“Cognitive dissonance!” exclaimed David Weisman during a recent interview. Weisman would repeat this more than a few times. And he had reason. For the past 20 years, Weisman — a poet, musician, and train aficionado who just celebrated his 61st birthday — has been waging relentless war in the wonkiest imaginable terms against PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant located in Avila Beach. When PG&E announced six years ago it would not seek a license renewal for California’s last remaining nuclear power plant, Weisman — spokesperson and agitator-in-chief for Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility — thought his job was effectively over. But in recent weeks, Governor Gavin Newsom just signed a budget trailer bill to set aside $75 million in state funding to help keep Diablo Canyon’s two reactors humming.
More than that, Newsom assigned responsibility for the future of the nuclear plant to an obscure, though vitally important, statewide water agency. On top of that, President Joe Biden and his Department of Energy just set aside $6 billion in special funds that likewise can be tapped into by PG&E to extend the lifespan of its Diablo Canyon plant that was otherwise slated to shut down in 2025. Also signing onto this plan is California Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Congressmember Salud Carbajal, who represents the district in which Diablo Canyon is situated, objected that Newsom had failed to consult with him or people in the district before making so sudden and drastic a pronouncement. Carbajal said his San Luis Obispo County constituents needed to be shown a “road map” for any plan that will expect them to accept additional nuclear waste in their “backyard for more years to come.”
Carbajal also expressed serious reservations about the impact an extended Diablo Canyon might have on his dreams of midwifing a major wind energy project off the coast of Morro Bay. The first offshore lease sale for that proposal is scheduled to take place this fall. The wind farm idea relies on using Diablo Canyon’s vast electrical grid to transit power for the wind turbines off the coast. If Diablo Canyon is still operating, that grid will not be available.
Giving the 40-year-old reactors a new lease has been a concerted push by a notably bipartisan mix of national energy experts and politicians who contend the loss of Diablo Canyon — which produces 9 percent of California’s energy supply — will inflict even greater energy reliability questions for a state already plagued by rolling brownouts and blackouts. In addition, they’ve noted, Diablo Canyon provides carbon-free energy to no fewer than three million people.
Even with a raft of heavy-hitting renewable projects now in the pipeline, state energy experts are projecting a major gap in reliable supply by the year 2025. The size of that gap, not coincidentally, is roughly identical to the amount of energy produced at Diablo Canyon. Given the immediacy of the threat posed by climate change, they argue, the carbon-free energy produced by Diablo Canyon can no longer be discarded. When those renewable energy projects come online, they say, Diablo Canyon can then be shut down.
Highlighting just how drastic this change of direction is, Weisman noted, a team of high-ranking administrators from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be hosting a public hearing next Thursday evening in San Luis Obispo — for the first time in many years — to discuss the adequacy of PG&E’s $175 million plans to decommission the Diablo Canyon facility.
“If ever there was a case of cognitive dissonance,” he muttered, “this is it.”
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Weisman testified two weeks ago in front of Diablo Canyon’s Independent Safety Committee, which is presided over by Robert Budnitz, a former safety expert with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Budnitz shared some of Weisman’s concerns about the abruptness of the change in course and the amount of time needed to execute it safely.
“The details are still elusive,” Budnitz opined. “It’s a real safety concern.”
Budnitz expressed concern over the large number of safety initiatives underway for the decommissioning process that will be impacted. For the safety committee to stay on top of all this, he said, “It’s going to be tough.” Borrowing a line his mother was fond of using, Budnitz added, “There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip.”
Lots of questions remain. Diablo Canyon was built to store nuclear fuel rods used on-site up to the year 2025. But after that, where will those rods be stored? What about all the deferred maintenance that could be safely deferred so long as the plant shut down in 2025? What about all the parts and equipment whose safe life expectancy will expire around 2025 that will now have to be replaced if the plant continues operation? Are there enough spare parts to be bought? And it’s an old plant. One of its two units was shut down in 2020 because unspecified vibrations alerted operators to serious cracks in that unit’s turbine. Plus, the number of staff — suitably skilled and trained to work in a nuclear power plant — will be hard to secure.
Budnitz and members of the safety commission were adamant they were neither for nor against the extension plan; their role, they stressed, was strictly reactive. But their charge is to ensure safety issues at the plant are properly addressed.
“In my personal view, it’s doable in 2022,” he said. “But it’s not going to be doable in 2024.”
Weisman takes a dim view of the proposed changes, expressing offense that the state legislature would throw taxpayer and ratepayer money at a company whose CEO’s compensation package weighs in at just less than $52 million a year. As much as that it is, he suggested, it won’t be nearly enough. In 2009, he said, PG&E was given permission to exact $85 million from ratepayers to cover the cost of license renewal. “And that was in 2010 dollars,” he said. That was also before PG&E opted not to renew.
Left unaddressed in Governor Newsom’s push are some major big-ticket improvements Diablo Canyon would have been required to implement had it sought license renewal. Chief among these is the replacement of the plant’s water intake and discharge systems — estimated to cost between $8 billion and $12 billion — required to keep the plant from overheating. The current system has been described by a Coastal Commission member as one of the great predators of coastal aquatic life. The high cost of a new water discharge system was one of the key reasons PG&E opted not to seek license renewal.
Those who support keeping the lights on at Diablo Canyon insist it’s a short-term solution, a necessary bridge to allow renewable energy technologies the time needed to catch up while preventing brownouts in the short term.
“Diablo was in operation in 2020, and we still had all sorts of rolling brownouts and blackouts,” Weisman cautioned.
At the time Californians were experiencing brief but disruptive brownouts that year, Weisman noted, California was selling energy outside the state. The problem was not so much an energy deficit, he said, but speculators who were gaming the energy system.
Weisman was openly dubious the extension would be a short-term fix. “You’re going to spend billions and billions of dollars for just a few extra years?” he asked. Then, as if answering his own question, he stated, “Cognitive dissonance.”