Feds ‘Cave to PG&E,’ Allowing California Nuclear Plant to Keep Operating Sans Safety Review

“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 one critic.

By Brett Wilkins.  Published 3-3-2023 by Common Dreams

The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Photo: dirtsailor2003/flickr/CC

In a move blasted by one environmental group as a “cave to PG&E,” the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday approved the criminal corporation’s continued operation of California’s last nuclear power plant without a renewed license or safety review while it seeks a 20-year-extension.

The NRC granted an “administrative” exception allowing the Diablo Canyon plant near Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County—which began operating in 1985—to remain operational under its current license beyond its scheduled 2025 closure date. The commission said in a statement that the exemption “will not present an undue risk to the public health and safety, and is consistent with the common defense and security.”

PG&E senior vice president and chief nuclear officer Paula Gerfen welcomed the NRC decision as a way to “improve statewide electric system reliability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as additional renewable energy and carbon-free resources come online.”

However, green groups denounced the move.

“The decision is unprecedented,” Friends of the Earth said in a statement. “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,” the group added. “But the NRC, in its bow to PG&E, completely ignored its own rules, with far-reaching implications for all its safety standards.”

The NRC’s decision came days after the California Energy Commission rubber-stamped a plan backed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state Legislature, and PG&E to keep Diablo Canyon operating.

Visiting the facility on Wednesday, Newsom cited last year’s record heatwave and other climate-driven extreme weather events to assert that Diablo Canyon “is important to support energy reliability as we accelerate progress towards achieving our clean energy and climate goals.”

As CalMatters‘ Nadia Lopez reported, PG&E said it will seek permission to keep Diablo Canyon operating for up to 20 additional years, although state officials have not said whether they will allow the plant to run after 2030. A law passed last year by the California Legislature allows the facility to remain operational for the remainder of the decade, while the Biden administration last November announced a billion-dollar bailout for PG&E to keep the plant running.

According to Friends of the Earth:

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 Timesarticle 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.

“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,” Friends of the Earth legal director Hallie Templeton said in a statement. “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.”

Diane Curran, lead attorney for the anti-nuclear group San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, said that “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.”

“The NRC calls the exemption a mere ‘administrative’ decision, as if it were choosing paper clip sizes,” Curran added. “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.”

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, called NRC’s behavior mafia-like.

“Public safety concerns were blatantly ignored by the NRC over this politically motivated and reckless decision to bend the law for PG&E,” he said.

“A federal agency responsible for protecting public safety is now simply serving as the consigliere for the nuclear industry,” he added.

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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