California extends life of last nuclear plant by five years

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

It’s a bit hard to believe it has actually happened but just a few months after Gov. Newsom suggested that shutting down California’s last nuclear plant might be a bad idea. legislators have voted to extend its life by five years.

The Diablo Canyon plant – the state’s largest single source of electricity – had been slated to shutter by 2025. The last-minute proposal passed by the state legislature early Thursday could keep it open five years longer, in part by giving the plant’s owner, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), a $1.4 billion forgivable loan.

California, like other U.S. states and countries, has been struggling to reduce its climate-warming emissions while adapting to a rapidly warming world. Record-breaking heat waves have stressed the state’s increasingly carbon-free electrical grid in recent years, triggering rolling blackouts as recently as 2020. Grid operators, fearing a similar crash, issued a statewide alert to conserve energy last month.

The state has set the goal of getting 100 percent of its electricity from clean and renewable sources by 2045. Advocates for Diablo Canyon claim that target will be difficult to achieve without the 2,250 megawatt nuclear power plant. Diablo Canyon generated nearly 9 percent of the state’s electricity last year and roughly 15 percent of the state’s clean energy production.

Major opposition to the plant comes from environmentalists who worry that a strong earthquake could lead to a meltdown. Opponents note that the plant is built near four different fault lines. But just yesterday the San Francisco Chronicle published an opinion piece by an engineer who specialized is earthquake risk management. He argued the plant is safe.

For the past 50 years I have worked in earthquake engineering and earthquake risk management, participating in hundreds of earthquake risk management projects, including nuclear power plants around the world. As a young engineer, I worked on the original seismic design for the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in the late 1970s. My interest in Diablo Canyon is also personal. For the past 10 years my elder son and family have lived and worked in the area. I supported their move, and helped talk them through their initial fears over living in proximity to the San Luis Obispo County plant. For me, deciding the future of Diablo Canyon is not an academic exercise. I need to have a high degree of confidence that my family is safe if the plant is allowed to continue operation.

And I do have that high of a degree of confidence in the safety of Diablo Canyon.

In fact, I believe that the Diablo Canyon plant is one of the best designed (likely over-designed) nuclear plants in the world — particularly for earthquake safety. It should continue to operate as long as possible…

Following Fukushima, America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducted a nine-year study of Diablo Canyon and found it capable of withstanding the strongest and rarest earthquakes possible at the site. Earlier this year, I co-signed a letter to Gov. Newsom along with other structural engineers, concluding that Diablo Canyon “does not pose a seismic danger, and thus the seismic issue should be taken off the table.”

The effort to turn the tide on the future of nuclear power in California started several years ago. At the time that effort was not very well regarded.

…the most vehement arguments to keep Diablo Canyon running haven’t come the nuclear industry. Instead, they have been put forward by a most unlikely collection of pro-nuclear advocates.

It seemed quixotic, even hopeless, in 2016, when Shellenberger along with the pioneering climate scientist James Hansen and Stewart Brand, founder of the crunchy Whole Earth Catalog, began advocating to save Diablo Canyon.

“We were basically excluded from polite conversation for even talking about keeping the plant open,” recalled Shellenberger. Promoting nuclear as an important tool in fighting climate change would get him dismissed by fellow environmentalists as a conspiracy theorist or, falsely, as a corporate shill, he added.

Today, Shellenberger celebrated the five year extension on Twitter:

It really does feel like there has been a turning point in this debate, not just here in California but even in Germany. Of course saving existing plants is one thing and building new ones is something else entirely. We’ll have to wait and see how far California is willing to go.

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