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California’s last nuclear plant will close soon. Why the Biden administration wants it open

·4 min read

It’s California’s last nuclear plant, destined to be mothballed in four years amid concerns that its closure could leave a gaping hole in the state’s power supply.

Now the Biden administration is pushing the idea that PG&E Corp.’s Diablo Canyon power plant should stay open, after all.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, in an interview this week with Reuters, said California might want to preserve Diablo Canyon, located on the Pacific coast in San Luis Obispo County, as a source of low-carbon energy in an era of climate change.

“California has been very bullish on zero-carbon emission energy,” Granholm said. Keeping the plant open “may be something that they decide to take a look at, given that I think there is a change underfoot about the opinion that people may have about nuclear.”

Although PG&E says it still plans to close Diablo Canyon, the energy secretary’s comment comes as others are pushing for a reprieve. In November, a high-profile study produced by scientists at Stanford and MIT called for the plant to stay open. Opponents of Diablo Canyon said they fear a bandwagon effect is emerging to prolong the plant’s life.

“It’s like a freight train coming toward us,” said Linda Seeley, of the group San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace. “They’re not looking at the issue of having a 40-year-old nuclear power plant on 13 faults.”

Diablo Canyon produces about 9% of the state’s electricity supply, and state officials have warned that its planned shutdown in 2025 could undermine the state’s efforts to keep the lights on. California already experienced two nights of rolling blackouts in 2020 and narrowly avoided more blackouts during this year’s heatwave in July.

“The period after the Diablo Canyon retirement will be a critical point for system reliability,” the Independent System Operator, which manages the state’s power grid, said in a May 2020 report to the Public Utilities Commission.

Officials with the grid operator and the utilities commission weren’t immediately available for comment. And some critics of Diablo Canyon say the state’s energy picture isn’t as dire as it seemed even a few months ago.

Mark Specht, an energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Oakland, said state officials have done a good job of forcing utilities to procure more clean energy as a means of plugging the gap that Diablo Canyon will leave.

“I’ve seen the state make some significant progress...they’re taking this issue pretty seriously,” he said.

Still, Granholm’s comments gave hope to those in the region pushing for Diablo Canyon to stay open.

“We need the reliable power,” said Gene Nelson, a leader in a San Luis Obispo County group called Californians for Green Nuclear Power. “We definitely have optimism that sane minds do exist within PG&E.”

Dawn Ortiz-Legg, a county supervisor whose district includes the area around Diablo Canyon, said she’s “encouraged that the conversation is continuing .... If we are serious about climate change, we can’t take any conversation off the table.”

PG&E ‘unwavering’ on nuclear shutdown

Nevertheless, PG&E insists it’s committed to closing the plant — largely because of economic reasons — and is moving ahead with plans to add more renewable energy such as solar and wind power to its portfolio.

“As a regulated utility we’re required to follow the energy policies of the state of California. We are committed to California’s clean energy future,” utility spokeswoman Suzanne Hosn said Thursday. “That is our unwavering position.”

The Legislature and the Public Utilities Commission have signed off on PG&E’s plan to close Diablo Canyon’s two operating units in 2024 and 2025.

Granholm said that while the decision is up to California, she might talk to state officials about saving the plant. “Perhaps it’s something that they might reconsider,” she said.

The plant opened in the mid-1980s and has performed reliably. In 2013 questions about plant safety arose when an inspector with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission raised concerns about earthquake faults around the facility.

Three years later, PG&E said it would close the plant but cited financial and operational concerns, not earthquake risks.

“As more solar generation comes on line over time, and when its output is at peak supply (e.g., in the middle of the day), there is less room on the electric system for energy from inflexible and large baseload resources such as Diablo Canyon,” the company said in a 2016 report to the utilities commission.

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