Power Down

The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant’s two units produce a total of 18,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually, 8.5 percent of California’s electricity generation and about 15 percent of its renewable energy output – enough electricity to power 3 million homes.

THE SAN LUIS OBISPO-BASED GROUP MOTHERS FOR PEACE has fought the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in Avila Beach, in San Luis Obispo County, since before it opened, arguing safety concerns over radioactive waste and nearby earthquake faults.

Protests did not prevent Pacific Gas & Electric Company from obtaining the necessary approvals and licenses to open the 2.2-gigawatt plant in 1985. The two units came to generate about 20 percent of the power in PG&E’s service area today, despite concerns about seismic safety that came into focus over the decades and broader concerns about nuclear power in general.

By 2016, the concerns – from the public, from regulators, from lawmakers – coupled with a vision to transition California’s renewable energy supply to greener, safer sources than nuclear – led to PG&E’s announcement that it would close the plant, and not seek extensions when licenses to keep operating each reactor were up for renewal in 2024 and 2025. (For a more detailed timeline, see p. 24.)

But after 2016, faced with uncertainty around the ability of energy sources like solar and wind, the political tide turned, with Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Biden Administration signaling they were interested in extending the life of Diablo Canyon. Keeping the plant open required three-party agreement between the state legislature, federal regulators and PG&E – and in the final hours of the legislative session last year, California lawmakers passed Senate Bill 846. The bill authorizes a five-year extension on plant operations, until 2029 and 2030 for each reactor, provides expedited repermitting, and authorizes a $1.4 billion loan from the state to PG&E.

What happens beyond that five-year extension remains a question mark, and there are other entities involved, including the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And on Tuesday, Jan. 24, the advocacy group Mothers for Peace – whose members have marched, spoken and picketed Diablo since 1973 – marked a victory . They cheered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff’s rejection of PG&E’s ask to continue renewing its license to operate Diablo, citing similar concerns over safety and environmental reviews that had not been made since 2016.

But the utility says it’s got a backup plan in the works to keep Diablo’s two reactors humming past their 2024 and 2025 expiration dates.

After a disaster like the Fukushima nuclear plant blowout or when the ground rolls beneath our feet during an earthquake, Californians remember that Diablo Canyon is still generating nuclear power, on the coast just about 130 miles south of Carmel.

PG&E was set to close the 50-year-old facility by 2025, and long-term maintenance and capital projects were discontinued. But as California’s mega-drought dried up the reservoirs that spin up electricity and also produced unrelenting waves of summer heat that strained the grid, Gov. Newsom persuaded the State Legislature last September to loan PG&E $1.4 billion to keep Diablo’s carbon-free energy flowing through 2030.

It’s a hard road, even with a $1.4 billion inducement. Members of Mothers for Peace were joined in recent decades by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. The Alliance called the deal a financial “shell game,” and the Mothers said the safety issues were major: Functions like the control room, piping, and vibration detectors in cooling pumps had been babied along with spare parts or went uninspected in hard-to-reach spots, according to testimony before the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee last May.

Power Down

Images from a short video provided by PG&E show some of the roughly 1,500 staff at the Diablo Canyon power plant. It is the second-largest employer in San Luis Obispo County.

PG&E HAD HOPED TO RESUME THE LICENSE APPLICATION it started in 2009 and withdrew in 2018, when it told the NRC that Diablo wasn’t needed “to meet California’s projected energy demand requirement” but cried poor in other circles. Though the utility said it could provide the safety and environmental documents by the end of 2023, the NRC staff observed the data was required with the license application now.

But all is not lost. PG&E, which employs about 1,500 people at the Diablo Canyon plant, has a second license in the works, which Jim Jennings, a spokesperson for the utility, said they had been working on simultaneously and intended to file by the end of the year.

As for safety, he said, “Diablo Canyon Power Plant continues to operate as a safe, reliable, and clean energy resource for California, and PG&E remains committed to complying with current legislative policy to ensure the state has the option to keep [the plant] online to ensure electrical reliability as California continues toward its clean energy future.”

The legislative policy Jennings referenced is Senate Bill 846, which authorized the September loan along with a number of caveats: To repay the loan, the utility must qualify for a grant by March 1, 2023 – a $1.1 billion Department of Energy carve-out in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, part of a special provision of $6 billion for struggling nuclear power plants.

SB 846 also states the plant’s life is to extend “no later than Nov. 1, 2029, for Unit 1, and no later than Nov. 1, 2030, for Unit 2.” This part of SB 846 has caused some confusion, as an NRC license comes in only one flavor – 20 years – but PG&E seems ready to comply with the 2030 shutdown date.

The NRC is not Diablo Canyon’s only regulatory agency: PG&E must also succeed with the California Energy Commission on whether it is “prudent” to extend Diablo, says Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokesperson for the state Natural Resources Agency.

The flighty behavior by a utility corporation and the huge outlay by the Legislature, months before a $23 billion deficit was known, reflect Newsom’s intention to get California to carbon-free power by 2030. Though renewables are growing, there’s a gap between the power they’d produce by 2025, and Diablo’s steady production of 2.2 gigawatts. Many assume California would face Germany’s dilemma when it ended carbon-free nuclear power: a greater reliance on natural gas or, worse, coal.

“Amid intensifying climate impacts in the West and across the country, California is focused on meeting our bold climate and clean energy goals while tackling the challenges of extreme weather that puts lives at risk and strains our grid,” says David Villasenor, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office. “The governor remains committed to a limited-term extension of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant to support reliability statewide and provide an onramp for more clean energy projects to come online.”

The question, of course, is whether and for how long nuclear power is needed to produce carbon-free energy while those other projects come online.

