Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County | Credit: Doc Searls/WikiCommons

The Mothers for Peace have fought the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo since before it opened, arguing safety concerns over radioactive waste and nearby earthquake faults. On Tuesday, they cheered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff’s rejection of Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s (PG&E) 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, Santa Barbarans remember that Diablo Canyon is about 90 miles upwind above Avila Beach. 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, Governor Gavin 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. The Mothers, who’ve marched, spoken against, and picketed Diablo since 1973, 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: Things like the control room, fluids 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.

Carbon-Free Power

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 crying 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 1,200 people at Diablo, 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 DCPP 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 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 November 1, 2029, for Unit 1, and no later than November 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’s only regulatory agency: PG&E must also succeed with the California Energy Commission on whether it is “prudent” to extend Diablo, said 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,” said 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.”

Is Diablo Needed?

One of those, of course, is the offshore wind project bird-dogged by Congressmember Salud Carbajal, which is anticipated to produce 4.5 gigawatts of energy. He agreed with the plan to keep Diablo 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 said. “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.”

Not everyone is so sanguine about the maneuvering to keep Diablo open. 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.” He called the loan a subsidy that was “a complete waste of money” better spent on cheaper solar and wind. He added that Diablo Canyon was “hogging the state’s biggest transmission line to the coast” and preventing offshore wind from being developed quickly.

Jacobson noted that California imports hydropower from Oregon, Washington State, 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.” 

Although the January rains began to fill California’s reservoirs, the snow melt would top them off, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation indicated. Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, however, a large source for California power in Nevada, was still only a quarter full.

The State of Diablo

The waste of money is as much as $300 million, which the state is just giving to PG&E, said 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.”

Jane Swanson of Mothers for Peace | Credit: Courtesy

San Luis Obispo’s Mothers for Peace were the first to cheer when PG&E announced it would close Diablo. Jane Swanson, who’s rallied with Mothers for Peace for many years, said 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 earthquake 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, 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, he 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 was one of eight senators absent the day voting took place for SB 846. Always 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 November 2, 2024, and for Unit 2 on August 26, 2025. 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.

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