* License renewals may not get rubber-stamp treatment
* New fault located just outside Diablo Canyon plant
By Nichola Groom
LOS ANGELES, March 15 Californians have long
had an uneasy relationship with their two nuclear power plants,
and the crisis in Japan raises new doubts about how long
nuclear power will survive in the earthquake-prone state.
The first test of the Golden State's support for nuclear
power is coming soon, as the nuclear plants perched on the
scenic but fault-laden California coastline since the early
1980s begin the process for 20-year license renewals.
California banned construction of new nuclear power plants
in the 1970s, when the then-governor Jerry Brown joined
"no-nukes" activists in opposing construction of Diablo Canyon
nuclear station on the Central Coast. Seismic safety worries
played a prominent part in the campaign.
But the plant went ahead and nuclear power today generates
about 15 percent of California electricity, slightly more than
the portion generated by renewable sources in a state known for
its clean-energy drive to combat global warming.
After the 9.0 quake and tsunami compromised reactors in
Japan, lawmakers and activists have been quick to call for more
seismic safety measures and monitoring for California's plants,
considered the most vulnerable in the United States to major
quakes. Brown, who is governor again, has so far been silent.
That pressure could make matters difficult, particularly
for the owners of Diablo Canyon, Pacific Gas & Electric
(PCG.N), who have to renew their licenses that expire in 2024
The licenses for California's other nuclear power plant,
Edison International-owned (EIX.N) San Onofre in between Los
Angeles and San Diego, expire in 2022.
Renewing licenses for nuclear power plants begins years in
advance of their expiration so that plans can be made to
replace them if the application is denied. Diablo Canyon has
already filed its renewal application, but San Onofre has not.
Of the 104 operating U.S. reactors, the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission has renewed 62 licenses and denied none.
That may not happen this time, however.
"The NRC has typically rubber-stamped these license renewal
applications, but it's hard to see them turning a blind eye
now," said Matt Freedman, an attorney with consumer group The
Utility Reform Network in San Francisco. "The NRC will take a
harder look and perhaps require additional measures, some of
which will be expensive, to get those licenses."
The Obama administration has said it will press ahead with
nuclear energy as an integral part of the U.S. "clean energy"
mix. The Energy Department's budget includes $36 billion for
loan guarantees to help build new nuclear reactors. The more
than 100 reactors nationwide provide about 20 percent of U.S.
Both PG&E and Southern California Edison say their nuclear
power plants are built to withstand earthquakes far greater
than the nearby faults are capable of producing.
A fault 5 miles (8 km) away from San Onofre is capable of
producing a quake up to a 7.0 magnitude, Edison spokesman Steve
Conroy said, adding that the plant could withstand ground
motions much greater than those produced by the 9.0-magnitude
quake in Japan.
Diablo Canyon, meanwhile, could operate safely during up to
a 7.5-magnitude earthquake, according to PG&E spokesman Kory
Raftery. The four faults near the plant could potentially
produce an earthquake of up to 6 to 6.5 magnitude, he said.
The NRC on Monday also sought to dispel fears about
earthquake damage at U.S. nuclear power plants.
"We have a strong safety program in place to deal with
seismic events that are likely to happen at any nuclear
facility in this country," Chairman Gregory Jaczko said at a
news conference at the White House, adding that the agency
"will continue to take new information and see if there are
changes that we need to make with our program."
Many in California, however, worry that the dangers could
be far greater than operators or the NRC have planned for.
"There are many people who are very, very doubtful that
they can trust whatever the company says about the plant," said
Liz Apfelberg, a spokeswoman for San Luis Obispo Mothers for
Peace, a group that has opposed Diablo Canyon since the early
Fears about seismic dangers have also been stoked by the
2008 discovery of a fault line half a mile from Diablo Canyon.
California state Senator Sam Blakeslee, a Republican who
represents the district in which Diablo Canyon is located, on
Monday called for further seismic studies of the area.
"The devastating events in Japan underscore the importance
of addressing the seismic uncertainty surrounding California's
nuclear power plants," Blakeslee said in a statement. "Serious
concerns about a newly discovered fault running underneath
Diablo Canyon ... have so far gone unaddressed."
Shortly after the discovery of the new fault, the
California Energy Commission recommended that PG&E conduct 3-D
imaging. On Monday, PG&E's Raftery said the utility was still
evaluating whether or not to perform the 3-D studies.
(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Mary Milliken and