The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should give federal regulators pause as they consider an application to renew Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s two operating licenses, a lawyer for the anti-nuclear group San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace testified Wednesday.
A panel of three judges appointed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission heard oral arguments and asked dozens of questions during a daylong hearing in San Luis Obispo to consider five separate challenges to license renewal filed by the Mothers for Peace. The group is asking that the licenses not be renewed or that additional safety precautions be required as a precondition.
“The Gulf oil spill is a cautionary tale for any large and dangerous federally licensed operation, that failure to enforce environmental laws can have devastating consequences for generations,” said Diane Curran, a Mothers for Peace lawyer.
Plant owner Pacific Gas and Electric Co. wants to extend the life of the nuclear plant to 2045, 20 years beyond when it is currently scheduled to shut down. The utility cites the safe operating history of the plant and its crucial role in providing greenhouse-gas-free electricity for the state as reasons why it should continue to operate.
PG&E attorney David Repka said Mothers for Peace is taking a series of relatively minor safety problems and leaping to the conclusion that license renewal should be denied. He also said that many of the challenges deal with earthquakes and terrorist attacks at the plant, which are subject to ongoing monitoring and inspections and are, therefore, not part of the license renewal process.
He encouraged the judges, called an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, to reject all of the Mothers for Peace contentions. NRC staff has agreed almost entirely with PG&E’s stance, finding only partial validity in one of the Mothers for Peace points.
The group’s challenges fall into two main categories — technical and environmental.
In the technical category, Curran said PG&E has not adequately shown that it can deal with problems that will arise as the plant’s components age, many of which date to the 1980s or earlier. She cited three recent inspection reports from the NRC that found a pattern of low-level safety problems that constitute what the NRC calls an “adverse trend” at Diablo Canyon.
This trend creates a track record that indicates PG&E will not be able to deal effectively with aging components over an additional 20 years, Curran said.
Repka countered that all the problems had a very low safety threat and are “not remotely indicative” of a reason to deny license renewal.
In the environmental category, Mothers for Peace argues that PG&E and the NRC have not adequately analyzed the ecological consequences of a major earthquake or terrorist attack at the plant. Of particular concern are the plant’s two spent fuel pools.
Highly radioactive used fuel is densely packed in pools and could overheat and catch fire releasing radioactivity into the environment if an earthquake or sabotage caused water to drain out of the pools. Curran argued that the likelihood of such an emergency is low but should be addressed because the environmental consequences would be very high.
All the parties agreed that earthquakes are, far and away, the biggest safety concern at the plant. Those concerns were heightened late in 2008 when the Shoreline Fault was discovered near Diablo Canyon.
The U.S. Geological Survey and PG&E are studying the newly discovered fault and analyzing its threat potential. Results of those studies are due in 2013, and any additional safety improvements will be made at that time.
NRC staffers agree with Mothers for Peace that the lack of those studies makes their environmental review of the renewal application incomplete. However, preliminary analysis shows that the Shoreline Fault is no more dangerous than the Hosgri Fault, upon which the plant’s seismic standards are based.
A ruling by the three judges is not likely until July. If they rule that any of the Mothers for Peace contentions are valid, further hearings would be held before a final decision would be rendered.