Diablo Decommissioning Panel Gets New Members

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.

April 23, 2023

A citizen’s panel working on a plan for the decommissioning of California’s last nuclear power plant is whole again, after four new members were chosen to serve.

Pacific Gas & Electric spokeswoman, Carina Corral, announced that Ernest “Gerry” Finn, Jessica Kendrick, Patrick Lemieux, and Frances Romero have been appointed to the panel and will start May 1. Also, Kara Woodruff and Bob Pavlik have been reappointed.

The panel holds public meetings to take input from the community on plans to eventually shut down Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant (DCPP), as well as managing the spent fuel stored in dry casks and pools of water at the plant into the future. 

It was an in-depth selection process among the people who applied to be on the panel.

“As part of a highly competitive process,” Corral said in a news release, “currently seated panel members and PG&E representatives conducted in-depth reviews of applications from community members, who broadly reflect the diverse community viewpoints in proximity to DCPP.”

PG&E’s Vice President of Business and Technical Services, Maureen Zawalick, said, “The Panel has proven to be invaluable to the DCPP decommissioning activity planning and process. The diversity of the panel members ensures PG&E hears from all voices in the community as to the future of DCPP lands and facilities.”

The whole situation surrounding Diablo Canyon seems a bit odd as the company seeks to keep the plant running for many more years, even as it makes plans for its closure. 

“PG&E is currently on two paths of pursuing continued operations as directed by the State to ensure electric viability for all Californians,” Zawalick said, “while planning for the eventual decommissioning of DCPP. PG&E looks forward to working with the previous panel members and the new panel members to continue this important work.”

In addition to the new members, the panel is now made up of: Pavlik of San Luis Obispo (1-year reappointment begins May 2023); Woodruff of SLO (3-year reappointment begins May 2023); William Almas, SLO; Dena Bellman of Pismo Beach; Michael Lucas of Morro Bay; Linda Seeley, Los Osos; G. Bruce Severance, Grover Beach; Chuck Anders, (facilitator); Scott Lathrop, SLO (ex officio); Trevor Keith, SLO County (ex officio); and, Zawalick of SLO representing PG&E.

The panel, Corral said, “was created to foster open and frequent dialogue between members of the local community and PG&E on matters related to DCPP decommissioning. Panelists are local community members from across the Central Coast who were selected to broadly represent diverse community viewpoints. The Panel meets periodically on matters related to DCPP decommissioning and the future use of DCPP lands and facilities.”

The power plant property, located on Point Buchon, is about 12,000 acres of various habitats including pristine oak woodlands, coastal terraces and rugged coastline. At least one area — Wild Cherry Canyon — is leased to private developers, who have said they want to build a community of thousands of homes there, a proposal that’s sure to be strongly opposed.

It is also dotted with Native American sites and local Native American groups have called for the property to be returned to them.

Who gets what part or how much of the property is something the decommissioning panel is expected to work on, and promises to be highly controversial, as most everything about the plant has been since it was first conceived of in the 1960s.

PG&E had announced intentions to close the plant’s two reactors when their licenses expired in 2024 and ‘25 but the State of California slammed the brakes on that after rolling blackouts led to a push to keep the plant operating and keep some 2,500 megawatts of power flowing to support the power grid. 

PG&E had been working on license renewals starting in 2009, but dropped the effort after it reached a settlement with environmental and anti-nuclear power organizations to close it down.

Last year, the State Legislature passed a bill, signed by the Governor, that provided a forgivable loan to the company to help pay for continued operations for five to 10 years passed the stated closure deadline.

But the State doesn’t regulate nuclear plants, so a request was made by PG&E to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reboot its withdrawn license renewal application, which the NRC turned down and ordered them to submit new plans.

But the NRC also allowed for continued operations through a license extension, while a new license renewal is processed, which is ongoing now.

“After evaluating the company’s exemption request,” reads a news release from the NRC dated March 2, “the NRC staff determined that the exemption is authorized by law, will not present undue risk to the public health and safety, and is consistent with the common defense and security. In addition, the staff determined Diablo Canyon’s continued operation is in the public interest because of serious challenges to the reliability of California’s electricity grid.”

What’s happened here is a little unusual as PG&E technically missed the deadline for the license renewals.

“NRC regulations,” the agency said, “allow a reactor’s operating license to remain in effect beyond its expiration date contingent upon the licensee submitting a sufficient license renewal application at least 5-years prior to expiration — a status called ‘timely renewal.’ PG&E requires the exemption because it has not met that 5-year requirement.”

The NRC pledged to continue its oversight of the plant’s operations. “The NRC will continue its normal inspection and oversight of the facility throughout the review to ensure continued safe operation. If granted, the license renewal would authorize continued operation for up to 20 years.”

But even that proclamation may not hold up, as it was recently announced that an environmental group, Friends of the Earth, filed a lawsuit last Tuesday seeking to hold PG&E to the settlement agreement it made to close Diablo Canyon in 2025. The Friends of the Earth dropped a previous lawsuit.

Friends of the Earth, an international environmental organization based in the Netherlands, was among those who signed the original closure contract and is now seeking to reinstate that agreement.

“Contracts,” Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth said, “simply don’t vanish into thin air. Yet ever since California passed legislation supporting Diablo Canyon’s extension, PG&E has been acting as if our contract has disappeared. Setting aside the agreement to retire Diablo, there are myriad legal prerequisites for extending operations of a nuclear power plant, including federal decisions that states cannot dictate.

“We hope our litigation can push PG&E to reconsider its potential breach and uphold its obligations, including preparing for the agreed-upon retirement.”

The lawsuit was filed in the Superior Court of San Francisco, where PG&E is headquartered. It remains to be seen if the other environmental groups that signed the settlement will join the suit or file their own.

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