Joetopia

Diablo Canyon may want to consider this modest proposal

jtarica@thetribunenews.comNovember 2, 2013 

I can tell you right now how this Diablo Canyon cooling system issue will be resolved.

And it won’t involve massive concrete towers and a grossly gouged-out hillside, as appears in the rendering on today’s front page. We know this bit of fantasy will never happen. Someone would have to abduct the entire Coastal Commission and lock them in a vault at Yucca Mountain to get this proposal through.

It’s actually kind of funny, and the option is almost comical in its presentation, as though the artist were told to make the image look as ridiculous as possible so it could never possibly come to fruition. From the looks of the rendering (and assuming the scale is correct), those towers would be larger than the imposing containment domes themselves, spewing steam well above the nearby ridge line.

Behind them, a stepped incline shows how much of the existing slope would be carved away. Add in the onerous $8 billion to $12 billion price tag, and you can see the proposal is utterly ludicrous.

The other two suggested replacement cooling technologies — mesh screens on the intake structure or a system of offshore pipes — would cost substantially less but still amount to hundreds of millions of dollars passed on to ratepayers in addition to months of construction time when the plant would be out of service.

All to save a bunch of little larvae from one small cove.

The silly thing about each of these options is that they require spending tons of money and energy to solve a problem that will exist at best for another 20 years beyond what’s presently allowed. That’s how long the operating licenses for Diablo Canyon’s two nuclear reactors could be extended from their current expiration dates in 2024 and 2025.

Presumably, after that time, we all would agree that the plant has served its purpose and we can move on to new energy sources. At that point, all of this costly infrastructure would be mothballed, yielding no continuing benefit for the price we paid.

When you look at the problem from that perspective, it becomes quite clear what the best solution is. That would be requiring PG&E to spend a chunk of cash improving the coastal and marine environment away from the immediate plant site while allowing the existing once-through cooling process to continue mostly as-is through Diablo’s extended lifespan.

This is the recommendation of Peter von Langen, an environmental scientist with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Among some initial options mentioned are preserving PG&E-owned land around Point Buchon, building artificial reefs off the nearby coastline or contributing funding to the state’s marine reserves.

Each of these possibilities provides environmental protections that would last in perpetuity, providing benefits that extend long beyond the comparatively small window that makes up the plant’s remaining operative life.

When the plant eventually does close, the cove and nearby environs will revert to their previous state after the pumping ceases and the water temperatures rebalance. Meanwhile, under this scenario, we would also have acres of new open space, new reefs nurturing healthy fish populations and other benefits to compensate for the losses that occurred over the previous decades.

State regulators should seize the opportunity to negotiate that future. Get PG&E to commit to an eventual public ownership of its coastal property. Sign the company up for offshore marine improvements. In exchange, the utility can then proceed with its relicensing effort and the state can continue to take advantage of this valuable energy producer.

I don’t know about you, but to me, all things considered, that sounds like a win-win. 

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@thetribunenews.com or on Twitter @joetarica.

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