Why you should care that the Diablo Canyon nuke plants are being shut down

With decades left to go in their expected lifespans, the two nuclear reactors at California’s Diablo Canyon facility will both be shut down by Pacific Gas & Electric in nine years. This alarming bit of news on the energy front was announced last month as part of a deal that the utility company struck with the state which will make way for more wind and solar power. (Institute for Energy Research)

Pacific Gas and Electric will shutter its two Diablo Canyon nuclear units in 2024 and 2025, respectively, when their current operating licenses are set to expire or need to be renewed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Despite the NRC indicating that these units are well run and among the best in the country, and the utility indicating that they are able to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding, Pacific Gas and Electric will shutter them and replace them with renewable energy and efficiency programs.

Diablo Canyon produces 9 percent of California’s electricity and 20 percent of Pacific Gas and Electric’s power, which is a lot of power to be replaced by solar and wind units that are not controllable by the system operator. While Pacific Gas and Electric expects its demand to be less when it shutters these units because of California’s law to double energy efficiency by 2030, it is unclear that consumers will demand less even though rooftop solar systems are booming in California, and decreasing demand for the company’s power.

While there are no doubt champagne corks being popped at the green energy warrior headquarters, this is a serious problem. I understand the concerns which have previously been expressed about Diablo Canyon and I’ve posed some of the same questions myself. Putting a nuke plant in the vicinity of a major fault line sounds rather dicey to the layman, as I’m sure most of you would agree. But the people who built and maintain the plant weren’t operating in a vacuum. The designs and construction have been reviewed multiple times by every applicable agency and the plant is supposed to be able to survive the largest earthquake imaginable without causing a release of radioactive materials. It is also ready for a tsunami. So why shut it down?

The answer, as always, is found in the politics of California. In 2002 the good people of the state passed the Renewables Portfolio Standard. The RPS mandates that fully half of California’s power must come from wind, solar or other renewable energy sources by 2030, practicality be damned. Diablo Canyon is the latest victim of this mandate.

Unfortunately for Californians and their already stressed power grid, this is going to cause a lot of problems. Energy demand on the left coast varies wildly and the grid has to be carefully regulated. Operators can’t just scale back or ramp up wind and solar energy flowing onto the grid the same way they can with nuke plants or natural gas systems. It’s either on or it’s off. This has led to cases where the grid is actually flooded with more energy than is being demanded, leading to potential system damage and blackouts. At other times, there simply isn’t enough sun or wind and the deficit has to be made up by fossil fuel plants. That’s worked well enough so far, but the more you shrink the fossil fuel supply, the less flexibility you have to stabilize the grid during peaks and lows in the demand cycle.

And what is being accomplished here for the eco-warriors who cooked up this idea? They supposedly want to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, right? Well… the nuke plants don’t produce any carbon. This was pointed out quite plainly by Ted Nordhaus and Ray Rothrock in a recent USA Today opinion piece.

Diablo is different. It is a large plant with a stellar safety record and low operating costs. PG&E CEO Tony Earley acknowledged after the announcement that continuing to operate the reactor would be the cheapest way to meet the state’s clean energy and climate goals. But the plant in the end succumbed to decades of regulatory harassment by environmental groups, hostility from the state’s hegemonic Democratic political establishment, and a raft of mandates, regulations, and subsidies designed by those parties to tilt California’s electricity market toward renewable energy and away from nuclear power…

The new US climate targets could survive the closure of a few small nuclear power plants in difficult markets. But if the Diablo closure becomes a model for the closure of large, economically viable nuclear plants around the country, as Rhea Suh, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council has suggested, then the U.S. will almost certainly fail to hold up its end of the bargain. And that will be bad news for the fragile progress that the world, after two decades of mis-starts, made in Paris.

Diablo has been one of the best in class reactors in the country and it’s being sacrificed on the alter of political correctness. If Californians find themselves sitting through routine brownouts when the grid can’t keep up with shifting demands, perhaps they will finally rethink these plans. Feel-good, granola snacking moments in the state legislature look great in campaign ads, but they don’t keep the lights turned on.


Jazz Shaw Jul 06, 2022 9:01 AM ET