Updated July 28
Overshadowed by the debate over a possible extension of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant’s lifespan is the ongoing controversy about the requisite cleanup level federal and state regulators will require when the plant is decommissioned, be it mid-decade or later.
“The decommissioning is still on the books,” said David Weisman, Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility spokesperson. While it is not yet known if Pacific Gas & Electric will actually seek to relicense the two 1,100 MW Diablo units, and if it will be approved, decommissioning is inevitable. Thus, AN4R and others insist that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission require PG&E to commit to cleaning up the site along the Central Coast to a level not higher than 10 millirems of radiation per year, or the lowest level NRC has approved for other nuclear plant termination plans. PG&E proposes a background cleanup level of 25 millirems, saying it expects to reach a lower level during decommissioning.
“Delaying retirement will delay clean up indefinitely,” said Jean Merrigan with Women Energy Matters.
Brandy Lopez, the utility’s decommissioning licensing supervisor, said at the July 21 NRC hearing on the closure plan that “PG&E continues to plan for the decommissioning independent of current state policy discussions around continued operations.” Gov. Gavin Newsom has said plant operations should continue beyond the 2025 license expiration and allocated $75 million to help extend its life.
This week, PG&E Corp CEO Patti Poppe said she was pleased that the state recognized the value of Diablo. But she told financial analysts July 28, “There is a real sense of urgency” to decide whether to move away from decommissioning work and towards a plant life extension because “a lot of hurdles need to be overcome.”
Many people, from nuclear supporters to watchdogs, protested the pursuit of the conflicting tracks at last week’s hearing.
But Weisman stressed that the utility was seeking the “loosest allowable cleanup level rather than the 60% tighter standard of 10 millirems per year that the NRC has agreed to enforce in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine.”
He said PG&E’s CEO reaps a $51 million salary and professes a commitment to the “safety of our home towns” and added, “aren’t ‘our hometowns’ just as deserving as those in New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine?”
“Why is your standard so lax,” San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace spokesperson Jane Swanson asked NRC officials.
NRC’s Special Assistant of Decommissioning Bruce Watson said his agency adopted the tighter clean-up levels for residual radioactivity in the four East Coast states because they were reached pursuant to settlement agreements between the state and utility. “I just want to make sure that the states can play a role in the decommissioning process and it’s whether they agree or not to do that, but the NRC will ensure that the 25 million millirems” is enforced, he added.
When applying the “NRC-prescribed calculation methodology extending out 1,000 years, the difference between 25 and 10 is substantial,” AN4R attorney John Geesman argued in testimony before the CPUC on May 31 on the 2021 triennial Diablo decommissioning proceeding.
Women Energy Matters also is urging the CPUC to mandate that PG&E meet a 10 millirem cleanup level at Diablo. PG&E states the 25 millirem level “adequately protects the health and safety of the general public,” and although it estimates that the actual end result “will probably be much less than 25 mrem, without costing ratepayers any more money,” it won’t commit to a safer 10 mrem cleanup standard, Merrigan said.
Watson said during last week’s public hearing that he “will not defend PG&E,” but that at the end of its decommissioning of the Humboldt nuclear plant, background levels were less than 3 millirems.
Agency staff, he said, will check the radioactive background levels in the soils and building during and after Diablo’s decommissioning, and also hire an independent consultant to do its own measurements.
“We have a history of things going wrong in California during cleanup,” Weisman said. He pointed to radiation migrating at the Humboldt plant and a partial meltdown of an experimental nuclear project in 1959 near Simi Valley. That caused extensive contamination with the amount of radioactivity released still unknown, according to Committee to Bridge the Gap.
Allowing higher radiation levels at the Diablo site would impact the indigenous people who are supposed to get the coastal land returned to them when the power plant is removed and the site is cleaned up, Weisman said.
NRC photograph of Diablo Canyon