The sudden re-emergence of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant into the public eye is no surprise, given the horrific events in Japan. And it is only natural that county residents and their leaders focus on safety.
But this is a story with a lot of subtexts, and many of them were in evidence at last Tuesday’s two-and-a-half-hour discussion about Diablo Canyon at the Board of Supervisors meeting.
The chief leitmotif was trust, or lack of same. But those who watched also saw a Mulligan stew of fear, denial, perturbation, visions of Armageddon, a pinch of “I told you so” from veteran antinuclear activists, and even a haiku from San Luis Obispo City Councilman John Ashbaugh.
And, of course, money was hovering; it always does.
The nuclear power plant provides about 1,500 jobs, according to Kory Raftery of PG&E; of those, 1,350 workers live in San Luis Obispo County.
The utility paid $26,225,628 in property taxes for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, according to county Tax Collector Frank Freitas.
The discussion last week — the first of what is likely to become many about the aging PG&E power plant — also brought forth some serious questions, one of the most significant of which was asked by Supervisor Frank Mecham.
What if, Mecham asked, the earthquake studies say Diablo is unsafe and has to be shut down? Where will the power come from then?
Nobody had a concrete answer to that question, although many speakers said it is way past time to seriously examine other kinds of energy — solar, wind, waves.
Before Mecham got to raise that issue, some three dozen people spoke out, opposing, in various degrees, the power plant.
Another half a dozen, mostly PG&E employees, defended it. One said PG&E should build more reactors.
Hundreds of others phoned or emailed the supervisors, which was one of the reasons Chairman Adam Hill called for the public discussion.
Clearly, the public is engaged.
One speaker Tuesday summed up the general anxiety about plant safety. “We have been given three warnings,” said Martin Kellerman, referring to Japan, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island.
To the plant defenders’ repeated — and sometimes irritated — insistence that the plant is operating safely, Kellerman said power plants are run by humans “and the thing humans do best is make mistakes.”
Another speaker, Linda Seeley, said she appreciates the workers at Diablo, “but there is a thing called denial — when you can’t stand to face what’s going on.”
That did not sit well with some Diablo employees, who urged those who are nervous about the plant to educate themselves. Plant critics consider themselves plenty educated.
The discussion was about venting as much as anything. Not too much came out that was concrete — an agreement to review safety procedures, another letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and national and state leaders asking that PG&E’s relicensing be suspended, public meetings involving PG&E and county residents.
During this back and forth, one thing became very clear: PG&E has a public relations problem, and it is causing residents to distrust the utility.
That mistrust did not originate with Diablo Canyon. A pipeline explosion in San Bruno, the utility’s clunky attempts to put SmartMeters in every home, its disastrous 2010 ballot measure that would have made it difficult for local governments to enter the utility business — all have left PG&E with a less than trustworthy corporate persona.
Supervisor Jim Patterson alluded to the utility’s image problem when he asked PG&E to voluntarily withdraw its application to relicense the Diablo Canyon plant until seismic studies have been completed and safety can be assured.
“I can’t imagine a better time to gain the public’s trust,” Patterson said, a sentiment that was echoed by Hill and Supervisor Bruce Gibson.
Whether the utility will take their advice is an open question. But it is certain that our “neighborhood” power plant is going to be part of our public discussion for a long time to come.