, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility filed suit against PG&E, which pointed out that the utility was flouting a 2006 law that directs the California Energy Commission to assess a nuclear-power plant’s vulnerability to disaster due to a major seismic event or plant aging. But these seismic studies will not be complete until 2015, so PG&E must now effectively abandon the option of passing the buck on to ratepayers.

“PG&E has known all along what our state expected them to do, and has flaunted those orders, wasting time and money in the process,” said Rochelle Becker of A4NR.

Becker says that it should already be known by now if Diablo Canyon’s seismic footing is secure. “Instead, it took the unavoidable public scrutiny that arose after PG&E’s San Bruno explosion and the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns to shed light on their inaction,” Becker noted.

The threat posed by earthquakes and tsunamis was made obvious by the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, when a magnitude-9 quake occurred some 40 miles off the coast of Japan caused a massive tsunami. The towering waves broke the nuclear-power reactors’ connection to the power grid, causing them to overheat. Three of the reactors experienced full meltdown.

Authorities now predict it will take 40 years to “clean up” the plant, a disaster that must permanently be managed, costing Japan many hundreds of billions of dollars.

The issue of seismic risk at Diablo Canyon is just as much about economic security as it is about public safety, said David Weisman, the outreach coordinator of A4NR.

“When the CPUC granted PG&E their original funding permit in 1967, nobody checked or verified the seismic assertions made by PG&E or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

He said that, as a result of this lack of oversight, “ratepayers later forked over billions of dollars for costly seismic retrofit blunders at the reactors.”

“We can’t afford that again,” Weisman said.

A4NR is opposing PG&E’s application with the CPUC to recover costs for its seismic studies, which could be anywhere from $18 million to $64 million. PG&E also will have to pay more to ensure that water emitted into the ocean by the plant is cool enough.

What’s known today is that one fault capable of delivering a magnitude-7.5 quake sits 2.5 miles offshore of Diablo Canyon. Experts, however, have argued for years that the Hosgri Fault is no danger, even though it was discovered well after Diablo Canyon’s permitting and the start of construction.

Another fault, the Shoreline Fault, was also discovered in 2008 just a mile offshore from the power plant.