Opinion

Nuclear power could still be in California’s future — but it’s too late to save Diablo

Inside Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant

Take a closer look at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near Avila Beach. California's last operating nuclear power plant will close in 2025, owner Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has announced.
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Take a closer look at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near Avila Beach. California's last operating nuclear power plant will close in 2025, owner Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has announced.

Proponents of a last-ditch effort to save the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant are trying to mess with our minds.

Take this recent headline on a news release from the pro-nuclear group, Californians for Green Nuclear Power: “Sale of Diablo Canyon could provide wildfire victims with up to $5 billion in relief.”

Sounds like a win-win, right? Diablo stays open past 2025, local jobs and tax revenue remain intact, wildfire victims benefit, and PG&E gets some help out of bankruptcy.

All it will take to make Diablo more attractive to investors is an amendment to the California Constitution reclassifying nuclear power as “renewable”!

And that will be easy-peasy, according to nuclear energy advocate Michael Shellenberger.

In a commentary for Forbes, he writes: “If Governor Gavin Newsom decides to support the legislation, it would likely become law and Diablo Canyon could continue operating to 2045 or even 2065.”

Except backers of this fantasy are ignoring the plant’s liabilities.

Relicensing Diablo Canyon would be hugely expensive in and of itself.

It’s also possible that more seismic upgrades may be required.

And here’s the kicker: If the state were to require cooling towers to replace the current system — which discharges heated sea water back to the ocean — that could cost as much as $12 billion, which is more than twice the $5.7 billion it cost to build the plant.

Then there are the political hurdles — and we aren’t just talking about opposition from groups that don’t believe a nuclear power plant belongs in an area crisscrossed by earthquake faults.

To make the plant attractive to investors, nuclear energy would need to be included in the renewables portfolio. That would put nuclear on par with solar, wind, wave energy, etc., translating into a financial boon for Diablo.

But for that to happen, California voters would have to agree, since constitutional amendments are put to a popular vote.

Here’s one of arguments opponents will use: Nuclear isn’t renewable. It relies on uranium — a finite resource.

There’s also the decades-old problem of what to do with the spent nuclear fuel the federal government was supposed to have taken custody of long ago, but remains stockpiled at nuclear sites around the nation, including Diablo Canyon.

Some states have resolved the conundrum over is-it-or-isn’t-it renewable by categorizing nuclear power as a zero-carbon-emissions form of energy.

California has actually already done that in the context of its targets for clean energy.

Here are the targets in Senate Bill 100, passed in 2018:

  • 33 percent renewables by Dec. 31, 2020 (California already has surpassed this; 34 percent of 2018 retail electricity sales were from renewables)
  • 50 percent renewables by Dec. 31, 2026
  • 60 percent renewables by Dec. 31, 2030
  • 100 percent renewables and zero-carbon resources by Dec. 1, 2045

That opens the door to next-generation nuclear power plants in California, though there is another hurdle: California passed a moratorium on construction of new nuclear power plants until the federal government makes good on its promise to take control of spent fuel.

That’s sensible, but if nuclear power proves to be the key to a zero-carbon future, should we be pinning all of our hopes on the lone remaining nuclear power plant in California, one with a shaky financial future?

Shouldn’t nuclear advocates be thinking bigger, starting with demanding that the federal government deal with the nuclear waste issue, rather than launching an 11th-hour, Hail Mary effort to save Diablo Canyon?

Attempting to amend California’s Constitution based on speculation that some private entity might swoop in and rescue Diablo Canyon is worse than a long shot.

It’s time to face reality: The shuttering of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant has been approved, and preliminary work is underway.

Arguing that PG&E’s bankruptcy judge could step in and order the plan to be sold doesn’t hold up; the judge can’t order someone to buy the plant.

Nuclear power can still have a future in California.

To make that happen, advocates of nuclear energy would be better off focusing on the next generation of nuclear technology — and urging the federal government to deal with the long-term storage of spent fuel.

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