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Weighing the consequences of losing carbon-free energy in California

Billions in potential federal dollars have led Gov. Gavin Newsom to pause the decommissioning of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant — source of one sixth of the state’s green energy.

A new lease on life? Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County, activated in 1985, was due to be shut down over longstanding fears of seismic vulnerabilities. Dirtsailor2003 via Flickr

By Felicity Barringer

Old environmental arguments over the consequences of nuclear power had seemed almost resolved in California. Antinuclear sentiment was intensified by the 33-year succession of accidents, from Three Mile Island in 1978 to Chernobyl in 1986 to Fukushima in 2011, severely diminished their appeal. California was getting ready to wave goodbye to its last nuclear plant.

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We explore the issues, personalities, and trends that people are talking about around the West.

The political realities of 2022 and the need to reduce carbon emissions might change things.

The two units of the 2,240-megawatt Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant were headed for the scrap heap in 2024 and 2025, its owner, the investor-owned utility PG&E, announced in 2016.  The California Public Utilities Commission confirmed the decision in 2018.  

But the new chance to tap into $6 billion in federal funds earmarked for fixing existing nuclear plants prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to say, in effect, “Wait a minute.” The reason? Without an ongoing Diablo Canyon plant, which produces eight percent of state electricity and 15 percent of its carbon-free power, the state can’t tap into Energy Department funds for improving existing plants. A May 19 deadline for applications is fast approaching.

Six months ago, a report from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that, if Diablo Canyon’s shutdown were delayed a decade, the state’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions would be cut at least 10 percent from 2017 levels. If it operated for two decades or more, the report noted, it could save up to $21 billion in power system costs and could be used to power a desalination facility, giving the parched state more clean water.

California’s persistent aridity is taking a toll on another source of its green energy — hydropower. The reservoirs producing it are dwindling. MIT Technology Review reported that in 2021, available hydropower dropped 48 percent below a 10-year average. So far, 2022 is even drier. A Newsom aide told the Los Angeles Times that worries about future power shortages drove the decision.

Ten weeks ago, 80 energy and climate experts, including President Obama’s energy secretary, Stephen Chu, signed a letter seeking a reprieve for Diablo Canyon. In a recent poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, 44 percent of Californians supported building new nuclear plants, with 37 percent opposed and 19 percent undecided.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Still, Newsom’s decision reignited years of anger over the construction and operation of nuclear plants many saw as a continuing hazard. From the time PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant was built, amid fierce protests, in the 1980s, Californians had reason to fear an earthquake could lead to  a core meltdown. It is sited along the coast of San Luis Obispo, near two fault lines.

Despite the governor’s about-face, PG&E’s public statements indicate it has not yet abandoned plans to decommission the plant. Jane Swanson, president of the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, said “logic and the safety of our community” argue for closure. 

Ralph Cavanagh, an architect of the shutdown agreement and co-director of the clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, questions whether PG&E qualifies for the federal money.  

Whether or not decommissioning proceeds, the spent fuel already stored at Diablo Canyon and any more that accumulates will continue to be stored onsite. Storage space will be expanded; PG&E has already selected the contractor for the task: Orano USA, which plans an entirely new storage regime. With PG&E showing no signs yet of reversing course, it is unclear how  federal funds could be put to use. And, as Utility Dive reported, there’s not much time to ask the Federal Energy Commission to extend the plant’s license.

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Staff and Contributors

Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

Associate editor

Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and ABCNews.com. MORE »

Syler Peralta-Ramos

Editorial Assistant

Syler Peralta-Ramos is a member of the Stanford class of 2020. He has lived in Wilson, Wyoming his whole life and developed a keen interest in nature photography and conservation from a young age, inspired by the multitude of photographers that congregate in the Teton region as well as his parents who also share a love for photography.

‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.

Bruce E. Cain

Faculty Director

Kate Gibson

Program Manager

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