SAN FRANCISCO — After Pacific Gas & Electric Co. offered to create a 1,200--acre conservation easement along the San Luis Obispo County coastline, the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved permits Thursday to allow the utility to replace corroded steam generators at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
But the commission overwhelmingly rejected a more sweeping staff proposal that would have required PG&E to protect about 9,000 acres of its land around the plant to help compensate for damage to sea life that would occur when the repairs extended the plant's life about a decade.
The utility company successfully argued that the demand for most of its Diablo Canyon property was illegal and that the repairs will not change the output of the plant and will have no additional effect on marine life.
"There are no significant impacts," Donna Jacobs, the company's vice president of nuclear services, told the 12-member panel. "No loss of coastal access.... No other impacts to coastal resources."
A commission staff report said it would take 300 to 1,000 acres of artificial reef to make up for the loss of fish larvae and other marine organisms killed by the plant's cooling system, which uses up to 2.6 billion gallons per day of seawater.
Using a formula, the staff instead calculated that 9,000 acres of shoreline, coastal woodlands, chaparral and grazing land would help make up for the marine loss, because it would block future development that could have adverse coastal impacts.
"This is the first time this commission has had the opportunity with legal authority to act on Diablo Canyon Power Plant with its major impacts on the environment," said Peter Douglas, the panel's executive director.
During a four-hour hearing, however, some commissioners expressed reservations about seeking PG&E land -- especially so much of it -- to make up for marine impacts. And the utility helped its cause by increasing the land it volunteered to place in an easement from 620 acres to 1,200 acres surrounding the Point San Luis Lighthouse and Pecho Coast Trail.
"I think the voluntary offer is more than adequate," said Commissioner Steve Padilla.
Commissioner Sara Wan argued that requiring a 9,000-acre easement was not out of line because the plant's "impacts in the ocean are horrific." But only she and Commissioner Mary Shallenberger voted against removal of the permit condition.
The commission did side with the staff in requiring PG&E to stop using water from Diablo Creek to supplement water from its desalination plant.
PG&E owns 12,791 acres, with the southern shoreline lying within the Port San Luis Harbor District near Avila Beach and the northern end of the property bordering Montana de Oro State Park.
About 200 acres are in crop production, 2,500 are grazed and about 772 are part of the high-security power-plant complex, which went online in 1985.
In addition to the easement, the company offered $1.8 million to the county and Point San Luis Lighthouse Keepers for a variety of public access improvements.
Without new steam generators, state officials said, the plant's two reactors would probably be shut down by 2014 -- but with them, the plant could operate until at least 2025, when its current federal license will expire. The work proposed by PG&E is expected to take three years, with completion in 2010.
In recommending approval of the project with certain conditions, the commission staff noted that production from the plant was important to California's power grid and economy. And although nuclear power is not without environmental risks, a shift to natural gas-fired plants would have a negative impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
The California Public Utilities Commission has already granted PG&E permission to charge ratepayers for more than $800 million in repairs to the plant.
San Luis Obispo County approved temporary construction related to the project, but Mothers for Peace and the Sierra Club appealed to the Coastal Commission. The panel on Thursday considered that appeal along with a separate permit application from PG&E.
PG&E spokesman Pete Resler said the company was pleased that the commission "saw the merit of moving ahead with the project and decided that 1,200 acres [of easement] was adequate."
Mike Massara, director of coastal programs for the Sierra Club, said the commission vote represented a "historic lost opportunity" to protect the coast. "The commission showed their allegiance to PG&E and abandoned the public," he said.