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

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided to allow Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant to operate past its licensed time limit as long as a license renewal application is submitted by December 31, 2023. This decision, announced on Thursday, will enable Diablo to provide California with electricity beyond its current shutdown dates of 2024 and 2025.

Whether the NRC would give an exemption to allow Diablo to apply beyond the five-year filing deadline had been in some doubt, although the political pressure to acquiesce was intense. Governor Gavin Newsom had persuaded the California Legislature to approve a $1.4 billion loan to the operator of the power plant, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, and he visited Diablo Canyon on Wednesday to highlight the safety of the facility. Pressure came at the federal level, too, as the Biden administration had made special grants of up to $6 billion in the infrastructure bill for nuclear power plants in exactly this situation. Already, the California Energy Commission has determined it “prudent” to continue operating Diablo given the volatility of the weather and the strains it put on the grid.

On the other hand, the San Luis Obispo branch of Mothers for Peace, which has protested the plant since before it began operating in 1985, called the decision a “betrayal of public safety.” The “unprecedented” decision ignores the NRC rules that recognize a 40-year statutory limit of nuclear plant operations because old facilities pose operational risks, the nonprofit stated in a press release.

The NRC staff’s letter denying an earlier permit reapplication stated the review “would not be consistent with our regulations or the Principles of Good Regulation,” and those principles included “relevant precedent.” David Weisman of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility observed, “Somehow adherence to those same principles of good regulation vanished in light of yesterday’s decision.”

Gavin Newsom paid a visit to Diablo Canyon on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, to highlight the safety of the nuclear power plant.  | Credit: Governor’s Office

The NRC rules give the operator of a nuclear power plant a five-year window before its license runs out in which to apply to relicense the facility. Review of a license takes on average 22 months. In the case of Diablo, which began construction in 1968, its current Unit 1 license expires on November 2, 2024, and Unit 2’s ends on August 26, 2025. Though PG&E had a license renewal in the pipeline, bumps and slumps in energy prices, increased costs to maintain the aging facility, and a greater availability of wind and solar led to the abandonment in 2018 of that earlier quest for a license.

Then the drought got worse. Hydroelectric power looked to be in a nosedive, and summer heat waves threatened rolling brownouts and provoked pleas from electricity managers for consumers to conserve. At the end of the exceedingly hot summer of 2022, Newsom made his pitch to lawmakers for the big loan to keep Diablo in operation and its infrastructure updated — in exchange, the law called for the plant to close by 2030. On the horizon was the offshore wind project at Morro Bay, just a few miles from Diablo in San Luis Obispo County, but the completion time was 2030. What if California ran short of power in the meantime? PG&E agreed to resume seeking a license.

The wind energy project gives an idea of the stakes involved: Three leases off Morro Bay sold for $425.6 million in the December auction, and the Humboldt County leases went for $331.5 million. The sites are expected to produce 4.5 gigawatts of energy, which could power 1.5 million homes, replacing Diablo’s production of 2.2 gigawatts and then some.

Congressmember Salud Carbajal, who has worked hard to secure the wind lease sales, called himself a “cheerleader” for a budding industry at a wind summit held in Morro Bay on February 23. “We see this clean energy transformation as an opportunity to be at the cutting edge of an energy revolution unlike that we’ve seen since the first electrification of America,” he told the group, which included Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. 

The NRC stated in a press release that allowing PG&E to file its license application short of the five-year window under an exemption was “authorized by law, will not present undue risk to the public health and safety,” and that continuing Diablo’s operation “is in the public interest because of serious challenges to the reliability of California’s electricity grid.”

“The NRC calls the exemption a mere ‘administrative’ decision, as if it were choosing paper clip sizes,” snapped Diane Curran, lead attorney for S.L.O.’s Mothers for Peace. “There is nothing ‘administrative’ about allowing this aging reactor duo to continue running for days, months, or years when each day of operation poses the risk of an accident that could devastate the entire state and beyond.”

Weisman stated that the California Public Utilities Commission had yet to approve Diablo’s continued life, when questions about the cost effectiveness and alternative power sources could come up. “Seismic issues will become a concern soon,” he added, referring to the multiple fault zones offshore from Diablo Canyon.

The NRC is a federal agency, and together with Friends of the Earth and the Environmental Working Group, the Mothers are considering seeking a federal court ruling on the NRC’s decision.


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