PG&E's letter on Diablo relicensing didn't go far enough, supervisors say

PG&E’s letter to regulators asking that relicensing of its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant not be finalized until advanced earthquake studies have been completed is a good “half step,” but does not go far enough, the Board of Supervisors said Tuesday.

The supervisors sent their own letter, this one to PG&E, reiterating their earlier support for a delay in the relicensing process, but adding that the advanced studies the utility says it will undertake should be “independently reviewed.”

Such an examination, also called a peer review, would open the earthquake studies to scientists who are independent of PG&E.

Supervisors also said they want clarity about PG&E’s intentions, expressed in the utility’s Sunday letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In its letter to the NRC, PG&E asked that the agency “withhold issuance of PG&E’s renewed operating licenses, if approved, until after this research is completed and the findings are submitted to the commission.”

However, in a separate letter to the NRC on Tuesday, PG&E attorney David A. Repka wrote that the utility “is not requesting any delay in the schedule for this licensing hearing process.”

The Board of Supervisors wants the entire relicensing process stopped until the studies are finished and reviewed.

The nearly 40-year-old Diablo Canyon plant was thrust into the headlines last month after the nuclear plant disaster in Japan. Japan now ranks its nuclear crisis at the highest possible severity on an international scale — the same level as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

In addition, a new earthquake fault has been found near Diablo Canyon, and its geological relationship to other faults is unknown, as are the number of other faults in the area.

Because of these nerve-rattling uncertainties, residents from throughout the county have expressed concern about the aging power plant. Supervisors have received hundreds of emails, letters and voice mails, and many speakers have stood up at recent meetings to question the safety of Diablo Canyon.

Some 16 residents spoke again Tuesday, supporting the board’s position, and in some cases saying the plant should be shut down altogether.

Jane Swanson of the Mothers for Peace group added that the utility should explore safe ways to dispose of spent fuel.

The plant is a fixture in the county, a reality that supervisors acknowledge in their letter.“The company and its plant bring many critical and economic benefits to San Luis Obispo County,” they note in their letter.

The nuclear power plant provides about 1,500 jobs; of those, 1,350 workers live in San Luis Obispo County.

The utility paid $26.2 million in property taxes for the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Supervisors reiterated that halting the relicensing process would be a good way for the utility to restore public trust. That trust, speakers and elected officials have noted, has been battered in recent months by PG&E’s handling of its SmartMeter program and a pipeline explosion in San Bruno.

PG&E has insisted that the plant can withstand a magnitude-7.5 earthquake.

“PG&E is the only utility in the country that employs a seismic department staffed with experts,” the utility wrote to the NRC.