Diablo Canyon granted delay to do seismic study

Power plant licensing renewal pushed back until area is analyzed for quake concerns

jlamb@thetribunenews.comJune 1, 2011 

Federal regulators have granted a PG&E request to delay the licensing renewal of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant until seismic studies of the area have been completed.

In a letter Tuesday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agreed to modify Diablo Canyon’s licensing renewal timeline, effectively postponing a final decision pending the completion of seismic studies around the plant.

“We asked the NRC to delay the final processing until we could complete and evaluate new seismic studies,” said Blair Jones, spokesman for PG&E.

PG&E requested the licensing delay in April in response to public concerns after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which caused a massive nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

PG&E hoped to have a final renewal decision by 2013 but now believes the seismic studies will delay the process by about two years, Jones said.

Critics have said the delay was nothing more than a public relations stunt, since the process has only been delayed, not halted.

“We plan on scaling back our review since there’s a lot of information that we will need to collect that isn’t currently available,” said NRC spokesman Victor Dricks, regarding the delay and seismic tests. But he added, “I wouldn’t say it is on hold, since there are some things the staff will be able to do.”

The NRC still plans to release the plant’s safety evaluation report, which encompasses some seismic information and the state of the aging plant, but after that, the environmental review and final decision will wait on the seismic studies, Dricks said.

He said the safety evaluation report could be revised depending on the outcome of the 3-D seismic study.

Before the license renewal can get its final green light from the NRC, the California Coastal Commission must make sure the project is consistent with the state Coastal Act, said Sarah Christie, a spokeswoman for the commission.

“We’re the only state regulatory agency that has a say in the relicensing process,” said Tom Luster, an environmental scientist with the Coastal Commission who has been working on the Diablo Canyon license renewal.

Local anti-nuclear group Mothers for Peace said the NRC’s recent action and PG&E’s request did not go far enough.

“I find PG&E’s request disingenuous and the NRC response a no-brainer, because the process of relicensing continues to go forward,” said Jill Zamek, the group’s secretary. “So nothing has changed.”

No matter what the results of the seismic study are, added Zamek, the relicensing is a foregone conclusion.

State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, also noted that the delay and seismic testing did not go far enough.

“It’s deeply troubling that the all-critical safety evaluation report will be issued before the newly discovered Shoreline Fault is scientifically analyzed,’’ he said in a statement Wednesday. “The vague assurances that supplemental reports might be filed at a later date demonstrates the NRC has learned nothing in the aftermath of the Japanese nuclear disaster,” the senator noted.

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district includes the plant, said the delay and seismic testing are positive steps.

Hill and members of his board have been asking both the NRC and PG&E to focus on seismic studies and safety issues, he said, even though they have no authority over the matter.

He wants a guarantee the studies are peer reviewed and shared with the public in a way that people can understand them.

In addition to local requests to halt all nuclear license renewal, the NRC is reviewing a joint emergency petition from a group of national stakeholders that asked the commission to stop all licensing, Dricks said.

That petition could bring about further revisions in the delayed relicensing schedule at Diablo Canyon.

Diablo Canyon’s two operating licenses are due to expire in 2024 and 2025. PG&E has applied to extend the licenses another 20 years each.

In addition to requesting a delay in license renewal, the utility says it will accelerate completion of the seismic studies. The utility also plans to conduct significant earthquake research along Los Osos Valley and in the Irish Hills near San Luis Obispo.

PG&E began low-energy seismic studies last year and expects it will take three years to complete the additional work. In order to do so, PG&E needs permits from the county, State Lands Commission and state Coastal Commission to perform high-energy offshore studies.

Until this point, both PG&E and the NRC had contended that license renewal and the 3-D seismic studies could proceed concurrently. However, since the nuclear accident in Japan, PG&E has been under intense pressure to delay license renewal.

In addition to the Board of Supervisors, Blakeslee and Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, formally asked for a delay in license renewal.

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