The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, a 48-Year Odyssey

A humpback whale swims near the Diablo Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County | "Mike" Michael L. Baird, flickr.bairdphotos.com

The March 11th earthquake in Japan created a monumental disaster. The resultant tsunami and damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant has created, in California, a monumental outpouring of doubt and publicity about nuclear power plant safety. Like Japan, California has a prominent coastline with a myriad of seismic fault lines plus an obvious vulnerability to tsunamis. And the state is home to two active coastline nuclear power plants. One of those is located in Diablo Canyon just 12 miles southwest of San Luis Obispo.

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). The utility has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to renew their two current operating licenses for 20 more years, which would extend operations from 2024 and 2025 to 2044 and 2045.

"This facility, next to the Chernobyl disaster is probably the most controversial nuclear facility in the world due to intense public opposition," states to the Abalone Alliance in its history of the plant.

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In the past two weeks the Diablo controversies have resumed via print media, blogs, protests, TV and a hearing by the California State Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness which convened on last Monday.

PG&E Acknowledges Seismic Uncertainty at Diablo Canyon at Public Hearing, Maintains They Have No Concern.

The local media coverage has been extensive. On Tuesday, The San Luis Obispo Tribune featured an article describing Diablo's back-up cooling systems that are designed to function during an emergency similar to one experienced at Fukushima. A week before on Wednesday, it printed, on the front page, the plan of evacuation to be initiated in case of an emergency at the plant. Last Friday, it offered an interview with PG&E President Chris Johns, who, according to The Tribune, "covered a variety of public trust challenges facing the company in light of the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami that have crippled the nuclear power reactors in Japan." And this past Wednesday it printed a story distributed by The Associated Press about "wet storage" and "dry storage" systems, which are used to store spent nuclear fuel at Diablo Canyon and elsewhere.

Controversy relating to the Diablo plant was also featured in the Huffington Post where it was pointed out that PG&E was not required to include earthquake procedure in its emergency response plan.

California State Senator Sam Blakeslee (R, San Luis Obispo, 15th District) is a geophysicist with a PhD in earthquake studies and is a member of the California State Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness. During this week's hearing, he repeatedly asked PG&E to withdraw its license renewal application and perform a new seismic study of the facilities site. The known presence of the Hosgri earthquake fault, two and a half miles away, and the newly detected fault that runs within a mile of the plant should be thoroughly charted and studied before PG&E applies for a license renewal. On the previous Sunday Blakeslee expressed similar concerns to constituents in op-ed articles appearing in The Tribune and the Santa Cruz Sentinel, both newspapers that are in his district.

Brief Overview Diablo Nuclear Power Plant History

In February, 1963 PG&E announced plans to construct a nuclear power plant on the Nipomo coastal dunes in southern San Luis Obispo County Protests were immediately raised and the Sierra Club president met with PG&E's president. The utility agreed to pick an alternative site by 1965. Diablo Canyon was chosen.

The utility applied to state and federal agencies to build the unit one nuclear reactor at an estimated cost of $188 million. The Atomic Energy Commission formally approved the construction permit in April 1968 when construction began. The unit two construction permit was issued in December of 1970, with the estimated cost being $192 million. At this time unit one's cost was revised up to $212 million.

During the next five years applications, debates and approvals became the norm. Then, Shell Oil geologists discovered the Hosgri earthquake fault in February 1969. In an October 28, 1981 article the San Jose Mercury revealed the fault was in the ocean just 2.5 miles from the Diablo plant site. PG&E "knew about the fault for at least a year before telling the public and the Atomic Energy Commission," according to the story.

Continuing through the early 1970s hearings were held for public comments. In January, 1976 PG&E begins shipping fuel to Diablo. Because of a USGS report that said that Diablo's seismic design could not withstand the maximum potential quake possible by the Hosgri fault PG&E was forced to revise designs and make construction modifications. Construction costs were upgraded for the fifth time to the cost of $695 million for unit one and $560 million for unit two.

During 1979, after the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, protests were formed throughout the state against Diablo. On April 7, 25,000 people rallied in San Francisco. Then on June 30, the Abalone Alliance rally near Diablo Canyon drew 40,000. Governor Brown called for a moratorium on Diablo construction and then came out against the facility.

But 1984 became the year of significance for the plant. After 14 years of hearings, protests, blockades, interventions, court cases, retrofits and reconstruction, PG&E was granted a full power licenses by the NRC for unit one on August 2nd and unit two on November 2nd.

On May 7, 1985, unit one began commercial operation and on March 18, 1987 unit two followed. The cost of the plant had ballooned to $5.52 billion.

About the Author

Leon Koenen, a self-described "history junkie," is a retired high school teacher of 32 years, 23 in San Luis Obispo, currently volunteers around the county, including the History Center of San Luis Obispo County.
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