IT’S MY OWN FAULT: The big shots running Pacific Gas & Electric must have been weeping with joy over President Barack Obama’s call for new nuclear power plants during last week’s State of the Union speech. For them, the timing could not have been better. But for us — and anyone else who happens to live downwind from an existing nuclear power plant — the timing could not have been much worse.
I say that because PG&E is now applying to renew its license for the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, located in Morro Bay just outside San Luis Obispo. For the geographically challenged out there, that’s just a few miles up the road. If something bad were to happen at Diablo, rest assured that your day would be ruined. In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is hosting the first of many public hearings on Diablo’s relicensing application this coming Tuesday, February 9, at S.L.O.’s Embassy Suites. For those itching for a novel way to witness government inaction, this is a day trip worth taking. PG&E’s timing in this, however, is not merely curious; it’s downright suspicious. First, Diablo Canyon’s permits with the NRC do not expire for another 12 years. So why the sudden rush to get relicensed?
The answer to this not-so-rhetorical question lies somewhere near the fact that in November 2008, scientists with the United States Geological Survey determined that Diablo Canyon lies no more than 1,800 feet off an offshore earthquake fault line that until then no one knew for certain really existed. This is the sort of news that might require most mere mortals to run out of the room to change their underwear. But not the executives at PG&E or the regulators with the NRC. These guys flinch at nothing. Hell, they knowingly located — and approved — the Diablo Canyon plant within four miles of an active fault line known as the Hosgri Fault. They have reassured us that the presence of the “new” fault line — known as the Shoreline Fault — is hardly cause for alarm. That’s because it’s believed the Shoreline Fault, about which little is actually known, is capable of delivering only a 6.0-6.5 jolt on the Richter scale. Not to worry. Diablo Canyon was engineered to withstand a seismic uppercut of 7.5.
Not all of us, however, can be so Zen about things. When it comes to building nuclear power plants in earthquake country, I tend to get a little frantic. To be otherwise requires Botox to the brain. It turns out that the California Energy Commission and the Public Utilities Commission share my skittishness. In fact, the state regulators notified PG&E that before they could apply to the NRC — the feds — to renew their license at Diablo Canyon, PG&E needed to conduct a complete seismic analysis of the area, complete with a report on the environmental and economic impacts if the plant were to be shut down by some sort of seismic incident. In addition, the state regulators wanted a study on the available alternatives if, all of a sudden, Diablo Canyon went dark. Given that Diablo Canyon supplies up to 10 percent of California’s total electricity demand, that’s not an idle question. But given that there’s a gigantic solar plant proposed just north of the Carrizo Plain — capable of providing more than half of Diablo Canyon’s mega-wattage — there may be some intriguing answers as well.
Guess what? PG&E hasn’t gotten a study started, let alone finished. But that didn’t stop them from submitting its application with the NRC to renew its license anyway. To be fair, PG&E just got around to asking the Public Utilities Commission for permission to charge its rate-payers for the $16-million bill that the high-tech 3-d study on the new Shoreline Fault will cost. At the very soonest, that study will be complete sometime in 2013. By contrast, the NRC license renewal process is expected to take only 22 months. That takes us to 2012. Translated, that means PG&E will get its new license to operate Diablo Canyon for another 20 years well before the seismic studies are complete. One might think such information could prove vital to the NRC’s deliberations, let alone our own personal safety. But then, one might also have thought no one in their right minds would ever build a nuclear power plant within four miles of a known earthquake fault.
The last line of defense in this scenario, of course, is the NRC itself. That’s not good news. Even in the aftermath of 9/11, the NRC refused to require PG&E to conduct additional anti-terrorism studies when the company sought permission to build a de facto nuclear waste storage facility at Diablo Canyon. It should be noted that when the plant initially was approved, no permanent waste storage facility was envisioned. As changes go, that’s big. (Prior security analysis assumed that the plant would never be attacked by more than five would-be assailants, and plant security strategies were calibrated accordingly.) Mothers for Peace had to sue the NRC to make that agency require additional analysis. Ultimately, the lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court. Although Mothers for Peace “won” in court, it’s not really clear what their victory achieved. That’s because the new plant security analysis is deemed confidential, so no one really knows for sure what’s in it.
The good news is that Santa Barbara has no shortage of Botox bars. Next time I get nervous about Diablo Canyon, I’ll order a shot straight to the pre-fontal lobe. Then you’ll see all those worry lines disappear.