Diablo Canyon: PG&E must submit a new application to stay open

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Federal regulators on Tuesday rejected PG&E’s request that would have eased the utility’s efforts to keep operating California’s last nuclear power plant.

On Tuesday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sent the utility a letter outlining the steps it must take to continue operating the Diablo Canyon Power Plant beyond 2025, when it is scheduled to close.

PG&E originally applied for a license renewal at Diablo Canyon in 2009 — only to withdraw and suspend that application in 2018 after announcing plans to close the San Luis Obispo County nuclear power plant and replace it with other forms of carbon-free energy.

In October letter to NRB– the utility workers asked the agency to simply resume consideration of the 2009 license renewal application.

The NRC denied that request in its letter Tuesday, instead instructing PG&E to submit a new application to renew the power plant’s license.

“This decision does not preclude you from reapplying for license renewal under oath and affirmation, citing information previously submitted, and providing any updated or new information to support the staff’s review,” the NRC letter said.

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The PG&E-owned Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is scheduled to close in 2024 and 2025, but efforts are underway to extend the plant’s life. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, R-Santa Barbara, said in a statement Wednesday that he was pleased with the NRC’s decision.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision this week reflects the need for careful consideration before approving additional years of operation beyond the current license,” said the Congressman from the Central Coast. “This ruling confirms that no corners can be cut when it comes to nuclear safety.”

PG&E told The Tribune it plans to submit a new application by the end of 2023 — just a year before one of the twin Diablo Canyon reactors is slated to shut down.

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Pictured here are the Unit 2 containment dome, transmission line and turbine housing of the PG&E-owned Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. The two PG&E-owned units are slated to shut down in 2024 and 2025. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

PG&E is seeking an exemption from the law to keep Diablo Canyon open

The 2,200-megawatt Diablo Canyon Power Plant provides about 9% of the state’s total electricity, according to PG&E.

Diablo Canyon’s license for unit one expires on November 2, 2024, and the license for unit two expires on August 26, 2025. Without valid licenses, the reactors must be shut down.

That means the NRC will have less than a year to review a new license renewal application before Unit 1 has to shut down. The application process usually takes up to five years.

In order to keep the reactors operating beyond their useful lives, PG&E applied to the NRC for an exemption from federal law states that license renewal applications must be submitted more than five years before the license expires.

The law allows a nuclear power plant to continue operating beyond its originally scheduled closure date as long as the NRC is still reviewing its license renewal application — as long as that application is filed more than five years before the expiration date.

Because PG&E is set to apply for Diablo Canyon’s license renewal less than five years before its originally scheduled shutdown date, the law requires the reactors to be shut down as planned.

PG&E wants the NRC to make an exception to the law so it can keep Diablo Canyon open and supply power to the grid.

The utility requested the exemption in the same October letter in which it asked the NRC to reopen its 2009 application.

“(NRC) staff is reviewing this exemption request and expects to respond in March 2023,” the letter said Tuesday.

Steam escapes from Reactor No. 1 at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in Avila Beach in this May 2000 file photo. Steve Osman Los Angeles Times/TNS

The groups say the nuclear power plant should shut down as planned

Whether the Diablo Canyon Power Plant should remain open has long been debated by lawmakers and environmental groups.

A push from Governor Gavin Newsom and the California State Legislature led to passage Senate Bill 846 in September gave PG&E up to $1.4 billion to keep the plant running until 2030.

This law was enacted after the state was unable to purchase enough clean energy to meet growing demand.

Nonprofit Groups of San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, Environmental Working Group and Friends of the Earth submitted a petition to the NRP Jan. 10, arguing that it would be illegal for federal regulators to allow PG&E to continue operating Diablo Canyon while the agency reviews its license renewal application.

The National Environmental Protection Act “prohibits (the commission) from extending the terms of Diablo Canyon’s license in any manner, unless first considering the significant long-term environmental effects of operation, including the risk of earthquakes, and impacts on Diablo Canyon’s marine flora and fauna. – through the cooling system,” the groups’ petition states, as well as “the consequences of delaying or postponing maintenance and inspections related to license renewal pending shutdown.”

As of Wednesday, the NRC had not responded to the groups’ petition.

In a statement Wednesday, Carbajal said “public engagement is key as we move into the next phase” of Operation Diablo Canyon.

“When it comes to extending the life of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, nothing is more important to me than ensuring that the safety of our community is not compromised in pursuit of that extension,” Carbajal continued, adding that he “strongly recommended to our federal experts to keep Central Coast directly in the loop when it comes to the next steps for Diablo Canyon’s license renewal.”

This story was originally published January 25, 2023 at 11:24 am.

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Mackenzie Shuman primarily writes for The Tribune about SLO County education and the environment. She is a native of Monument, Colorado and graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May 2020. When Mackenzie isn’t writing, she spends her time outdoors, hiking and rock climbing.

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