Retired NRC judge calls for independent panel to monitor Diablo Canyon decommissioning

PG&E’s bankruptcy underscores the need for an independent advisory board to navigate and monitor our community through the decommissioning of Diablo Canyon.

The existing panel — the Diablo Canyon Decommissioning Engagement Panel — was created by PG&E to serve as public relations “conduit” for PG&E. It allows PG&E to “check the box” of public engagement, without hassle.

But, speaking as an individual with 45 years of environmental and nuclear law experience, including as a Nuclear Regulatory Commission judge and as a member of PG&E’s panel, I believe it should be replaced with a truly independent entity. (I do not speak for the panel.) San Luis Obispo County needs a robust, sustainable and, most importantly, independent advisory board that is suitable for the long haul of decommissioning.

The reason is simple. The 11 citizen volunteers on PG&E’s panel — no matter how intelligent, fair and diligent — lack the knowledge, independence and resources to sustain oversight of the decommissioning process for the next 20 to 60 years. The panel is a “babe in the woods” when it comes to decommissioning.

The project will cost billions of dollars. It will involve a multitude of federal, state and local regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Coastal Commission, Energy Commission, State Lands Commission, Public Utilities Commission, San Luis Obispo County and many municipalities. In addition, non-governmental stakeholders — environmental, labor, tax, Native American and economic — clamor to participate.

Elected officials also have key roles, and have responded with some constructive measures. Congressman Salud Carbajal introduced federal legislation to create a special economic zone. Senator Bill Monning and Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham successfully enacted SB 1090. Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson are actively engaged.

Meanwhile, things are not going so well.

State and local attempts to study the economic impacts of the Diablo decommissioning have foundered. In December 2018, PG&E told the Public Utilities Commission that the cost to decommission Diablo Canyon has essentially doubled (from $2.4 billion set in 2017 to $4.8 billion now). In contrast, the Callan Institute in San Francisco has reported that decommissioning cost estimates fell by 2.5 percent in 2017. Callan reported that estimates declined for several plants that are in the process of decommissioning, including the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and PG&E’s Humbolt Bay plant.

PG&E’s own hired expert, High Bridge Associates, criticized the slowness of PG&E’s reactor decommissioning plan, diplomatically calling it “atypically long” compared to other decommissionings.

Likewise, despite being urged by the Public Utilities Commission, the Energy Commission, and the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Commission to expedite the transfer of spent nuclear fuel from Diablo’s reactor pools to dry casks, PG&E has decided to suspend the current spent fuel program and instead delay all off-loading until 2032.

Delaying the transfer of spent fuel from the pools to the casks is bad news because it is the single best way (short of shutting the plant down now) to reduce the radiological risks of Diablo Canyon.

Given the huge stakes, and the cacophony of regulators, elected officials, and non-governmental stakeholders circling over the imminent demise of Diablo Canyon, we need an independent advisory board to bring all of the key agencies and stakeholders together in a single public forum that will promote coordination and accountability.

Smart communities elsewhere have created such entities.

Vermont, New York and Massachusetts provide excellent benchmarks for best practices. Panels in those states have state charters, follow public meeting requirements and are subject to ex parte and conflict of interest requirements. The members are selected in a public process. Many of them are elected officials, regulatory agencies, or their designees, who either have the knowledge, skills and expertise to confront difficult decommissioning issues, or have access such expertise within their respective agencies. They also have representatives from labor, environmental groups, and Native American communities.

The options are clear. Either a captive corporate panel or an independent panel created by a responsible governmental agency.

Notably, on Jan. 14, 2019, the federal government weighed in on this issue by enacting the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act. This law mandates that, within 18 months, NRC must “identify best practices with respect to the establishment and operation of a local community advisory board” for decommissioning nuclear reactors. Up till now, NRC has dodged this issue.

But San Luis Obispo does not need to wait 18 months. The Public Utilities Commission can and should use PG&E’s current ratemaking case to charter an independent decommissioning advisory board now.

The bankruptcy of PG&E adds urgency to the situation. Bankruptcy scrambles our dream of converting 100 percent of Diablo’s 12,000+ acres into a park or nature preserve. The victims of PG&E’s wildfires will likely get first dibs on these valuable assets. Is this just? Maybe so. The land may be divvied up, some pieces being sold to the state or environmental groups, some to developers. The goal of 100 percent protection just got a lot harder.

Supervisor Hill was right: The “diablo” is in the details. He raised some excellent questions. I have tried to do the same.

We need more than just PG&E’s answers.

San Luis Obispo County needs an independent advisory panel to grapple with the crucial 20-60 year decommissioning project ahead.

Alex Karlin is a retired judge with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a resident of San Luis Obispo. His views are his own and do not reflect the position of the Diablo Canyon Decommissioning Engagement Panel.