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Rochelle Becker would like to correct me. I wrote in a June 17 article that the two remaining reactors at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, located in the northwest corner of San Diego County, were scheduled to go offline in 2022.

But she had a hunch that this wouldn’t happen. And on July 26, she saw further evidence — a document filed with the state’s Public Utilities Commission — that San Onofre’s operator intends to renew the plant’s two licenses.

Becker, who has a vacation home in Pacific Beach, lives in Grover Beach, ten miles from California’s other nuclear facility, the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. She is executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, based in nearby San Luis Obispo. Her group is interested in the Diablo Canyon relicensing process, especially in light of an earthquake fault line discovered near the plant in 2008.

In early July, I sat down with Becker, who supplied me before our conversation with volumes of literature on nuclear power and its reception in California, dating back to the original planning and construction stages of the state’s two nuclear power plants. In 2006, the state legislature directed the California Energy Commission to produce a report assessing the vulnerability of San Onofre and Diablo Canyon to earthquakes and plant aging. The concern was not public safety — nuclear power plant safety is not within the state’s jurisdiction — but the effect that an earthquake would have on California’s power supply. Completed in 2008, the report recommended that both nuclear plants do seismic studies employing state-of-the-art technologies — three-dimensional seismic reflection mapping and global positioning system technology — before seeking license renewal with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Instead, two days before Thanksgiving 2009, and in defiance of every state agency with energy authority, Diablo Canyon’s operator, Pacific Gas & Electric, filed for renewal. The current licenses of the plant’s two units do not expire until 2024 and 2025, and the seismic studies had not even begun.

How does that work? The federal commission has jurisdiction over nuclear power generation in the United States, but it does not consider seismic hazards during license renewal. “PG&E just said, ‘Forget it. We’re just going to file for renewal with the NRC and let the chips fall where they may.’” The seismic studies at Diablo Canyon aren’t scheduled to be completed until sometime in 2013. According to Becker, the commission has said that the license extension could be granted by next year.

The Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility has urged the federal regulatory body to review thoroughly the relicensing pros and cons at Diablo.

“If we don’t prevail at Diablo Canyon, you might as well just get your rubber stamp out for San Onofre,” Becker says. “There have been 59 license renewals around the country, and there’s really no difference between the plants in California and those 59 facilities, other than ours are sitting on earthquake faults.”

Wait, on earthquake faults?

In November 2008, she says, the Energy Commission was meeting to adopt the final recommendations for its report. “PG&E, at the meeting that day, said, ‘Oh, we found another earthquake fault. This one’s 1800 feet from the plant.’”

The consultant report, from which the Energy Commission drew its final report, says, “[T]he occurrence of an earthquake directly beneath Diablo Canyon...is possible.”

Down the coast in San Diego, the Cristiano fault passes within half a mile of San Onofre. The fault is considered inactive, however, as it “is overlain by undisturbed marine deposits that have been dated as 125,000 years old,” says the consultant report. Several active faults run near San Onofre: the Whittier-Elsinore, 23 miles to the east; the San Jacinto, 43 miles northeast; and the southern San Andreas, 57 miles to the northeast.

But these are not the most worrisome. The “major uncertainties” are caused by offshore faults within 6 miles of the plant: the South Coast Offshore Fault Zone and the “faulting that connects” San Diego’s Rose Canyon Fault Zone and the Newport-Inglewood Fault Zone, which extends north to L.A.

The plant “could experience larger ground motions from earthquakes than had been anticipated at the time the plant was designed,” warns the consultant report.

In the event of a quake, San Onofre officials have assured the public that facilities can be safely shut down and all radioactive materials contained. Assuming they’re right, the question still remains how we’d all be affected if San Onofre or Diablo Canyon were to cease generating power.

One pertinent example mentioned in the report is a magnitude 6.8 earthquake that hit Japan in 2007; the epicenter was about ten miles from the world’s largest nuclear plant, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant. In 90 seconds, 8000 megawatts of power generated by seven reactors was wiped off Japan’s power grid. That’s enough energy to power nearly 10 million households.

Three years later, only two of the reactors have passed safety evaluations and resumed operation. “They don’t know if they’ll ever get the other ones back up,” Becker told me. The plant’s operator had to buy electricity from other sources. Total losses due to the shutdowns have surpassed $12 billion.

One lesson learned from the Japanese experience: difficulty obtaining replacement parts and time spent completing repairs are not the only impediments to restarting plant operations; political and regulatory concerns can keep a nuclear plant inoperable as well.

San Onofre generates about 2254 megawatts of power at its two reactors, powering 2.75 million households. Diablo Canyon serves roughly 2.7 million customers through its 2200-megawatt generation capacity. While it’s unlikely a single seismic event would disable both plants simultaneously, losing just one could trigger catastrophic power shortages across the state. The potential looms for rolling blackouts and massive utility rate spikes, as Californians would be forced to import power from other locales.

In early March, Becker flew to Washington to meet with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman Gregory Jaczko to make the case that the commission should stay the hearings for Diablo Canyon’s license renewal until seismic studies can be completed. Becker says Jaczko seemed receptive to the concerns she presented. But on July 6, the commission denied the stay.

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