Environmental Groups Blow the Whistle on State/PG&E Illegal Scheme to Keep Diablo Canyon Operating Past License Expiration Dates
Federal law requires reactors to close while the Nuclear Commission reviews license renewal application
On January 10, 2023, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace (SLOMFP), Friends of the Earth (FoE), and Environmental Working Group (EWG) filed a Petition asserting that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not have legal authority to extend the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant’s operating licenses past its scheduled shutdown dates of 2024 for Unit 1 and 2025 for Unit 2.
The groups’ Petition followed two letters to the NRC on November 17, 2022, and December 6, 2022, warning the agency that it would violate federal law if it accepted Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E’s) October 31 proposal to resurrect and fast-track its review of PG&E’s abandoned 2009 license renewal application for the Diablo twin reactors. But the NRC ignored the groups’ concerns and instead held a meeting with PG&E to discuss the terms of license renewal. Given the agency’s non-responsiveness to the groups’ concerns, the Petition now demands formal action by the NRC at the highest level of the agency, the five-member Commission.
Federal law forbids operation of Diablo Canyon reactors past 2024 and 2025 if the NRC has not renewed their licenses by then
If the NRC is not able to finish reviewing PG&E’s license renewal application by the Diablo Canyon license expiration dates, it will have no alternative but to require the reactors to close until the review is finished.
According to Diane Curran, attorney for SLOMFP, federal law gives the NRC only one means of extending the Diablo Canyon reactor licenses: renewal. “The Atomic Energy Act unequivocally limits Diablo Canyon to 40 years of operation unless and until the NRC renews the licenses,” she asserted. “The NRC has no other legal means of extending the operating life of the reactors.”
PG&E has conceded it will take more than a year to update the application
Curran noted that PG&E is fatally handicapped by having allowed its license renewal application to lapse since about 2016, when it entered the settlement agreement to close the reactors. In fact, she said, “PG&E itself has admitted to the NRC that it will take more than a year to update the 2009 license renewal application. And then, the NRC must review the updated application for compliance with safety and environmental laws. The NRC doesn’t have enough time to make a decision before the operating licenses expire.”
The irregularity of PG&E’s unlawful request to restore its 2009 license renewal application after the NRC approved that withdrawal in 2018 reveals the lengths to which PG&E will go to expedite the license renewal process.
“We are dismayed that the NRC is entertaining PG&E’s outrageous and unlawful request to extend the life of Diablo Canyon,” said Hallie Templeton, Legal Director for FoE. “Dusting off a decades-old, withdrawn application to keep a deadly nuclear power plant running is bad enough. Worse, it is not clear how PG&E can reverse years of weakened preventative maintenance and safety upgrades. We urge the NRC to closely follow the law by requiring a complete and updated application before considering this dangerous extension.”
The last Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the NRC to address the specific environmental risks of Diablo Canyon was issued in 1973 during construction.
Revival of Diablo Canyon License Application Pushed by Governor Newsom Without Forethought
PG&E’s scheme to extend Diablo Canyon’s operating life was quickly ignited during election season 2022 by California Governor Gavin Newsom, who persuaded the California State Legislature to pass SB 846 on September 1, 2022. SB 846 reversed a previous California Public Utilities Commission decision to approve a settlement between PG&E, labor unions, and environmental groups that would have shuttered the dangerous and controversial Diablo Canyon reactors on their license expiration dates in 2024 and 2025 and provided funding for a transition to renewables. SB 846 also provides PG&E with a $1.4 billion forgivable loan to revive PG&E’s abandoned 2009 application to renew the licenses.
Hallie Templeton commented, “While the State Legislature acted hastily in passing SB 846, it did not give PG&E carte blanche to do as it wants.” She continued, “The Legislature reserved the right to rescind the subsidy and restore the shutdown dates if Diablo Canyon proves unsafe, too costly to run, or unnecessary due to the abundance of renewables.” It should be noted, that all of these issues are subject to NRC review before the reactor licenses can be renewed.
If the NRC awards PG&E special privileges to obtain a renewal of its operating license, it would set a dangerous precedent that would undermine the integrity of the NRC and put millions of California residents in danger if a seismic event or equipment breakdown should occur.
SLOMFP spokesperson Jane Swanson stated, “The Legislature acted so quickly under pressure from the Governor, they didn’t think through the ramifications – nor did they hold any hearings on whether extended operation of Diablo Canyon is actually needed or whether the State can instead rely on the growing supply of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency.”
Extending Diablo Canyon’s Operation Would Hurt Development of Renewable Energy Sources
Ken Cook, EWG’s President and Co-founder, commented, “We are extremely concerned about keeping the aging Diablo Canyon nuclear plant operating: it is costly to taxpayers, presents real safety hazards, and its operation hurts the state’s shift to safe, renewable energy.” Cook charged that “allowing Diablo Canyon to keep operating will only provide utilities like PG&E yet another excuse to slow-walk the transition to those renewable and far less expensive energy sources.”
What’s more, Cook said, “Closing Diablo on time would mitigate the transmission bottleneck, lower consumer costs, and enable the utility to achieve 55% renewable energy by 2031.”
Linda Seeley, representing Mothers for Peace, said, “It cannot be overstated how significant the risks are if this plant continues to operate past its closure dates of 2024/2025. Living near a nuclear plant without safety upkeep or upgrades is like living next to a ticking time bomb.” She explained, “We just don’t have vital information about the condition of the embrittlement of Reactor 1, for example, and we don’t know the impact the seismic faults surrounding the plant could have if there were a rupture. The State Legislature has put us on a very dangerous path.”