Before the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, before Cancun and before the about-to-be big street demos in New York for the Republican Convention 2004, there was Diablo Canyon. Over 3,000 people were arrested trying to stop that enormous nuclear power plant. It finally went on-line in the 1980s. California earthquakes, a whole reactor installed backwards, and the unprecedented $5.5 billion in construction costs didn't stop it. But, the state of California just might find a reason to shut it down two decades later.
California is embarking on an economic and social test where other states have feared to tread. At the end of February, the California Public Utilities Commission starts to determine whether Pacific Gas & Electric's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is worth continued operations and customer investments. Other states have been cowed by the industry's assurances that nuclear power is safe, despite recent near misses, like that at Davis-Besse in Ohio, and that the federal government has everything under control at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
But is it worth it? Is it worth spending ratepayer's money to keep running nuclear plants despite all the risks?
Since the 2200 megawatt Diablo Canyon facility went live, the world has changed. Nuclear plants have been considered targets by terrorists. The marine life in the Pacific Ocean surrounding Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo, as well as the marine life adjacent to another nuclear plant on the Pacific near San Onofre, has been denuded as the plants suck up billions of gallons of seawater a day to be returned to the ocean at higher temperatures. Like many other nuclear plant owners across the nation, PG&E plans to store its increasing pile of high-level nuclear waste on top of the ground at the plant because the promised long-term national waste storage dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada will likely never come to fruition. There have also been several earthquakes near Diablo's reactors, most recently 50 miles away in December 2003.
California has another twist -- deregulation. As long the costs of an accident are ruled out, nuclear power in the state has become cheaper than some other types of electricity, thanks to deregulation. With deregulation in 1996, nuclear-owning utilities were paid back for their risky investments. PG&E was promised it would get paid back for all its original $5.5 billion investment in the plant, plus interest and subsidies, which accounted to over $28 billion in a total bill to the utility's customers. That cost is out of the picture now and because of that, nuclear appears cheaper on the surface.
Triggering the state's inquiry into the risk and rewards of nuclear power is PG&E's intention to spend $706 million in the next few years to refurbish Diablo Canyon. That potential new flood of ratepayer money is causing the state of California to see whether keeping Diablo Canyon on life support is worth the trouble. California is home to plenty of alternatives -- state law requires 20 percent of power to come from alternative sources in about a decade. Environmentalists are beginning to discuss alternatives for Diablo's megawatts.
Diablo owner PG&E cites the nuke's lack of air pollution as a plus, but avoids any mention of the cost of radioactive leaks.
Recent federal estimates of nuclear fuel-related accidents in the Los Angeles area estimated that within hours a nuclear plume would disperse radiation almost 30 miles and assumes nearly 400 latent fatal cancers in one year. Clean up costs would easily run in the multi-billion dollar range. These are costs that are not reflected in the "operating costs" of Diablo Canyon when PG&E promotes its surface value.
That's where the California Public Utilities Commission comes in -- almost coincident with the 25th anniversary of the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island plant.
The state may very well determine that running the aging plant is worth the economic and social risks, given the nuclear industry's history of heavy-handed lobbying. Then again, it could be a beacon for other states to initiate the same inquiry.
J.A. Savage is editor of the independent publication, California Energy Circuit.