California’s last nuclear power plant closes soon. New calls want Diablo Canyon open

SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY, Calif. (FOX26) — California’s last nuclear power plant is set to close in 2025.

What will that mean for the most populous state in the US, which is already struggling to provide power for its nearly 40 million residents? And how will it impact California’s goals of reaching carbon neutrality by 2045?

Diablo Canyon’s reactors generate enough electricity to provide power for 3 million Californians 24/7. That accounts for nearly 10% of the state’s total energy production, and around a fifth of its clean energy. It also produces all that at a much more affordable rate than PG&E’s average.

One of the reactors will be shut down in 2024; the second, a year later.

California is already struggling to provide enough energy for its residents.

A heat wave in 2020 led to repeated power interruptions, and that likely won’t be the last energy issue we see.

As Diablo Canyon’s closing date draws nearer, people are having second thoughts about the shut-down — arguing now might not be the time to reduce the amount of energy the state is producing.

Plus, nuclear power produces energy with no carbon emissions.

Jacob Buongiorno is a Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT and is the Director of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems. He and a team of scientists from MIT, Stanford, and a clean energy consulting firm teamed up to put together an assessment of Diablo.

The researchers suggested a desalination plant and hydrogen plant be added at the same site.

“There were no massive surprises because, as a nuclear energy expert, if you will, I know the value of nuclear power plants,” said Buongiorno. “So it was obvious to us that continuing to generate electricity for the grid was going to be good from an environmental point of you, from an economic point of view, and for the question of resilience and stability of the sector.”

Since that article, a slew of opinion pieces have come out, arguing for or against its closure.

Assemblymember Devon Mathis, who represents California’s 26th District, wrote one of them.

“We are to the point where the cost for de-sal is similar to the cost of a dam. If you can have a de-sal plant that’ll produce as much as Shasta Dam, that’s something we need to look at.”

Mathis says he’s the only Department of Energy graduate currently in the state legislature.

“Diablo Canyon can actually more than double – I believe it’s triple the size and build new reactors. There’s a pelletized nuclear technology that’s out there that’s been used in other countries. They’re still vetting to see if the silicon base is recyclable.”

Of course, there are plenty of people rooting for the plant’s closure.

Some say the place is dangerous. It sits near a fault line, in an area with a high risk for earthquakes.

There are also ecological concerns over the 2.5 billion gallons of seawater it circulates each day to cool the reactors, sometimes bringing in fish eggs and other organisms with it.

And, there’s the issue of water temperature. PG&E had to pay out nearly $6 million in 2020 after an investigation found the plant affected marine life by drawing that water in at a regular temperature and returning it much warmer.

“What we found in the course of our project is there is now a technical solution that really beautifully and elegantly takes care of this,” said Buongiorno.

The Public Utilities Commission would require $1 billion in improvements to extend its contract past 2025.

PG&E told FOX26,

“As a regulated utility, we are required to follow the energy policies of the state. The plan to retire Diablo Canyon Power Plant was introduced in 2016 and approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, the state legislature, and Governor Brown in 2018.”

In 2018, California Senate Bill 100 set a goal for the Golden State to reach Net Zero by 2045. That same year, an Executive Order from then-Governor Jerry Brown re-emphasized the goal to reach carbon neutrality. SB 1090 said that year that state regulators must “avoid any increase in emissions of greenhouse gases as a result of the retirement of the Diablo Canyon nuclear powerplant.”

The former governor declined to interview.

n April, the Biden administration announced a $6 billion fund to rescue nuclear power plants at risk of closing – the largest civil nuclear bailout program ever created.

Governor Gavin Newsom recently said he’d seek out some of that funding.

His team told FOX26,

The Governor does not have authority over Diablo Canyon’s license – independent state and federal agencies have that authority. The Governor is in support keeping all options on the table to ensure we have a reliable grid, especially as we head into a summer where CalISO expects California could have more demand than supply during the kind of extreme events that California has experienced over the past two summers. This includes considering an extension to Diablo Canyon which continues to be an important resource as we transition to clean energy. As for applying for federal funding, that is ultimately a decision for the plant operator.

In the long term, the Governor continued to support the closure of Diablo canyon as we transition to clean energy while ensuring the reliability of our energy grid

In response to Governor Newsom’s comments, PG&E told FOX26 News in a statement,

PG&E is committed to California’s clean energy future. The people of PG&E are proud of the role that Diablo Canyon Power Plant plays in our state. We are always open to considering all options to ensure continued safe, reliable, and clean energy delivery to our customers.

California Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm visited Southern California in April to talk about nuclear power and access to clean energy sources.

She said in a statement,

“We’re using every tool available to get this country powered by clean energy by 2035, and that includes prioritizing our existing nuclear fleet to allow for continued emissions-free electricity generation and economic stability for the communities leading this important work.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists is working on ideas for how to increase renewable energy production to make up for Diablo Canyon’s closure. Mark Specht is that Union’s Western States Energy Manager.

“California continues to invest in renewables like solar and wind. What’s happening now is there’s been huge investments in energy storage technologies, which will not only shift clean energy to other times of day, but also ensure grid reliability at the same time,” said Specht.

Former Energy Secretaries Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz have both said Diablo Canyon should stay operational for another decade or two so California can increase its low-emissions energy production before shuttering Diablo.

Specht says the Union of Concerned Scientists hasn’t weighed in on whether nuclear energy is good or bad, but it does agree California has some work to do in creating more renewables.

“The danger here and the reason why it’s important to focus on replacing Diablo Canyon with clean renewable energy and energy storage is because the alternative is, if the plant shuts down and we don’t have clean resources in place, it’s going to be gas power plants in California that just fire up to replace the plant,” said Specht.

So far, PG&E still plans to stop operations at Diablo Canyon in three years and have it completely decommissioned a decade later.

After a week straight of requests made by phone and email, PG&E declined to interview without explaining why.

Buongiorno and the rest of the scientists involved in the assessment of Diablo Canyon feel this is not an either/or situation.

“It’s not either you keep Diablo Canyon on or you deploy more renewables – solar and wind. There is, in a way, a somewhat historic opportunity here for California to actually accelerate toward cleaning up its energy system,” said Buongiorno. “People should think of Diablo Canyon as a multiplier – as an accelerator of that process. If you keep it on and in addition to that, you deploy more and more renewables, you’re going to get to those decarbonization targets much faster.”

Environmentalist groups are already raising concerns of what will happen then to the 14 miles of coastline where the power plant sits.

PG&E is asking for ideas from the public on what it should do with the facilities and land after Diablo Canyon closes. You can submit your ideas for that here.

The plant also employs 1,400 people. So far, FOX26 News hasn’t gotten any word on what will happen to those jobs once the place shuts down.