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Diablo Canyon & PG&E: Just how safe is it?
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Rancho Seco twin towers soar 55 stories above the ground in Herald some 40 miles north of Manteca.

They stand in mute testimony to the general public’s lack of appetite for nuclear power.

The plant in 2009 was, for all practical purposes, no longer in existence as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released most of the 2,100-acre site for unrestricted use except for 11 acres where a storage building for low-level radioactive waste still stands and a dry-cask spent fuel storage facility are still under NRC license.

Today massive solar farms and a natural gas fired generating plant now stand on some of the land that is owned by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

The plant first started producing power in April 1975. Three years later a power supply failed leading to a steam generator dry out. The seriousness of the incident was downplayed. Four years later Rancho Seco’s kissing cousin - the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania - experienced a partial core nuclear meltdown. Ten years later in 1989 SMUD voters qualified a measure for the ballot to shut down Rancho Seco. Some 53.4 percent of SMUD voters said close it. The SMUD board adhered to its promise to go with the will of the people and started shutting down Rancho Seco 12 hours after the polls closed. The plant was shut down with just 39 percent of its useful life spent.

In 2005, the NRC’s ongoing review of data and new understanding of how nuclear plants operated concluded the Rancho Seco incident was the third most serious nuclear incident in the United States behind Three Mile Island and a cable tray fire at Brown’s Ferry.

The United States today has 104 nuclear reactors including those at two California power plants including PG&E’s Diablo Canyon.

Voters, of course, cannot force PG&E to shut down Diablo Canyon as it is a for-profit nuclear power plant. Nothing is basically wrong with that although when a for-profit company operates something that could have massive radiation leaks they should be a bit more concerned about safety.

That is not to say PG&E hasn’t followed NRC wishes at Diablo Canyon - at least so far. The discovery two years ago of an earthquake fault within a half mile of the nuclear reactors is promoting some government regulators as well as Republican State Senator Sam Blakeslee who has a background in seismology and represents the area, to push for operating and safety standards designed for the fault letting loose one day with a 7.5 Richter Scale quake. PG&E is trying to get it downgraded to about a 6.5 because obviously it would cost a lot less to comply with it.

PG&E of late has lost its mojo - so to speak - with the timing of many of its bold initiatives including their ill-fated attempt to get the voters to amend the state constitution to guarantee them of a monopoly.

The debate over Diablo Canyon’s safety was one of those low-key, ho-hum things as Blakeslee started pushing in May to get PG&E to suspend its operating license extensions that are due to expire in 2044 and 2045. That is until the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.

PG&E arguing against suggested government safety standards should make one wonder whether they should be given the benefit of doubt. After all, PG&E dismissed federal safety recommendations about pipeline safety values essentially contending they would be ineffective and not needed. Of course, there was also the nasty little detail about the price tag.

This is not an easy debate. California needs power. And nuclear power might indeed be the best alternative after everything is weighed.

Yet at the same time PG&E isn’t exactly an angel.

For years, they blocked efforts to make large solar farms economically feasible by successfully lobbying the California Public Utility Commission and California Legislature to cap the amount of power such solar farms could generate at one megawatt. That cap has since been lifted.

Nevertheless, it underscores that PG&E is motivated first and foremost by profit.

Ratepayers can’t vote to force a shutdown of Diablo Canyon as they did with Rancho Seco.

It prompts the question whether nuclear power plants should be operated by for-profit firms whose first responsibility is to corporate bonuses and then stockholders and not ratepayers or people who may be down wind.

And if nuclear power is so cost-effective and efficient why are PG&E rates with a nuclear plant on-line so much higher than SMUD that has had to foot the cost of decommissioning a plant and developing alternative power?

If you honestly believe the million dollar bonus babies that run PG&E invest in safety before corporate jets, just ask the people of San Bruno.

The odds are they wouldn’t want PG&E operating a nuclear power plant in their neighborhood.