Posted: May 3, 2011 6:28 PM by Nancy Chen
Updated: May 4, 2011 8:18 AM
In the midst of the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan, the spotlight on Diablo Canyon is more intense than it's been in a long time--but controversy is nothing new at the plant.
It's a lightning rod for nuclear power opponents who say the plant has a shaky history that's proof it's not as safe as it needs to be.
But PG&E and federal regulators insist there's no cause for concern.
However, there have been expensive design errors, unforeseen earthquake faults and serious safety concerns from the moment the plant was proposed.
And yet, today, Diablo Canyon produces electricity for nearly three million homes.
It all started in the 60's, when commercial nuclear power was relatively new.
Plans for Diablo Canyon were announced in 1963; initial locations for the plant included the Nipomo Dunes, but the local Sierra Club pressured the company to move near Avila Beach instead.
Then, after the construction permit was issued for Unit One, the Hosgri Fault was discovered three miles from Diablo Canyon.
It's capable of generating a magnitude 7.5 earthquake, according to several studies.
"That led to a very expensive and considerable redesign of the plant, which had almost been 90% constructed by the time they found the earthquake fault," said David Weisman, a spokesperson for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, an activist group.
Nathan Newmark, a PG&E consultant, came up with a theory called the Tau Effect that says large structures like the plant can ride out earthquake waves.
But there were skeptics, including Victor Gilinsky who was on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the time.
"I don't think anyone else really understood it, and I don't think Nathan Newmark really had any solid support for it," Gilinsky said in a visit with KSBY News in Marina del Rey, where he now lives.
PG&E stands by the theory today, saying it's clearly shown to exist based on seismic data .
The company also says the plant can withstand the largest quake it can predict right now.
In 1981, more than 10,000 people protested when the NRC approved a test license for Diablo Canyon. Over a two-week span, 600 officers made nearly two thousand arrests. It was the biggest civil disobedience protest in the history of U.S. nuclear power.
And then, another surprise.
An engineer discovered the containment dome on reactor one was being built 180 degrees off from the plans on the blueprint.
"He pulled some blueprints out of a garbage can, and he studied them, and he thought, 'Wait a minute. We're doing the exact opposite of that,'" said Jane Swanson, a spokesperson for Mothers for Peace who has protested Diablo since 1969.
It was an expensive mistake.
The total cost of building the plant reached more than five billion dollars, far exceeding the initial estimate of just $320 million dollars when the plant was proposed in 1968, according to the vice chair of the California Energy Commission.
Fast-forward to 2008 when the Shoreline Fault was discovered, capable of a magnitude 6 to 6.5 quake, according to preliminary reports.
"I've spoken to PG&E scientists who have said that if they would have known there was a fault in that location, they never would have recommended the plant to be placed there," said local state Senator Sam Blakeslee, who has a background in seismology.
Another discrepancy in 2009 was when PG&E discovered that two switches had been improperly set for 18 months, potentially impairing response in the event of a severe loss of cooling water.
PG&E says the situation did not pose a serious danger.
"We take our safety systems very seriously," said Ken Peters, the vice president of engineering at Diablo Canyon. "That's an issue we investigated. There were backups and procedures in place for the operators to use other switches and breakers to operate that system."
So does Diablo's troubled past mean trouble today?
In more than 25 years of operation, the plant has had only one "alert," which is level two on a four-stage emergency scale.
It was the result of a carbon dioxide release last June that didn't cause any injuries inside or outside the plant.
A March report from the NRC said Diablo Canyon operated in a way that preserved public health and safety.
Similarly, the latest report from the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee found PG&E operated the plant safely from July 2009 to June 2010.
And despite its location near earthquake faults, Diablo Canyon does not top the list of U.S. plants with the highest risk of a quake causing core damage, which was gathered from NRC data.
That title goes to Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York.
Diablo Canyon is number nine.
The future of the plant is contentious as well.
PG&E's currently applying for a twenty-year renewal of its operating licenses, which are set to expire in 2024 and 2025 for the two reactors.
However, it has asked the NRC not to actually issue the licenses if they are approved until 3-D seismic studies are finished.
Tomorrow night, we take a look at the jobs and dollars the plant brings to the Central Coast.
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