Feds Delay Diablo Relicensing

By Published On: June 9, 2011

Pacific Gas & Electric’s plan to relicense its Diablo Canyon nuclear facility was pushed back by four years under a June 7 Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff decision. The matter of timing is not so much whether the nuclear facility is to continue operation for the next decade, but whether the engineering and economic risks indicated by the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi implicate the Diablo plant. Large investments have been made in the power plant to allow it to operate in the future at a low price for ratepayers. At the same time, ongoing use of the aging reactors creates health and safety risks. The risks are increased by its proximity to earthquake faults--a problem with nuclear facilities pointed out by the Fukushima disaster. PG&E requested federal regulators account for California earthquake data prior to a 20-year license extension for the facility. The information is being acquired at a cost of $16.75 million to ratepayers. PG&E’s relicensing application and nuclear power plant operations in the U.S. have been undergoing far more intense scrutiny following the March 11 earthquake and tsumami and resulting Fukushima meltdowns. The utility asked federal regulators to formally include the earthquake data now being gathered. But, it did not ask for the relicensing to be delayed. Under the current 40-year licenses, the utility can continue to run the plant until 2025. Diablo, and its nuclear neighbor to the south, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, have been highlighted by federal regulators for their proximity to earthquake faults. One faultline is within a kilometer of Diablo; San Onofre is about 4.5 miles from the nearest fault. Despite the lag time between the end of the current license and a renewal, PG&E “thinks it’s in the best interest of everyone” to provide earthquake data to the NRC, said PG&E spokesperson Blair Jones. He added that the data involved would undergo an “independent peer review.”   PG&E’s request that NRC examine updated seismic studies prior to relicensing came after the nuclear power plant meltdowns at Fukushima Diiachi, Japan. Federal regulators gave PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant exceptional leeway to include seismic studies in the proposed 20-year extension of its operating license. Instead of the traditional Nuclear Regulatory Commission review--one that does not necessitate earthquake data to be included in any license extension--with little comment the NRC June 7 then declared the utility’s license extension procedure be delayed four years. The move indicates federal regulators are tuning into nuclear power plant sore spots in the wake of the Japanese nuclear plant meltdowns. That follows on the footsteps of NRC concluding June 2 that PG&E had met the basic safety requirements for a 20-year license extension for the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. The “safety evaluation report” was the first, and probably biggest, milestone in PG&E’s quest to run the nuclear reactors for up to 60 years. After Fukushima Daiichi, the federal relicensing process was amended to account for ongoing seismic studies in the safety evaluation report. Brian Holian, director, Nuclear Regulatory Commission division of license renewal, wrote PG&E May 31 that a final report would include a review of any data obtained in the current earthquake studies. The commission promised to supplement this safety evaluation report “as necessary, considering any relevant new information from the seismic studies, operating experience, and annual updates prior to finalizing a decision on license renewal,” Holian added June 2. “I think a safety evaluation report issued before seismic studies are completed is a waste of time and resources,” Rochelle Becker, Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility executive director, responded. An “acceptable level of safety” is federal regulator’s basis for allowing nuclear power plant 20-year extensions, according to the document. To date, the NRC has extended licenses for 66 reactors. Most recently, it granted extensions to the Palo Verde nuclear facility--partly owned by Southern California Edison--April 21. Primary concerns in aging nuclear reactors are increasing brittleness of integral steel parts, corrosion, and growing amounts of high-level radioactive waste. The June 2 report found PG&E is “committed to enhance the procedures for metal fatigue” in the coolant area of the plant. It also noted that wear and tear on items like internal tubing are to be corrected by the utility. PG&E recently replaced the steam generators at the facility at a cost of over $700 million. It is set to replace the reactors’ heads at a cost of $141 million. The cost of the current seismic studies at the facility is set at $16.75 million. The utility has a pending request at the California Public Utilities Commission to pay for the $85 million cost of the paperwork and engineering for the federal 20-year license extension. A hearing on the issue was pulled March 16. No further action by the commission has been indicated since then. Activists and politicians have requested the NRC to stop its license renewal proceedings in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Last year, before the Japanese meltdowns, the commission turned down activists’ request to halt Diablo’s relicensing proceedings. NRC’s Holian noted the commission is considering that action, although it is still proceeding on PG&E’s Diablo request, although at a slower pace.

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