PG&E can keep operating Diablo Canyon — at least for now, feds say
Pacific Gas & Electric cleared a major hurdle Thursday in its bid to operate the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant beyond 2025, with a federal agency ruling that PG&E can keep the reactors humming while the company navigates a lengthy relicensing process.
The decision by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission comes six months after California lawmakers overwhelming approved a bill aimed at keeping Diablo Canyon running until 2030 — five years past its scheduled shutdown date.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has argued the state still needs the nuclear plant — its single largest electricity source — to help keep the lights on as global warming drives higher demand for air conditioning, and as California increasingly relies on solar farms that stop generating electricity after sundown. Two evenings of brief rolling blackouts in August 2020 — and several close calls since then — have highlighted the need for climate-friendly energy sources that can be counted on 24/7.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who previously supported Diablo Canyon’s shutdown but changed her mind last year, praised the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“This decision will allow Diablo Canyon to serve as a bridge to a clean-energy future, maintaining a reliable source of carbon-free power as we continue to invest in renewable energy,” Feinstein said in a statement.
The California Energy Commission agrees. The agency ruled this week that keeping Diablo running through 2030 is needed to ensure electric reliability.
“As California confronts a rapidly changing climate, extraordinary heat events and record energy demand are becoming increasingly ordinary. The state needs to keep all options on the table to protect public health and safety,” said Siva Gunda, the Energy Commission’s vice chair, in a statement. “This includes maintaining Diablo Canyon’s operations.”
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It’s not yet certain that the reactors will be allowed to keep humming past 2025. Under last year’s Diablo Canyon bill, several state agencies still must sign off on the plant’s continued operation, including the Public Utilities Commission, the Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission. Final approval from the federal government isn’t guaranteed, either.
But it’s looking likely that nuclear power will remain part of the state’s energy mix, at least through the end of the decade.
The Biden administration announced in November that it would give PG&E a $1.1-billion loan to help the utility cover the costs of federal relicensing, as well as maintenance, fuel purchases and additional on-site storage for radioactive waste.
A poll last year co-sponsored by The Times found that 39% of California voters opposed shutting down Diablo, compared with 33% who supported closure — a dramatic change from earlier decades, when the public largely opposed atomic energy.
Nuclear critics continue to argue that the technology is fundamentally unsafe.
They note that Diablo Canyon sits near several seismic fault lines along the Central Coast in San Luis Obispo County. PG&E says the plant would handle an earthquake just fine, but critics worry about the possibility of a meltdown spreading deadly radiation — a scenario that calls to mind nuclear disasters at Chernobyl in Ukraine, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Fukushima in Japan.
Nuclear waste is another concern. In the absence of a permanent storage repository for spent fuel, radioactive waste is piling up at power plants across the country, including the shuttered San Onofre facility along the coast in San Diego County.
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Three anti-nuclear groups — San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, Friends of the Earth and the Environmental Working Group — filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month urging the agency to deny PG&E’s bid to keep Diablo Canyon running after the plant’s licenses expire. The groups wrote that completing a full relicensing review, including public hearings, “is essential to assure that continued operation of the reactors will be safe for the public and the environment.”
“There is absolutely no precedent for the exemption requested by PG&E,” Diane Curran, legal counsel for Mothers for Peace, said in a statement last month. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission “has never allowed a reactor to operate past its license expiration dates without thoroughly assessing the safety and environmental risks. And it must do so in this case too.”
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Federal regulations normally require that nuclear relicensing applications be filed at least five years before a power plant’s license expires. At Diablo Canyon, the license for one reactor expires in November 2024, and the other in August 2025.
But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted PG&E’s request for an exemption, ruling the company can keep Diablo operating during the relicensing process as long as the company submits a sufficient license renewal application by Dec. 31, 2023.
The commission “determined that the exemption is authorized by law” and “will not present undue risk to the public health and safety,” the agency said in a statement. Commission staff also concluded that Diablo Canyon’s continued operation “is in the public interest because of serious challenges to the reliability of California’s electricity grid,” the statement said.
The commission’s license renewal process typically takes 22 months, the agency noted. That means at least one of the Diablo Canyon reactors could end up running for a full year while the commission decides whether to renew its license.
Keeping Diablo open “is critical in the context of making sure we have energy reliability,” Newsom said last year during a brutal heat wave. “That energy does not produce greenhouse gases. That energy provides baseload and reliability and affordability that will complement and allow us to stack all of the green energy that we’re bringing online at record rates.”
The nuclear plant supplies about 9% of California’s total electricity and 17% of its climate-friendly electricity.
But atomic energy is far from the state’s only option for keeping the lights on while phasing out fossil fuels. In 2021, the Public Utilities Commission ordered utilities and local governments to buy 11,500 megawatts of new clean power resources by 2026 to help replace Diablo Canyon and four Southern California gas plants. Those resources will include a large number of batteries to store solar power for after dark. Just last week, the agency ordered an additional 4,000 megawatts of new clean power.
Nuclear power critics say the state could shut down Diablo on schedule with more support for batteries and geothermal energy, as well as programs that pay homes to use less energy, and efforts to coordinate electricity supplies more closely with other states.
“This isn’t a question of nuclear power versus renewable energy. This is a question about the safety and reliability of the California energy grid, and where it needs to go,” Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, told The Times last year.
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Revisiting the decision to close Diablo Canyon wasn’t PG&E idea. In 2016, the company struck a deal with environmental groups to get out of the nuclear business — a deal the utility intended to keep until Newsom proposed throwing it out last year.
Since then, PG&E has endorsed the governor’s efforts.
“We are proud of the role [Diablo Canyon] plays as the state’s largest clean energy producer, providing reliable, affordable, carbon-free energy to the people of California,” PG&E Chief Nuclear Officer Paula Gerfen said in a statement.
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