State’s authority over Diablo Canyon plant is limited

The California Public Utilities Commission has joined a chorus of agencies and elected officials who are calling for a closer look at the seismic safety of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant after the nuclear emergency in Japan.

But the commission is different than other state and local government agencies. It wields indirect authority over Diablo Canyon because it controls PG&E’s purse strings.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission holds preemptive authority over all aspects of safety and operation of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors.

This means that state agencies, such as the California Energy Commission, cannot require that PG&E complete advanced earthquake studies around Diablo Canyon before the plant’s two operating licenses are renewed, a frustrated James Boyd, Energy Commission vice chairman, told a state Senate hearing last week.

The NRC agrees with PG&E that seismic safety work at Diablo Canyon is an ongoing part of the plant’s operations and, therefore, outside the purview of license renewal.

But utilities such as PG&E must get the approval of the state Public Utilities Commission before they can charge their customers to recover expenses.

Earlier this week, the CPUC announced that it plans to indefinitely postpone an April 13 settlement hearing concerning PG&E’s request to recoup as much as $85 million from ratepayers to finance Diablo Canyon’s relicensing effort.

“The hearing will be rescheduled upon motion of the parties in order to receive comments about lessons learned as a result of the nuclear problems Japan is facing following the tsunami,” said Christopher Chow, CPUC spokesman.

A separate request by the utility to get ratepayer financing for $16.7 million to conduct the advanced seismic safety studies so many agencies and officials are calling for is unaffected by the postponement, Chow said.

These studies are expected to last three or four years and involve three-dimensional mapping of the earthquake faults off Diablo Canyon, particularly the recently discovered Shoreline Fault.

State Sen. Sam Blakeslee and other officials are worried that the Shoreline Fault and the larger Hosgri Fault could connect and produce a more powerful earthquake than seismologists currently think is possible.

For its part, PG&E is promising transparency and cooperation as the license renewal process moves forward. It is unclear how long any delay will last, said Kory Raftery, PG&E spokesman.“PG&E will evaluate and assess the federal and state license-renewal processes as more information becomes available,” he said.

Meanwhile, more elected officials are calling for a stay in Diablo Canyon’s license- renewal process. On Thursday, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, sent a letter to the NRC saying that there “are simply too many unanswered questions on seismic activity, as well as plant safety and preparedness, for this relicensing process to move forward.”

The county Board of Supervisors will also take up the matter Tuesday as a last-minute addition to its agenda. A large turnout is expected.

The NRC has not granted a delay in license renewal but announced Wednesday that it has launched a nationwide review of nuclear power plant safety. An agency task force will analyze the lessons that can be learned from the recent tragedy in Japan and whether additional safety steps are needed.