Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant | Credit: Michael "Mike" L. Baird/WikiCommons

Sometimes it’s easy for Santa Barbarans to forget that we live downwind of a massive nuclear power plant. Fellow Barbarians, this isn’t one of those times.

As a reminder, Diablo Canyon Power Plant, with its twin nuclear reactors, is just 25 miles up the coast from Santa Maria and less than 100 miles from the parklets of downtown Santa Barbara.

The plant is currently the subject of intense debate. The outcome of that debate, expected before the end of the year, could have a direct affect on all of us.

The crux of the matter is this: Will this nuclear power plant cease operations in 2024 and 2025, when each reactor reaches its 40-year license expiration date? Or will it be allowed to operate for five (possibly even 20) more years? The decision on this matter is hugely consequential — environmentally, financially, politically, on a state, national, and even international level — and to the health and safety of all of us who live downwind.

Last fall the California Legislature gave Diablo a conditional go-ahead for a five-year operating extension to 2030 — “conditional” being a key word here. The bill, Senate Bill 846, got its “yes” vote on the last night of the legislative session, with what might be called intensely applied support from Governor Newsom.

Since then, various dominos have fallen into place to facilitate this result. Pacific Gas & Electric, the owner of Diablo, has already managed to wangle generously casual interpretations of scheduling rules, and other wave-throughs, to ease the approval process. California offered a gargantuan $1.4 billion loan, the feds have promised to pay off part of it, and ratepayers up and down the state (not just PG&E customers) will apparently be on the hook for the rest. No, nobody asked any of us.

A Safe Nuclear Plant?

Certain environmentalists have even stepped up to say that “safe” nuclear plants should not be decommissioned too soon, because, they say, they’re needed for baseload energy production while additional renewable energy — wind, solar, battery storage, etc. — comes online. This is the view that seems to have convinced a Democratic governor and Legislature to upend the already agreed-upon shutdown of this aging nuclear facility. Instead, we have a headlong rush to extend operations.

Governmental bodies, which tend to move at a snail’s pace, are being asked to sprint through their permitting processes in order to weigh in on this really, really complex issue. (The clock’s ticking to get all of their reviews done before those reactor licenses expire in 2024 and 2025.) This includes virtually every agency from the County of San Luis Obispo to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In that number are the California Public Utilities Commission, the Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission, the Energy Commission, the Department of Water Resources, the Water Resources Control Board, the State Air Resources Board, the Natural Resources Agency and more. All of them with the instruction from the Legislature to hurry.

Thankfully, others are saying “Not so fast.” Two groups leading the charge are San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace and the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. This particular nuclear plant, they point out, isn’t safe, isn’t cheap, and most certainly isn’t clean. Extending its operation is not something to be sought at all, much less rushed into pell-mell. Instead, continuing to facilitate in every way possible the immediate deployment of additional renewables is where all of this governmental sprinting needs to be taking place. Along with encouraging, dare we say, a bit of that old fashioned, O.G. thing — conservation.

San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace has been a watchdog group and legal intervenor in Diablo matters since 1973. The nonprofit is continuing to do its level best to sound the alarm about safety issues and to urge the closing of Diablo on schedule in ‘24 and ‘25. The Mothers are working with highly respected experts who are decidedly not on the payroll of PG&E.

The Alliance For Nuclear Responsibility, another SLO-based group, was a major player in the agreement for Diablo to close in 2024 and 2025. The Alliance is likewise focused on safety as well as on the enormous financial burdens embedded in the extension push.

Other environmental groups — Friends of the Earth and The Environmental Working Group—are taking part with the Mothers in legal action to stop the extension. The Sierra Club, Beyond Nuclear, and the National Resources Defense Council have spoken out. And members of the public are finding ways to voice their concerns as well, but it’s not always easy.

It Will Come Down to Money

An example of the complicated, exhausting path to a decision is the recent two-day marathon public meeting of the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee. This is a three-person panel operating under the auspices of the California PUC. Its members do inspections at the plant and review reams of material submitted by PG&E. And in its three-times-a-year public meetings, the committee receives stylish powerpoint presentations from PG&E staffers who describe how swimmingly things are going.

