Pacific Gas & Electric's president discusses Diablo Canyon's safety

Utility leader discusses public trust challenges in wake of Japanese disaster

dsneed@thetribunenews.comMarch 17, 2011 

PG&E President Chris Johns told The Tribune on Thursday that the utility will continue pursuing license renewal of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant even as it works to complete new studies of the danger earthquakes pose to the plant.

In a wide-ranging, nearly hourlong interview, Johns covered a variety of public trust challenges facing the company in light of the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami that have crippled nuclear power reactors in Japan.

The utility has also faced intense controversy over a recent deadly gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, its implementation of SmartMeters throughout its service territory and concerns raised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about problem solving at Diablo Canyon.

“Right now, we are not in a position to ask our customers for trust,” Johns said. “We will have to earn it.”

The process of renewing Diablo Canyon’s two operating licenses for an additional 20 years will take three to five years to complete, which is enough time to incorporate safety information gleaned from ongoing earthquake studies and the disaster in Japan, Johns said. Anti-nuclear activists and some elected officials have asked for the renewal activity to be stopped until the seismic studies are complete.

“We believe it is prudent to continue to go through the renewal process,” Johns said. “We are always looking at our seismic program.”

Plant manager Jim Becker said the utility will also examine the nuclear crisis in Japan for lessons that can be applied to Diablo Canyon. But it is too early to cite any specific lessons learned, he said.

The tragedy in Japan has prompted more concerns from Diablo Canyon’s 1,800 employees than any other issue, Becker said. Plant managers are holding brown-bag lunch meetings with employees to address those concerns.

On Thursday, PG&E donated 3,500 pounds of boron to Japan to aid the effort to stabilize the reactors. When mixed with water, the boron helps absorb free neutrons and cool the reactor core.

Plant managers said they had plenty of boron on hand to meet Diablo Canyon’s needs. The chemical is being flown to Japan by the Air Force.

Becker said the company would look at all aspects of its operations at Diablo Canyon for safety improvements in light of the Japanese crisis. When asked whether plant managers would consider accelerating transfer of spent fuel from storage pools to dry casks in order to return the pools to their original low-density configurations, Becker said they have not ruled it out.

“It’s a great question,” he said. “We’ll need to study it.”

At Japan’s stricken nuclear plants, spent fuel stored in pools has reportedly lost its cooling water and is burning, exacerbating the crisis. A low density of assemblies in the pools greatly reduces this risk.

Becker said 500 assemblies have already been transferred from the pools to the dry casks. This includes 150 assemblies housed in temporary storage racks that have now been removed.

Another safety issue is the ability of workers at Diablo Canyon to identify and correct problems in a timely fashion. Over the past several years, the NRC has identified this as a “significant, cross-cutting issue” at the plant.

This week, Becker received a letter from the agency that said the problem is still unresolved. It acknowledged that the utility has made progress in this area, but more work needs to be done, said Lara Uselding, NRC spokeswoman.

“We know they did a safety-culture assessment, and we’d expect that they will have results from this that would aid in correcting the issue and tie it in to their corrective actions,” she said. “We will be taking a look at this as well.”

Concerning SmartMeters, Johns said the utility did a poor job of community outreach last summer as it began installing the devices that give PG&E real-time meter readings, potentially rewarding customers for conservation.

There is still a lot of concern about them among the company’s customers, Johns said.

The company is working with state regulators to give customers the ability to opt out of the program if they want. It expects to release information on the opt-out program next week.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.

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