Design flaw debate threatens licensing of Diablo Canyon A-plant

The storm of controversy that has made the licensing of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant the most-drawn out such proceeding in US history shows no signs of clearing.

Ever since 1977, when it was discovered that the still inoperative coastal plant is located within three miles of a major earthquake fault, Diablo and its owner, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), have never been far out of the local, and often national, limelight.

At issue in this phase of the licensing proceedings is whether an independent audit of the $2.3 billion, twin-domed plant will be conducted to probe design errors that came to light in late September - just days after the end of a two-week-long protest at the plant which resulted in nearly 1,900 arrests.

PG&E officials have contended that the errors, which involve earthquake safety design factors, are minor, and that ''even if they hadn't been discovered , they wouldn't have caused any dangers,'' says one spokesman.

But Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., lawyers representing citizens opposed to the plant, and many newspapers (including those that have supported a license for Diablo), have called on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to require an independent investigation - conducted by a non-PG&E consultant and overseen by a committee representing all the factions involved - before allowing PG&E to begin experimental operations under the low-power license it was granted several weeks ago.

On Nov. 3, however, after a meeting with PG&E officials, NRC staff members indicated that while they would recommend that the commission order PG&E to broaden its current audit of the plant's seismic design errors, they would not recommend an independent investigation of the type requested by Governor Brown and others. The NRC is expected to act on these recommendations at a Nov. 9 meeting.

''This is a whitewash. We're just outraged,'' fumes Joel Reynolds, an attorney with the Center for Law in the Public Interest, in response to the NRC staff's Nov. 3 recommendations.

''This is a serious mistake when you consider that a quality assurance program is the building block for safety in the design and construction of a plant,'' says Mr. Reynolds, whose organization is representing San Luis Obispo residents opposed to the plant. ''What we've seen in the past two months is that PG&E's program has broken down - they just haven't caught the errors.''

PG&E contends that any new power plant needs a ''shakedown period'' during which such errors often come to light. But critics charge that after a nearly 14 -year, exhaustive construction and licensing battle - and with NRC hearings on a full-power license for Diablo coming up early next year - the discovery of design flaws now raises serious questions about whether other errors exist.

Regardless of what the NRC decides with respect to an independent audit, opponents are continuing efforts to keep the plant from coming on line through a series of appeals within both the NRC and the federal court system.

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