Feds cave over license exemption for Diablo Canyon nuclear plant

Feds cave to PG&E over license exemption for aging Diablo Canyon nuclear plant

NRC’s betrayal of public safety comes days after California energy commission rubberstamps PG&E plan to keep Diablo operating beyond 2030

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. – Ignoring longstanding precedents, statutes and regulations, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission today gave Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) the greenlight to operate California’s last remaining nuclear plant for up to 20 years without a safety review or a license renewal.   

In its March 2 decision, the NRC exempted PG&E from regulations that required a license renewal review by the NRC before the reactors could operate beyond their operating license expiration dates.   

The decision is unprecedented. The NRC has never approved an exemption for a license renewal applicant that would allow it to operate a nuclear reactor past its 40-year limit without a comprehensive safety and environmental review. The NRC’s own rules recognize that continued operation of a reactor past the 40-year statutory limit poses safety risks that are different from operational risks during the facility’s first 40 years in operation and require a separate review. 

But the NRC, in its bow to PG&E, completely ignored its own rules, with far-reaching implications for all its safety standards. 

“This decision is frightening because it casts aside the serious safety and environmental issues raised by operating Diablo Canyon past its expiration dates without a comprehensive safety and environmental review,” said Diane Curran, lead attorney for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace. “The NRC calls the exemption a mere ‘administrative’ decision, as if it were choosing paper clip sizes. There is nothing ‘administrative’ about allowing this aging reactor duo to continue running for days, months or years when each day of operation poses the risk of an accident that could devastate the entire state and beyond. ”  

“Public safety concerns were blatantly ignored by the NRC over this politically motivated and reckless decision to bend the law for PG&E,” said EWG President and California resident Ken Cook. “A federal agency responsible for protecting public safety is now simply serving as the consigliere for the nuclear industry.” 

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is contorting its rules and procedures in granting this exemption to Pacific Gas and Electric,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth. “Nearly five years ago, Pacific Gas and Electric withdrew its license, and the NRC closed the renewal process. The NRC cannot simply invent new rules just because the State of California is having second thoughts about the decision.” 

“This is an ominous warning sign for how independent the NRC will be in evaluating the earthquake risk and the overall operational integrity of the Diablo Canyon reactors,” said Templeton. “We will consider all available means to ensure that they are held to the letter of the law on this and future decisions and do not put people and the environment at risk.” 

Major safety and environmental risks will only increase if Diablo Canyon’s twin reactors continue running past their expiration dates. First, the reactors are sited on a web of earthquake fault-lines. A recent New York Times article detailed how similar the fault-lines are beneath Diablo to those that caused the recent 7.8 earthquake that has killed roughly 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria combined.  

Furthermore, the NRC is proposing to let Diablo Canyon continue operating without environmental review of the significant adverse effects on the marine environment from the plant’s once-through cooling, or OTC, system. PG&E was due to replace the OTC system with cooling towers in 2024 and 2025, but now will be allowed to abandon that effort without an environmental risk evaluation. 

The groups that opposed the exemption are considering next steps, including seeking federal court action over the NRC’s clearly unlawful and dangerous decision.   

Background: CEC rubberstamps dangerous plan to keep Diablo Running 

  • The decision by the NRC comes just days after the California Energy Commission, or CEC,  backed the ill-conceived plan by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, the state legislature and PG&E to keep Diablo Canyon operating.
  • On February 28, the CEC approved recommendations made by Commission staff to extend the operating life of the aging plant beyond 2030. In a statement, the CEC claimed the facility needs to continue running to prevent energy supply shortages during extreme weather events.
  • The plant that rests along the central coast of California in San Luis Obispo supplies less than 9 percent of the state’s electricity, while nearly 35 percent comes from renewable sources like solar, wind and hydropower, according to the CEC. At one point last May, the state generated 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, demonstrating the enormous gains renewables have made in California’s energy supply.
  • Fearing backlash from voters following last summer’s record heatwaves that raised the specter of rolling blackouts, the state legislature – at Newsom’s urging — reversed the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC’s, 2018 approval of a previous decision by PG&E to shutter both reactors by 2025. PG&E had reached the shutdown decision in a carefully crafted 2018 settlement with local environmental organizations and labor unions. But the legislature approved Senate Bill 846, which cleared a path to keep the plant operating until at least 2030. It also provided PG&E a $1.4 billion taxpayer-funded loan to cover costs to keep the aging nuclear power facility running.
  • Continued operation of Diablo Canyon is not a given. Under the new law, the CEC is required to determine whether an extension of the plant’s operating license is needed to supply enough energy to the state’s electric grid. The CPUC must agree that it is needed.  
  • In January, the CPUC began the rulemaking process to consider Newsom’s and the legislature’s proposal to extend Diablo Canyon’s life. To date, however, the CPUC has not held any public hearings on the matter. San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace has called on the CPUC to hold hearings and receive testimony directly from independent experts as to why both reactors should close by 2025.

Sabrina Venskus, attorney for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, noted that “there are conspicuous holes in the CEC’s analysis.” Considering the significant safety and environmental risks posed by extending the operating license terms for this aging and earthquake-prone nuclear plant, Venskus asserted that the CEC’s claim that Diablo Canyon is needed past 2024 and 2025 deserves careful, rigorous, and transparent review in the upcoming Public Utilities Commission, or PUC, rulemaking (R.23-01-007). Venskus urged the PUC not to limit itself to the less rigorous processes of taking written public comments and holding workshops. 

Communications contact: Brittany Miller, Friends of the Earth, [email protected], (202) 222-0746 

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