CPUC Judges Diablo

By Published On: February 28, 2004

California is embarking on an economic and social test where other states fear to tread. Today, February 27, the California Public Utilities Commission begins determining whether Pacific Gas & Electric?s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is worth continued operations and customer investments. Other states have been cowed by the industry?s assurances that nuclear power is safe, despite recent near-misses, and that the federal government has everything under control at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But is it worth it? Is it worth spending ratepayers? money to keep running nuclear plants despite all their risks? Since the 2,200 MW facility went live in the 1980s, the world has changed. Nuclear plants have been considered targets by terrorists. The marine life in the Pacific surrounding Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo has been decimated as the plant sucks up billions of gallons of seawater a day to be returned to the ocean at higher temperatures. PG&E plans to store its increasing pile of high-level nuclear waste on top of the ground at the plant because the promised long-term national waste storage dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, will probably never come to fruition. The manufacturer of those above-ground dry casks for high-level waste storage, Holtec, has been fingered by a former industry quality assurance engineer for many NRC violations (see <i>Energy Circuit</i>, Sept. 5, 2003). There have also been several earthquakes near the reactors, most recently 50 miles away in Paso Robles late last year. Triggering the state?s inquiry is PG&E?s request to spend $706 million in the next few years to refurbish Diablo Canyon with new steam generators. PG&E hopes to squeeze out more revenues from the aging plant with the new investment, along with the expected Nuclear Regulatory Commission approvals of above-ground storage and an extension on the plants? licenses for an extra 20 years. PG&E cites Diablo?s lack of air pollution as a plus, but avoids any mention of the cost of possible radioactive leaks. The utility stands by its choice of Holtec as a dry-cask manufacturer. PG&E maintains that the $706 million investment is an economic use of ratepayer funds. As long as the costs of a possible accident are ruled out, nuclear power has become cheaper than some other types of electricity?thanks to the state?s energy crisis, which increased the cost of competing power. With deregulation, PG&E got its stranded assets paid off (at least on paper until the bankruptcy deal is complete). The utility was paid back for all its original $5.5 billion investment in Diablo, plus interest and subsidies, which amounted to more than $28 billion in total to the utility?s customers. That figure is out of the accounting picture now. But the cost of an accident could make that $28 billion look like chump change. Recent US Department of Energy estimates of nuclear fuel?related accidents in the Los Angeles area calculate that within hours, a nuclear plume would disperse radiation almost 30 miles and assume nearly 400 latent fatal cancers in one year. Cleanup costs would easily run in the multibillion-dollar range. These are costs that are not reflected in the so-called ?operating costs? of Diablo Canyon. That?s where the CPUC comes in, beginning this week with a prehearing conference on the matter. Ironically, it is only five days before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission commemorates the 25th anniversary of the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island plant. Regulators may very well determine that running the aging plant is worth the economic and social risks. I expect heavy-handed industry lobbying accompanied by lots of cash to help ensure approval of the $706 million investment because it?s not really about the high price of the venture. It?s about getting California, like all other nuclear-hosting states, to ignore the risks of operating old nuclear plants for decades beyond their federal licenses. The CPUC wasn?t afraid to be the first and only one to require decommissioning funds beyond the bare minimum because the state recognized that the costs of burying nuclear plants were going to be far higher than early expectations. Likewise, the CPUC should not be afraid to set a national precedent again, stopping the treacherous economic and health-hazard risks of two more decades of nukes.

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