Diablo Canyon power plant is the issue, not nuclear energy


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This Nov.  3, 2008 photo shows one of Pacific Gas and Electric's Diablo Canyon Power Plant's nuclear reactors in Avila Beach, Calif.

This Nov. 3, 2008 photo shows one of Pacific Gas and Electric’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant’s nuclear reactors in Avila Beach, Calif.

AP

California’s climate crisis and the state’s stressed power grid have allowed a once-unthinkable scenario to garner appeal. Rather than burning more planet-warming fossil fuels to prevent blackouts in the scorching summer heat, a bipartisan but misguided chorus of politicians, scholars and energy experts now supports extending the lifespan of California’s last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon.

There are some good reasons for this dramatic reversal three years before the 37-year-old plant is scheduled to be fully decommissioned. State leaders have largely failed to accelerate the clean energy transition so renewable alternatives such as wind, solar and geothermal power can replace dirtier sources and slash carbon emissions. Six years after Pacific Gas & Electric Co. began the process of closing the plant, natural gas remains California’s preeminent power source. To complicate matters, a new report found the state needs to triple its rate of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to meet its target of 40% below 1990 levels by the end of the decade.

As a result, Diablo Canyon has become a polarizing symbol of California’s electricity dilemma and the nation’s lethargic response to the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels. The power plant in San Luis Obispo County generates enough power for about 3 million people and provides 9% of the state’s electricity, accounting for nearly one-quarter of our carbon-free supply.

The problem, however, is not so much the merits of nuclear power as a bridge to future solar and wind systems. The problem is — and has always been — Diablo Canyon itself.

The aging plant faces serious seismic risks because it was built on fault lines that were not discovered until decades later. Worse, it’s operated by an investor-owned utility with such entrenched disregard for safety that a federal judge earlier this year described it as “a continuing menace to California.” Gov. Gavin Newsom, who led the push to decommission the plant when he was lieutenant governor, told the New York Times in 2019 that PG&E has “simply been caught red-handed over and over again, lying, manipulating or misleading the public. They cannot be trusted.”

Yet it’s Newsom who opened the door for the power plant to stay online. His administration recently persuaded the US Department of Energy to change the rules for President Joe Biden’s $6 billion program for rescuing nuclear plants so PG&E could apply. California’s senior US senator, Dianne Feinstein, has also advocated extending her life.

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Then-California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, center, a former member of the State Lands Commission, questions Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, left, and Geisha Williams, president of electric for Pacific Gas & Electric, about the closure of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power, Tuesday, June 28, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. Rich Pedronelli AP

Their positions rely on a growing body of research that has shifted the discourse around nuclear energy in the twilight of its American prominence. Most of the nation’s 99 nuclear reactors are more than 30 years old and are opting to close because of strict regulations, the high cost upgrades and market prices that favor other sources, clean or not. Biden considers nuclear plants a short-term bridge to a clean energy future. Polls show Californians are relatively torn about what to do with our last nuclear plant, no doubt influenced by a mix of blackout concerns, clean energy concerns and not-so-distant memories of nuclear disasters at Fukushima and Chernobyl.

An oft-cited 2021 study by Stanford and MIT found that Diablo Canyon could become financially viable by adding desalination and hydrogen generation facilities while further stabilizing the grid and helping California achieve its carbon reduction goals. But it’s unclear how quickly those projects could come online or how much they would cost — let alone the facility upgrades, cooling intake changes and other impending costs that influenced PG&E’s decision to pursue a shutdown.

Since the rolling blackouts of August 2020, which were largely planned caused by state leaders’ poor, California’s utility regulators have made notable progress toward stabilizing the power grid and offsetting energy losses from Diablo Canyon’s scheduled closure. The California Public Utilities Commission last year approved a historic procurement of 11,500 megawatts of new electricity resources by 2026. Separately, about 4,000 megawatts of capacity has been added to the grid over the past year, mostly from battery storage, nearly enough to replace two Diablo Canyons.

While the PUC’s turmoil and efforts to lead rooftop solar are cause for concern, the regulator is taking the necessary steps to make Diablo Canyon obsolete and honor the 2018 closure agreement’s commitment to shutter the plant without increasing carbon emissions. California would be better served if Newsom and state lawmakers followed through on their newest energy laws by streamlining new power plants and investing in technologies that will power a safer future — not waste resources backtracking to our dangerous past.

The ravages of climate change may mean that the conversation about nuclear energy has changed, but the principles for closing Diablo Canyon have not.

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