The California Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved a controversial measure that will cost ratepayers an estimated $706 million for the replacement of several failing steam generators at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, according to a news release.

Due to defects in the current steam generators, PG&E, California’s largest utility provider, was granted the use of DCNPP until the year 2013. Now that the generators will be replaced, PG&E could safely use the plant for the next 20 years or longer.

In addition to extending plant use, replacing steam generators is also expected to boost PG&E’s annual profits. The generators can produce approximately 2,300 megawatts of electricity, enough to power almost two million homes, according to PG&E spokesperson Jeff Lewis.

The replacement of Diablo’s generators was approved after the commission concluded that the project would not cause significant environmental impacts. Generator replacement is set for 2008 and 2009, coinciding with scheduled refueling of the Diablo units, Lewis told the Los Angeles Times.

This measure has angered many community members and has not gone undisputed. Local organizations like the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, The Sierra Club, Public Citizen and Environment California have fought against the preservation of the plant, and more recently, for the Commission to better analyze the effects of replacing the generators on the community and surrounding environments.

Some community members believe that the project’s approval is a violation of state and environmental law. Jane Swanson, spokesperson for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, a self-described “watchdog” for Diablo Canyon and preservers of local environments, explains, “They’re not looking at the big picture.”

“The reality is that if they (PG&E) do not replace the generators, they would be closed by 2014. That would mean that California would be forced to research and develop alternative forms of energy,” Swanson added.

Environmental groups have also suggested that the decision to replace the steam generators at Diablo also infringes upon the California Environmental Quality Act. This act, according to CEQA’s Web site, is to “develop and maintain a high-quality environment now and in the future” and requires California’s public agencies to “identify the significant environmental effects of their actions and, either avoid those significant environmental effects – or mitigate those significant environmental effects, where feasible.”

The largest environmental impacts associated with the project is the increased risks of personal contact with radioactive chemicals, including the transport, storing and installation of harmful chemicals. Other risks with replacing generators include increased threat of seismic damage, as well as risk of terrorist attacks and safety impact on the public’s health along with marine life.

The project initially received public attention and scrutiny during its first appearance in January 2004, when PG&E first petitioned the California Public Utilities Commission for permission to the generators and for reimbursement of the costs of replacement.

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