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California Nukes Get More Scrutiny; NRG Slows Texas Project

The post-Japan earthquake/tsunami political aftershocks continue in California with the state's two major coastal nuclear generating plants receiving increased scrutiny from elected and regulatory officials even as utility operators and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) assure the public that the plants are safe.

Separately, a Japan-U.S. partnership to build two added nuclear power generation units (3 and 4) at the South Texas Project (STP) announced Monday they were putting on hold most permitting and development work to allow time for the NRC to sort through the lessons from the unfolding Japan nuclear plant situation. Nuclear Innovation North America LLC (NINA), a joint development by NRG Energy Inc. and Toshiba Corp., will limit its ongoing work to securing federal loan guarantees that are critical to the project moving forward.

NINA Chairman and NRG CEO David Crane said the "best course of action in this immediate period of uncertainty is to minimize project spend[ing], continue with those activities we can control and wait until there is more information upon which we can base our long-term decisions." NRG, Toshiba and NINA made the announcement jointly.

In California vulnerability to earthquakes has been a concern of anti-nuke organizations ever since the two plants -- Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s (PG&E) Diablo Canyon plant and Southern California Edison Co.'s (SCE) San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) -- began operating in the 1970s. In the wake of the March 11 disaster in Japan those critics are getting renewed support for questioning whether the plants should get federal operating license extensions from the NRC.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last week delayed a scheduled April hearing in its processing of PG&E's pending request to pursue a license extension for its Diablo Canyon plant, which sits along the central California coast near San Luis Obispo. A state Senate Select Committee on Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness held a hearing Monday to begin looking at lessons learned from Japan, although the utilities caution that it is still too early and there are more questions than answers at this point.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has publicly called for "immediate inspections" of the two nuclear generating plants to examine what she has called increased risks from quakes and tsunamis and the relative "safety cultures" of the two plants, which combined produce more than 4,500 MW or nearly 15% of the state's power supplies.

A state senator representing the area on the central coast that includes PG&E's plant, Sen. Sam Blakeslee, who holds a doctorate degree in geophysics, has questioned whether PG&E's pending NRC application to extend Diablo Canyon's operations beyond the 2020s should be allowed to proceed. Japan's experience raises many questions about California's plants that need to be answered first, Blakeslee told local news media.

While SCE has not made an application to extend SONGS licenses beyond their 2022 expiration, before the recent Japanese disaster it was assumed that the utility eventually would seek the relicensing. Both SONGS and Diablo Canyon have completed the total replacement of their steam generators at a collective cost of about $1.5 billion, and this work was viewed as a prelude to seeking license extensions.

"[We] continue to study what it would take to renew our license, but our focus right now is on the operations of SONGS to ensure protecting the health and safety of the public and plant employees," a SCE utility spokesperson told NGI Monday.

Boxer and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) last Wednesday sent a letter to the chairman of the NRC asking that the federal agency conduct "thorough inspections" for both SONGS and Diablo Canyon to evaluate their safety and emergency preparedness in light of the fact that both plants are located near quake faults.

Built to withstand a 7.0 magnitude quake, SONGS should be able to withstand any likely quake or tsunami in its area on the Pacific Coast in far north San Diego County, the utility spokesperson said. Similarly, Diablo Canyon was built to withstand a 7.5 quake and sits 85 feet above sea level, allowing it to withstand any tsunami, utility officials have maintained.

"The company will apply the lessons learned from the tragedy in Japan," said the SCE spokesperson, reiterating the Edison International utility's contention that it is still too early to draw any conclusions about what those lessons are.

A source at one of the state's major utilities said the power companies expect "a period of heightened scrutiny and perhaps some delays in some regulatory processes. It isn't yet known exactly how Japan will impact U.S. plants."

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