Three environmental organizations have asked the court to reverse the NRC’s unlawful decision to allow continued operation of Diablo Canyon reactors past their expiration dates without the required safety and environmental reviews and opportunity for a public hearing.
On June 30, 2023, three environmental groups — Mothers for Peace (MFP), Friends of the Earth (FoE), and Environmental Working Group (EWG)— filed their opening brief [an appeal] with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, objecting to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) decision to extend Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E’s) operating licenses of Diablo Canyon nuclear plant without first doing the comprehensive safety and environmental review or offering a public hearing required by the federal Atomic Energy Act (AEA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for renewal of PG&E’s operating licenses for the twin reactors.
The NRC extended the licenses by exempting PG&E from a deadline in the agency’s timely renewal rule that requires submission of reactor license renewal applications at least three years in advance. If PG&E submits a license renewal application by the end of 2023, it can operate the reactors indefinitely past their expiration dates of November 2, 2024, and August 26, 2025, until such time as the NRC makes a decision on the application.
According to the petitioners, the compressed timeline between PG&E’s license renewal application and the expiration dates has made it impossible for the NRC to complete the necessary safety and environmental reviews or the required hearing process. Thus, the groups contend that the exemption is unauthorized by federal law and poses an unacceptable risk to public health and safety and to the environment.
Diane Curran, legal counsel for Mothers for Peace, said, “Under the established regulatory framework governed by the AEA and NEPA, the NRC has maintained a reasonable and well-defined process to ensure that nuclear reactors do not operate beyond their 40-year licenses without undergoing thorough safety and environmental reviews.” She continued, “In this case, the NRC has recklessly ignored its own Reactor Timely Renewal Rule, a key component to safeguard the safety of operating a nuclear reactor, mandating, for good reason, that license renewal applications must be submitted years in advance of license expiration to protect applicants from extended regulatory delays.”
While the Timely Renewal doctrine allows licensees to continue operating beyond the license expiration if the NRC has not completed the review process, applications submitted within such a short timeframe as PG&E has are unprecedented.
Caroline Leary, attorney for Environmental Working Group, said, “The NRC decision to extend PG&E’s license renewal for Diablo Canyon without a thorough review knowing that the plant sits on active earthquake faults and has not had other safety upgrades or inspections for years puts millions of Californians at risk. It’s simply unacceptable for federal regulators to sidestep long-established protocols to ensure a decrepit nuclear power plant like Diablo Canyon is not posing a potentially catastrophic threat to the public and the environment.”
As stated in the Appeal Brief, “PG&E’s environmental documents are outdated with respect to significant environmental impacts, including earthquake risks in the fault-laced region where the Diablo Canyon reactors are sited.”
PG&E withdrew its renewal application license in 2016 as part of a settlement agreement involving environmental (including FoE) and labor groups. However, following the passage of Senate Bill 846 by the California legislature in September 2022 to potentially extend Diablo Canyon’s operating life, PG&E attempted to resume the review of its withdrawn license renewal application. The NRC rightfully denied PG&E’s request in January 2023, stating that it would not be consistent with regulations and principles of good regulation, with no compelling precedent to support the request. Yet, the NRC has now failed to adhere to its own regulations.
Linda Seeley, spokesperson for Mothers for Peace, said, “Just as there was no precedent to support resuming the review of PG&G’s withdrawn license, there certainly is no precedent for granting a timely renewal exemption.” She continued, “Exempting PG&E from the timely renewal rule is evidence of the NRC playing games with the health and safety of the people living near Diablo Canyon. Adding insult to injury, PG&E had the nerve to characterize its requested exemption as merely ‘administrative.’ Without a thorough review, proper inspections, and seismic studies, there is no telling what could go wrong if Diablo keeps operating.”