Dustin Platt looked tired. He had just finished his shift at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant (DCPP).
“It’s been hectic,” Cal Poly alumnus Platt said. “They don’t really know what to do with you as a new employee like me.”
Platt’s experience is just one factor in the DCPP closure, which will take place in 2025, according to Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). Not only will he have spent his first eight years of industry experience at a 40-year-old nuclear plant, but Platt will then have to find another job.
Other concerns voiced at public hearings about the DCPP closure ranged from the risk of radiation to what will become of nuclear waste after the plant’s been decommissioned to where renewable energy will come from next.
“I mean, that’s just the nature of the industry,” Platt said. “Everything’s old. It works, but it’s old. So I’m coming out with not a lot of current knowledge about other plants being built and how they compare.”
After graduating from Cal Poly, Platt joined Early Engineer Careers with PG&E at Diablo Canyon. He is now a part of the Rotational Engineering Program at DCPP, still in the middle of his very first rotation and still getting a feel for all the engineering positions at the plant.
Since DCPP announced their license would expire without renewal in 2016, the public has been concerned about the upkeep of the plant while costs are being cut. Questions were also raised about how PG&E would go about shutting down California’s only nuclear power plant.
Platt said he thinks the San Luis Obispo community is not fully aware of what’s actually happening at the plant.
“From just living in San Luis Obispo, I was kind of surprised because I didn’t see any public announcements that would reach a wide audience,” Platt said.
Like Platt, former PG&E employee Chris Hartz was part of the original permanent plant staff and said he does not feel the public’s concerns have been examined. He also said the true risk of shutting down the plant has not been addressed.
Most prominently, earthquakes could trigger a meltdown.
“One of the concerns with this plant is something similar to Fukushima,” Hartz said.
But Hartz wants the public to know that Fukushima wasn’t caused by an earthquake, and the possibility of a meltdown at DCPP is highly unlikely.
“People have made a big stink about Diablo Canyon and earthquakes,” Hartz said. “But it’s essentially impossible at Diablo Canyon.”
Because DCPP sits 85 feet above the bluffs, the odds of a tsunami getting past the breakwater are next to impossible. Additionally, no kind of wave could get past the water-tight doors to the generator.
A tsunami is what caused the real problem in Japan, but in Japan the plant was only 10 to 20 feet above sea level, Hartz said.
“There is no such thing as an 85-foot tidal wave,” Hartz said. “With that big of a wave, you would flood the entire county all the way to Carrizo Plain.”
With all of that said, as a former employee of PG&E, this miscommunication and heightened public concern are the core of Hartz’s frustration.
“A lot of people use [earthquakes and Fukushima] as an excuse for why the canyon should be shut down,” Hartz said.
Heather Matteson had a story similar to Hartz’s.
Matteson is currently in charge of all emergency procedures at the plant and has seen DCPP through countless highs and lows with the licensing process in the last eight years.
“When Fukushima happened, I was in the control room at Diablo Canyon,” she said. “I feel like a lot of us tend to be scared first. If we’re scared, our tendency is to say ‘no’ until we have more information.”
This is how Matteson used to feel about DCPP until she began working at the plant. She was a member of the local activist group Mothers for Peace, which has protested DCPP since it was built in the late 1960s.
“Before I worked at the plant, I was on the mailing list for Mothers for Peace,” she said. “When I decided to work [at the plant], I kind of went in as a spy because I had seen them protesting some pretty ridiculous stuff.”
When Matteson began to work at DCPP she thought if she found something wrong at the plant she would tell the Mothers for Peace and they’d really have something to protest.
“I went into operating and was in training for the first 10 months,” she said. “My coworkers would get really annoyed because I asked so many questions.”
But to Mattheson’s surprise, she was and still is fascinated by nuclear energy today.
“I’m doing the right thing by helping this plant run and creating so much clean energy,” she said. “Even after that, I’ve gone through cycles in my career where I’m like ‘Holy cow, I should not be doing this, this is way too scary.’”
Like Hartz, she wants the community to know that the risk of disaster at DCPP is not as bad as people think.
“The perceived risk is a lot lower than anyone knows,” she said. “We’ll overreact to anything that happens.”
DCPP has gone 40 years without any accidents.
“It’s this amazing infrastructure that we shouldn’t waste,” Matteson said. “The community should stand up for it.”