Diablo reactor up to full speed, but nuclear-power industry lags

The Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor, a weary veteran of nuclear power's battles, finally began commercial operation this week -- 11 years late. When construction began 17 years ago, Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor on the central California coast was one of the brightest gleams in energy engineers' eyes.

Then, Pacific Gas & Electric was one of the nation's most experienced and enthusiastic utilities in nuclear energy. Now, PG&E is still at the cutting edge of energy trends, but the trends are toward wind farms and cogeneration.

Like most utilities, it has long since abandoned any plans for building more nuclear plants. In 1975, the nuclear-power industry forecast 1,000 nuclear plants by the year 2000. Now, the figure looks closer to 90.

Diablo comes on line at 14 times its original cost estimate, after more than 3,000 arrests of demonstrators. And as of last week, it was once again under litigation over earthquake-safety planning.

Despite Diablo's grossly underestimated cost, it is not quite as expensive per kilowatt as newer nuclear plants, because most of it was built before the greatest surges of inflation, says Jim Harding, energy director for Friends of the Earth. Most nuclear plants, he says, have come on line from seven to 15 times over original cost estimates.

Still, Mr. Harding estimates that Diablo-produced electricity will cost about 20 cents per kilowatt-hour during the first years of operation, compared with 6 or 7 cents that PG&E customers are paying now.

PG&E is seeking permission from the state Public Utilities Commission to increase electricity rates about 6 percent to pay for Diablo Unit I, now operating, and another 6 percent for Unit II, to come on line next year.

Diablo has been rivaled only by New Hampshire's Seabrook nuclear plant for public controversy. A 1979 rally brought 35,000 demonstrators, including Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., to nearby San Luis Obispo.

Although Diablo is just coming on line, it is one of the nation's oldest nuclear-power plants. PG&E began building it in 1968, estimating the total cost between $350,000 and $400,000, says Ron Weinberg, company spokesman.

In 1973, PG&E filed for a federal operating license. By 1974, construction was essentially complete. But in the meantime, two petroleum geologists discovered an earthquake fault near the site. Seismologists determined it could be capable of causing a major earthquake of up to 7.5 on the Richter scale. Local residents who opposed the plant seized on the earthquake-safety issue, and it was not until 1979 that the plant was thoroughly reinforced to meet seismic standards.

Then, three days before a decision on granting Diablo's license was due from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in Pennsylvania, and a moratorium was slapped on all nuclear licensing. The intensive reviews and regulation inspired by Three Mile Island uncovered new design problems at Diablo.

Last August, the NRC finally authorized Diablo's full-power license, but the actual license was stayed by court order because of a lawsuit against the NRC by Mothers for Peace, an organization of local residents. The stay was lifted in the fall, and the license was granted. But one issue, regarding evacuation plans in the event the plant is damaged by an earthquake, was granted a new hearing by a federal court last week.

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