Jan. 18—Keeping Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant open past 2025 without a renewed license would be illegal, three nonprofit organizations say.
The groups have filed a petition with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission demanding that Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County shut down as planned if the proper licenses cannot be administered in time.
San Luis Obispo Mothers For Peace joined forces with Friends of the Earth and Environmental Working Group, both of Washington, D.C., to file the petition on Jan. 10.
In the petition, the groups allege that it would be improper for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume reviewing PG&E's 2009 application to renew its license for the plant — even though the utility company withdrew that application in 2018.
The groups also allege that it would be illegal for the commission to grant an exception under the law to allow PG&E to operate Diablo Canyon past its original expiration dates, should the utility company submit a new renewal application by the end of 2023.
PG&E "seeks actions that are unlawful" under the Atomic Energy Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations, the groups said in their petition.
If undertaken by the commission, those actions "would severely undermine public confidence in the integrity of the regulatory processes and its commitment to the protection of public health and safety and the environment," the petition said.
PG&E seeks to renew license for Diablo Canyon
According to PG&E, the 2,200-megawatt Diablo Canyon Power Plant provides about 9% of the state's total electricity supply.
PG&E's operating license for the nuclear reactors just north of Avila Beach expire in November 2024 and August 2025.
PG&E requested permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in October to operate the Diablo Canyon power plant past those expiration dates if the agency is still reviewing a new application to renew the licenses.
To do so, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would need to grant a license amendment, according to Victor Dricks, a senior public affairs officer with the commission.
Such an amendment is illegal, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace and the other groups allege in their petition.
They say the plant can only continue operating through approval of a new license renewal application.
"The Atomic Energy Act unequivocally limits Diablo Canyon to 40 years of operation unless and until the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) renews the licenses," Diane Curran, an attorney for San Luis Obispo Mothers For Peace, said in a news release Jan. 10.
Does utility company have a path forward for nuclear power plant?
PG&E sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in October requesting a clear path forward on how to proceed with renewing Diablo Canyon's licenses. PG&E had not received a response from the federal agency as of Jan. 12, according to spokesperson for the utility company, Suzanne Hosn.
"PG&E must obtain the necessary (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) licenses — as well as other required state regulatory approvals — to operate Diablo Canyon power plant's two units beyond their current operating licenses, which expire in 2024 and 2025," Hosn wrote in an email on Jan. 12.
"PG&E has requested that the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) designate the appropriate licensing process to follow," she wrote, "as the company withdrew its license renewal application in 2018 based on state energy policies at the time."
2 options for Diablo Canyon license renewal
PG&E requested in its October letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the agency pick up reviewing its license renewal application for Diablo Canyon that it began in 2009 and withdrew in 2018.
If that's not acceptable, the utility company requests that the agency allow it to submit a new renewal application by Dec. 31, 2023.
"Based on the proposed submittal date for a new (license renewal application), and review time for the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to include potential public involvement in the process, the projected approval date for the (application) may not be until after the expiration of the Unit 1 and 2 operating licenses," PG&E wrote in its letter to the commission in October.
Federal law states that if a licensee of a nuclear power plant submits a new application to renew an operating license at least five years before it expires, the existing license will not expire until the new application is fully considered.
In other words, if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants PG&E's request to pick back up its license renewal application from 2009, then the license can stay valid past the original expiration dates.
However, if the federal agency does not grant PG&E that request, then the energy company must submit an entirely new license renewal application that can take up to five years to review.
PG&E is asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to grant it an exception to the law by allowing its current license to stay valid past 2025 — despite the utility company submitting a renewal application with far less than five years left in the current license.
If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn't grant PG&E this exception, the energy company will be required to shut down the plant.
"This would result in an undue hardship, as the power provided by (Diablo Canyon), Units 1 and 2 would no longer be available to meet the electricity demands of the residents of California or help ensure grid reliability," the utility wrote in its October letter to the agency.
PG&E further explains in the letter that it has planned to decommission Diablo Canyon by the time its operating license expired.
However, a push by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California State Legislature led to the passage of Senate Bill 846 in September, allocating up to $1.4 billion to PG&E so it can keep the plant running through 2030.
Government efforts to keep the nuclear power plant in operation come after failures to procure enough carbon-free energy to meet demand.
Petition: Diablo Canyon must shut down when planned
In their Jan. 10 petition, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace and the other groups argue that it's unlawful for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider PG&E's license renewal application from 2009.
"PG&E would have the (commission) determine that the withdrawal of PG&E's license renewal application from the (commission)'s docket had no legal or practical effect, and therefore the (commission) can simply pick up the license renewal review process where it left off years ago, as if the past six years were a dream," the petition reads.
"PG&E's abandonment of its license renewal application — with the (commission)'s approval — was legally binding and momentous in its practical consequences," the groups say in the petition.
By doing so, they argue, "PG&E stopped investing in the future operation of Diablo Canyon, including updating its license renewal application."
The groups also allege that allowing the plant to continue operating past 2025 through an exemption from the law would go against federal environmental law.
PG&E would would have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission "short-circuit" National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) procedural requirements and "extend the licenses for Diablo Canyon without an environmental review," the petition states.
"NEPA prohibits the (commission) from extending the Diablo Canyon license terms by any means, unless it first addresses the significant environmental impacts of operation during the extended term, including earthquake risks, impacts to marine life of Diablo Canyon's outdated once-through cooling system," the groups said in the petition, as well as "impacts of delaying or deferring license renewal-related maintenance and inspection measures in anticipation of shutdown."
The groups are requesting that the commission require PG&E to submit an entirely new license renewal application for Diablo Canyon.
If the commission is unable to fully review such an application before the reactors are set to expire, then the plant must shut down, the groups said in their petition.
Dricks told The Tribune on Jan. 12 that the commission is "reviewing the letter" it received from the groups.
Dricks did not say whether the commission is required to respond to the petition.
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