Power Down

These video stills from PG&E show scenes from inside Diablo Canyon’s two reactors. California has had a moratorium on new nuclear power licenses since 1976; Diablo Canyon is the state’s last operating power plant.

ONE OF THOSE OTHER PROJECTS is an offshore wind project bird-dogged by U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, which is anticipated to produce 4.5 gigawatts of energy. He agreed with the plan to keep Diablo Canyon in operation, though it could interfere with hooking up the Morro Bay wind project to the transmission lines Diablo uses. For the nuclear power plant, safety was high on Carbajal’s list:

“When it comes to extending the lifespan of Diablo Canyon Power Plant, nothing is more important to me than ensuring that our community’s safety is not compromised in pursuit of this extension. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision this week reflects the need for thorough review before approving additional years of operation beyond its current license,” Carbajal says.

“This ruling affirms that corners cannot be cut when it comes to nuclear safety. As I have reiterated before to NRC leadership, I believe public engagement is key as we embark on this next phase, and I have urged our federal experts to keep the Central Coast directly in the loop when it comes to the next steps for renewing Diablo Canyon’s license.”

The prospect of offshore wind power generation is moving along. In December, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management held a two-day auction for leases for offshore wind energy, two off the coast of Eureka in Northern California, and three off the coast of Cambria, roughly aligned with the Diablo Canyon site. The leases were awarded to the five highest bidders for a total of $757 million. The three winning bidders on the Central Coast are Equinor Wind US LLC, Central California Offshore Wind LLC and Invenergy California Offshore LLC.

“Today’s auction results demonstrate that floating offshore wind on the West Coast is both absolutely necessary to address the climate crisis, and economically viable for the companies that won today’s bids,” Assemblymember Dawn Addis, D-Morro Bay, said in a statement on Dec. 7. “What happens next is critical. I look forward to working with our coastal communities to ensure the auction winners are true partners.”

To that end, Addis is a co-author of Assembly Bill 3, stating the Legislature’s intent to clarify which state entities will impact offshore wind projects and establish public participation and environmental protection requirements.

As to continued operations at Diablo Canyon and whatever comes next, Addis says only, “We need more information.”

Not everyone is so sanguine about the maneuvering to maintain operations at Diablo. Mark Z. Jacobson, director of Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy Program, believes, “There is no need to keep Diablo Canyon open. In fact, keeping it open slows the transition to clean, renewable electricity in California.”

Jacobson calls the loan a subsidy that was “a complete waste of money” better spent on cheaper solar and wind. He adds that Diablo Canyon was “hogging the state’s biggest transmission line to the coast” and preventing offshore wind from being developed quickly.

Jacobson notes that California imports hydropower from Oregon, the state of Washington, and Canada. “Any shortage of hydropower for California’s grid has been made up by imports from out of state. More in-state hydro this year merely means less import of hydro this year,” he says.

Although the January rains made progress in filling California’s depleted reservoirs, and snow melt this spring will top some of them off, in Nevada, Lake Mead at the Hoover Dam is only a quarter full. It is a large source of California’s power supply.

Power Down

These video stills from PG&E show scenes from inside Diablo Canyon’s two reactors. California has had a moratorium on new nuclear power licenses since 1976; Diablo Canyon is the state’s last operating power plant.

THE WASTE OF MONEY IS AS MUCH AS $300 MILLION, which the state is just giving to PG&E, says David Weisman. He’s been following the economic end of the deal for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. His calculation is the difference between the outlay of $1.4 billion and the $1.1 billion infrastructure act grant that PG&E is supposed to use to pay the state back. The grant is for “struggling” nuclear power companies, he said. “When the state loans the money, PG&E now owes and is now struggling. It’s all a shell game to make them eligible to apply.”

Mothers for Peace was the first to cheer when PG&E announced it would close Diablo. Jane Swanson, who’s rallied with Mothers for Peace for many years, says their concerns are “number-one, seismic, and the other safety concerns can’t be specified because PG&E doesn’t share information very well.”

The Hosgri fault was discovered in 1971, and the Shoreline fault was found in 2008: one while the plant was being built, and the other shortly before PG&E’s first application to extend the life of the nuclear power plant.

According to former state senator Sam Blakeslee, who once worked for Exxon as an earthquake expert and then went on to represent the Central Coast in the Legislature, at least five earthquake hazards lie off Diablo Canyon; Shoreline is within 300 meters of its intake lines. Together and individually, they could deliver quakes that exceed the ground-motion standard the nuclear power plant was designed to withstand.

In 2014, Blakeslee testified to then-Senator Barbara Boxer’s environment committee that the NRC was going down the same path that led to Fukushima, Deep Water Horizon, and the abrupt closure of San Onofre – relying too much on utilities to provide factual conclusions.

State Senator Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, was one of eight senators absent the day voting took place for SB 846. In keeping with her reputation as an analytical and cautious politician, she said, “We must ensure that the lights stay on. I have continuously stressed that the Central Coast is apprised of all efforts at Diablo Canyon moving forward, but at this point in time, we are awaiting more information to ensure we can deliver on all fronts for Californians.”

The next information drop comes when the NRC decides on PG&E’s request for a time waiver. The utility was supposed to file for a license at least five years before Diablo’s would run out, and as the NRC letter states, they expire for Diablo’s Unit 1 reactor on Nov. 2, 2024, and for Unit 2 on Aug. 26, 2025.

That means the five-year windows have definitely closed. Nonetheless, PG&E is asking for the waiver, which would allow it to run on its current license until the new one is final. The NRC stated it would decide whether to let PG&E slide or not in March.

Nuke It

The Diablo Canyon Power Plant occupies about 12 acres of a 700-acre coastal property. Conservation and economic development are part of what is next in the decommissioning planning, as laid out in Senate Bill 846, signed into law in 2022.

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