County Hires Diablo Decommissioning Manager

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

December 18, 2020

It’s arguably the biggest future issue on San Luis Obispo County’s horizon, and now the decommissioning of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant officially has someone to manage the mountain of red tape to come.

County Supervisors approved hiring Susan Strachan to serve as the “Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning Manager” for the County Planning and Building Department.

Planning and Building Director Trevor Keith’s staff report from the Supervisor’s Dec. 8 meeting filled a position created by Supervisors at their Nov. 17 meeting. Strachan was scheduled to start work Dec. 14.

Strachan’s position was created as an “at-will” employee meaning she has an employment contract as opposed to being under Civil Service. She’s got a lot of planning experience in government and the private sector.

“Ms. Strachan has over 22-years of professional level planning experience,” Keith’s staff report said, “including 3-years of experience with Yolo County, and 19-years of experience as an owner of her own consulting company including serving as the principal consultant, managing the environmental permitting and construction compliance for utility scale energy projects and industrial facilities, including nuclear decommissioning, natural gas fired power plants, renewable power plants, transmission lines, and pipelines.

“As the decommissioning of the Diablo Nuclear Power Plant is an extremely important process for our County,” Keith said, “the need for someone who has Ms. Strachan’s unique experience is ideal.”

Strachan has a bachelor’s degree in political science from U.C. Santa Barbara, according to Keith’s report. She starts her job at the top salary level, $140,000 a year — $67.31 an hour, $11,667 a month — plus benefits that raise her annual compensation to $209,000.

The County back in July budgeted a full year’s salary, and since she didn’t start work until nearly half way through the year, the County will save much of those salary and benefit costs.

Money for the position is coming out of Senate Bill 1090, a special law passed by the State Legislature that seeks to compensate the County, as well as the San Luis Coastal Unified School District and other agencies, for expected property tax revenue losses when Diablo Canyon permanently shuts down in 2025.

Her job will be to manage “the land use permitting aspects of the closure of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant,” reads a report from Nov. 17. Supervisors actually created the job and the County sought applicants in November 2019, and three unsuccessful tries at recruiting someone followed.

“There have been several qualified candidates who applied for the position,” reads a Nov. 17 report from Human Resources Director, Tami Douglas-Schatz. “Two offers were extended, and both offers were rejected by the candidates. It has been determined that the compensation for this position is not competitive for the role.”

To make it work, Douglas-Schatz and Keith, proposed eliminating a planning division manager position in favor of the decommissioning manger’s job, a new job classification.

“It is integral to the success of the program,” the report said, “that the incumbent is aligned with the priorities and philosophies of the Board of Supervisors, County Administrative Officer, and Assistant County Administrative Officer.

“Said incumbent must quickly demonstrate the ability to meet expectations and deliver the intended results. Should the incumbent not be able to do so, the County needs the ability to quickly pivot and find a better suited candidate.”

Someone under civil service protections couldn’t be so easily swapped out. Being an at-will employee puts Strachan on the same level as the County Attorney, department heads, and County Administrative Officer.

For comparison, a division manager job pays $123,000 a year, a difference of $16,900 from what Strachan will make ($140,000).
The SB 1090 monies would be replaced with a “Cost Accounting Agreement” with plant owner Pacific Gas & Electric that should be reached once PG&E files its decommissioning application with the County. Then a combination of the SB 1090 monies and planning fees would pay for the decommissioning manager position.

According to Douglas-Schatz, no matter what, they need this job filled. “If for any reason the development of the Cost Accounting Agreement with PG&E is delayed or cannot put in place,” she said, “this position will still be needed until the plant is permanently closed, permitted for re-use, and any other related tasks required by law are completed.”

Decommissioning Diablo Canyon, the last working nuclear plant in California, is anticipated to take decades and cost several billion dollars. During this time, the County is expected to entertain future uses for the enormous property that features coastal canyons, grasslands, dune scrub, coastal plateaus, and oak woodlands.

The plant site itself has many, non-nuclear buildings and facilities, including an enormous desalination plant, marine biology lab, and a sheltered, man-made harbor.

One drawback to future uses could be numerous giant so-called dry casks where many tons of radioactive spent fuel rods are stored on an enormous concrete slab located behind the plant’s twin containment domes.

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