Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant takes first formal step toward renewing licenses

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. officials formally announced Tuesday that they have applied to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to renew the operating licenses for Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s two reactors.

Diablo Canyon Vice President Jim Becker said he signed the application to the agency on Monday. If approved, the operating licenses of the reactors will be extended by 20 years each, to 2044 and 2045.

The length of the license renewal process varies from two to four years and involves numerous reviews and hearings by the NRC to determine if the reactors can continue to operate safely for that period of time, Becker said.

“It’s safe to say this will be a multi-year process,” he said.

The cost to ratepayers for renewing the licenses will be announced in a separate application with the state Public Utilities Commission due in two months, said John Conway, PG&E’s chief nuclear officer. However, the cost is expected to run into the millions of dollars.

The press conference announcing the renewal application featured a panel of speakers who talked about the importance of the plant to the county’s economy and the role nuclear power plays in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

Patrick Moore, co-founder of the environmental group Greenpeace, said he initially opposed nuclear power, but now thinks it is an indispensible source of power because it does not emit gases that contribute to climate change. Fifty-three new nuclear reactors are being built around the world for this reason.

“It can’t all be done with renewables alone,” he said, referring to power sources like solar and wind.

Other environmentalists say the decision to apply for license renewal is premature. The utility should at least wait until studies by several state agencies of the state’s electrical infrastructure are complete, said David Weisman of Morro Bay, outreach coordinator for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a group that opposes nuclear power.

Several speakers at the press conference addressed the economic importance of the plant and its 1,200 employees. PG&E pays $25 million in property taxes, $15.6 million of which go to schools, primarily the San Luis Coastal district and Cuesta College, said Julian Crocker, county Superintendent of Schools.

The decision to apply for license renewal comes after a $17 million feasibility study by PG&E that lasted several years. More than half of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors have already applied for license renewal.

The utility has spent $1 billion on capital improvements at the plant in recent years, and that increases the feasibility of continuing to operate for 20 additional years, Conway said. The improvements include replacing the plant’s steam generators, reactor vessel heads and main turbines.

The utility is also proceeding with a dry cask storage facility for used reactor fuel. The first casks were loaded with spent fuel from one reactor this year and used fuel from the other reactor will be loaded next year, Becker said.

PG&E officials were asked about one uncertainty looming over the plant — the fate of its once-through cooling system. The plant circulates billions of gallons of seawater a day to condense the steam from its electrical generators.

This type of cooling system is coming under increasing criticism by state and federal environmental regulators because of the millions of fish and crab larvae that are killed. Plants like Diablo Canyon could be forced to replace once-through cooling with other types of cooling that use less water.

PG&E will continue to work with state water officials to resolve the issue, Conway said. However, the company’s position is that the environmental damage caused by building cooling towers or other alternative cooling technologies would outweigh the benefits of shutting down the once-through system.