Diablo Canyon power plant supporters rally in downtown SLO

Diablo Canyon supporters at SLO courthouse

About 20 people came to the San Luis Obispo County courthouse in March 2016 to demonstrate in favor of nuclear power. Here, Heather Matteson, operations procedure writer at Diablo Canyon, talks about why she is in favor of nuclear power.
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About 20 people came to the San Luis Obispo County courthouse in March 2016 to demonstrate in favor of nuclear power. Here, Heather Matteson, operations procedure writer at Diablo Canyon, talks about why she is in favor of nuclear power.

About 20 people rallied in downtown San Luis Obispo on Thursday to support the continued operation of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and to encourage the renewal of the plant’s two operating licenses, which expire in less than a decade.

Before it can renew the plant’s federal operating licenses, plant operator PG&E must also secure a series of crucial state permits, one of which could require the company to replace the plant’s cooling system to protect the ocean environment at a cost of potentially billions of dollars.

Many of the rally participants were members of a group called Californians for Green Nuclear Power and wore bright green T-shirts emblazoned with silhouettes of Diablo Canyon’s two reactor containment domes and the words “Think green — Friends of Diablo Canyon.” They carried signs urging motorists passing by the San Luis Obispo County Government Center to show their support for nuclear power by honking, which some drivers did.

Some of those at the rally were plant employees; others were not. The main theme was support for the nuclear power plant’s environmental benefits, which include the generation of 2,400 megawatts of carbon-emission-free electricity that meets the needs of about 3 million Californians, or about 10 percent of the state’s population.

“Nuclear power creates a balance in power generation that is safe and reliable,” said Heather Matteson, a PG&E writer in the plant’s operations department.

Others cited the fact that PG&E has conserved 14 miles of nearly pristine coastline around the plant and takes up a much smaller land footprint than renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

Critics of the plant point out that Diablo Canyon is in a highly earthquake-prone area and that it continues to produce extremely radioactive used nuclear fuel that will remain in storage casks on-site for the foreseeable future.

The supporters countered that PG&E has done extensive seismic studies on the plant’s vulnerability to earthquakes, and the utility along with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have concluded it is safe.

“Diablo Canyon is the gem of the industry; there is no doubt about it,” former Grover Beach Mayor Peter Keith said at the rally.

Rally participants’ primary concern — license renewal — stems from the fact that the plant’s two operating licenses from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission are set to expire in 2024 and 2025. PG&E applied for 20-year license renewals but put the applications on hold in 2011 while it conducted state-mandated seismic studies. Those studies are done, but the license applications are still on hold.

“We see that as a requirement that is coming, and we are concerned that PG&E has not made a commitment to renewal,” said Larry Murray, who is president of Local 403 Plumbers and Steamfitters Union, one of several unions representing workers at the plant.

PG&E spokesman Blair Jones said the utility must obtain several state permits before it can restart the license renewal process. The most pressing of these are two leases from the State Lands Commission for coastal land that it uses to operate Diablo Canyon’s cooling water intake and outfall structures. The leases are set to expire in 2018 and 2019. PG&E has applied to consolidate these into one lease.

“Diablo Canyon requires important actions by state agencies to operate through the current licenses as well as to relicense,” Jones said. “We have prioritized our efforts on obtaining the near-term approvals we need to operate and are assessing the long-term approvals that would be required for license renewal.”

Another state action needed for relicensing is a determination by the California Coastal Commission that the continued operation of the plant is consistent with the state’s environmental laws.

PG&E also needs a critical ruling from the State Water Resources Control Board about how the plant will comply with new once-through cooling system requirements. The plant must comply with those rules by 2024.

The plant’s once-through cooling system uses ocean water to condense steam that has passed through the plant’s generators and then discharges that water back into the ocean. The state wants these cooling systems replaced because of the environmental damage they do to habitat near the intake and outfall structures.