Gov. Newsom: Maybe it was a mistake to shut down California's last nuclear plant

(Joe Johnston/The Tribune (of San Luis Obispo)

You may not remember it, especially if you don’t live here in California, but the state had rolling blackouts back in 2020. The culprit was a heat wave which meant lots of people were using air conditioners to keep indoor temperatures under control. And as the sun went down and the state’s solar power supplies dried up, there weren’t enough back up supplies to replace it.

After that debacle California regulators decided to let some existing natural gas power plants stay open a few extra years. But the state had already decided several years earlier to shut down the last remaining nuclear plants which would cease to operate when their current licenses expired rather than try to extend those licenses.

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.

But the state’s need for power hasn’t gone away and today the LA Times reports that Gov. Newsom is having second thoughts about shuttering Diablo Canyon.

Newsom told the L.A. Times editorial board Thursday that the state would seek out a share of $6 billion in federal funds meant to rescue nuclear reactors facing closure, money the Biden administration announced this month. Diablo Canyon owner Pacific Gas & Electric is preparing to shutter the plant — which generated 6% of the state’s power last year — by 2025…

Nuclear plants are America’s largest source of climate-friendly power, generating 19% of the country’s electricity last year. That’s almost as much as solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower dams and all other zero-carbon energy sources combined.

A recent UC Berkeley poll co-sponsored by The Times found that 44% of California voters support building more nuclear reactors in in the Golden State, with 37% opposed and 19% undecided — a significant change from the 1980s and 1990s.

The poll also found that 39% of voters oppose shutting down Diablo Canyon, with 33% supporting closure and 28% unsure.

So the polls have shifted and now Gov. Newsom is shifting with them toward a position that makes a lot more sense. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the state will be able to keep the two Diablo Canyon plants open.

For Newsom to extend Diablo’s life, he would also need PG&E’s cooperation in applying for federal funds. The company committed to closing the plant in 2016, when it struck a deal with environmental groups and its own union workforce to get out of the nuclear business — a decision that was eventually endorsed by regulators and lawmakers…

State officials have previously told The Times that operating Diablo past 2025 would require billions of dollars of upgrades to comply with earthquake safety rules, and with environmental regulations governing the use of ocean water for power-plant cooling.

To Ralph Cavanagh — co-director of the clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and a key architect of the 2016 deal to shut down Diablo Canyon — applying for federal funds would be a fool’s errand.

So there you have it. To keep the plants operating past 2025, PG&E would need to spend billions on environmental upgrades. The Biden administration is offering some money but the environmentalists groups who negotiated the shutdown back in 2016 aren’t going to budge and will make it as expensive as possible for the state to even try to extend their operation.

I guess the bottom line is that Newsom, who can read the polls, will get some credit for taking a reasonable position even though he likely knows there’s no chance anything will change. Maybe he’ll be able to point to this story the next time we have a blackout in California as the sun is going down.