What’s the difference between preventative maintenance, corrective maintenance, and facilities projects, you may have never wondered. This question was the subject of long discussion at this meeting, because SB 846 specifically mentions “too high” costs of “deferred maintenance” as being potential deal breakers on the extension.

PG&E’s staffers went to great lengths to argue that all necessary maintenance was being done, but that “projects” may have been deferred. From their perspective, of course, it’s important to suggest that there won’t be any unexpected costs associated with fortifying the facility for extended operations.

Linda Seeley, of Mothers for Peace, asked how on earth the committee members would evaluate the 250 items on the “projects” list, and their costs, all by a tight September 1 deadline. The costs angle was immediately shot down by the committee’s legal counsel, who said that this wasn’t the committee’s job. But as Dr. Robert Budnitz, a committee member, put it, “Projects could be very expensive. We’ll see.” He added that they’ll be looked at “case by case” and that the committee might even add some of its own suggestions for projects. (Or, of course, they might not.) 

Did we mention that this committee will be making the report to the CPUC this fall on how much work still needs to be done to maintain, in the NRC’s word, adequate safety to continue operations? What this report says will be critically important because it’s the CPUC that will decide whether the cost of all that possible work does or does not make sense.

Earthquakes and Other Perils

The main safety issue that most people think about with regard to Diablo is seismic danger — all of those fault lines near the bluff that Diablo sits on. SB 846 also calls out the cost of upgrades to address this danger. And, as with the maintenance costs, the CPUC has the power to block the extension if seismic upgrade costs are “too high to justify incurring.” So what this committee says about seismic safety will also be enormously significant for the CPUC.

Jane Swanson of Mothers for Peace reminded the committee of the Declaration of Dr. Peter Bird, professor emeritus of geophysics and geology at UCLA. Dr. Bird, who is working with the Mothers, describes the existing PG&E seismic documentation as using outdated methodology which understates the seismic risk by a factor of two, and which completely leaves out analysis of thrust faults under the plant. John Geesman of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility implored the committee not to rubberstamp PG&E’s existing seismic submissions, but to wait for the update required by SB 846, and evaluate that.

Another safety concern that is hair-raising in its own way is embrittlement. This is the metallurgical deterioration that occurs over time inside the dome of an operating nuclear reactor. Embrittlement can lead to what is called “Pressurized Thermal Shock,” which, as far as we can tell, is a euphemism for catastrophic failure. Bruce Severance, a regulatory compliance engineer, gave public comment on this subject so detailed and nuanced that the committee chair, Dr. Peter Lam, acknowledged at its conclusion that the “Probability is low, but the consequences would be horrendous.” Mr. Severance noted that some material in the Unit 1 reactor was projected to reach the effective end of safe functioning by 2021. He added that today, in 2023, we really don’t know if it has or has not already done that.

So that meeting happened. And don’t even get us started on the hundreds of thousands of years that Diablo’s nuclear waste will be around. Spent fuel storage — all of it on-site in dry casks or borated-water pools — was discussed, at length.

The bottom line is that this Diablo Canyon decision has not been finalized and it is a big, big deal. It’s not just about a quick, easy way to keep the A.C. on when it’s a warm September evening. That’s the folksy way it has been characterized — just a simple, stopgap measure for the next few years. It is far more than that and needs clear-eyed attention from the public.

There will no doubt be thousands of pages of documents from PG&E going to the Independent Safety Committee, and to the CPUC directly, and to all the other permitting agencies, and to the NRC with the license extension application. That application is due at the end of this year, the other submissions even sooner. And all of the government agencies will be holding meetings and writing lots of pages of their own reports and analyses.

We’ll be watching for the barrage of words from those who want to muscle this extension through. We expect they’ll have a lot to say. And we’ll be thinking of Jane Swanson’s pointed comment at that committee meeting, about PG&E’s enormous, inadequate 2015 seismic study. She listened to a committee member say admiringly that the report was one of the biggest seismic safety reports he’d ever seen. And she replied, “Just because a report is big, doesn’t mean it is correct or complete.”

The next key event in this saga is a public meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday, July 25. The CPUC will come to San Luis Obispo and offer a video/telephone link as well, for members of the public to share their thoughts and questions on Diablo. To find out more, visit cpuc.ca.gov/pph/.

Lauren Hanson and Mary Jones live in Santa Barbara.


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