Column: One side has the better argument on Diablo Canyon

Should California extend the life of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant?

When I visited the Central Coast, I heard a resounding yes.

And a resounding no.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s last-minute push for legislation has some people cheering, while others derisively refer to him as Gov. Nukesome.

It’s almost as if we turned back the clock as the controversial plant was about to open and thousands protested. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember a group called the Abalone Alliance that shook fist and tied up rocker Jackson Browne in 1981.

The recent meltdown, if you’ll forgive me the deadline, comes as Newsom is trying to speed up legislation near the end of the legislature that would extend the life of the nuclear plant to 2035, if not beyond, despite a longstanding agreement around 2025 turn off the lights. Newsom would also forgo environmental audits and dangle $1.5 billion in taxpayers’ money for plant operator PG&E.

So what’s up?

The working explanation for the governor’s change of heart is his administration’s claim that we don’t have enough wind and solar power to keep the lights on during peak periods, so it pays to keep Diablo Canyon open. Mostly because, unlike dirty natural gas, which provides half of the state’s energy supply, nuclear power is clean.

If it has crossed your mind that politics might be involved, you are not alone. Both supporters and enemies I spoke to noted that at the time, Lt. Governor Newsom was anti-Diablo in 2016 when he was eyeing a run for governor, and he’s pro-Diablo now when he might be eyeing a run for president — an ambition that could be torpedoed by blackouts.

But politics aside, the stakes are high, especially in San Luis Obispo County. PG&E employs more than 1,000 people at Diablo Canyon, and a poll earlier this year found nearly 75% in the county and more than 50% in the state support keeping Diablo Canyon open.

However, passions are hot on both sides, and have been for years.

They have Mothers for Peace and Mothers for Nuclear, both sides claiming the mantle of environmentalism. You have the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility and Californians for Green Nuclear Energy. Professors, academics and policy experts in and around the Central Coast are also divided.

Let me start with the people who want to keep Diablo Canyon running. Their basic argument is that it is insane to close a zero-carbon facility that has operated without major incident since it opened in the mid-1980s, as we suffer the consequences of burning fossil fuels to power our vehicles and polluting energy facilities.

“This is an extremely safe plant, and it’s mature,” biophysicist Gene Nelson, a former college professor, told me over breakfast at the Madonna Inn. He wore a green headband and Californians for Green Nuclear Power t-shirt. “If the Big One hits,” Nelson said, “I’d love to be at that plant when it happens because it’s the safest place in San Luis Obispo County.”

Biophysicist Gene Nelson of Californians for Green Nuclear Power.

Biophysicist Gene Nelson of Californians for Green Nuclear Power. “This is an extremely safe facility, and it’s technologically advanced,” he says of Diablo Canyon.

(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

Others disagree on this, but Nelson barely took a breath and barely touched his French toast while arguing that what Diablo Canyon safely produces is clean, reliable, and cheap (the last point is open to debate). Contrast that with polluting crops across the state, he said, and it’s not a competition.

“Wind and sun have a secret friend, and that’s natural gas,” Nelson likes to say. What he means is that there isn’t enough wind and solar power, which have their own environmental impacts, to shut down dirty power plants now and soon.

After breakfast I met Kristin Zaitz and Heather Hoff from Mothers for Nuclear in Avila for coffee. They both work in Diablo Canyon (Zaitz is a civil engineer and Hoff writes procedural guidelines), and each of them was once very suspicious of nuclear power.

“I wanted to go in there and be the Erin Brockovich of nuclear energy,” said Hoff, who wanted to expose the dangers of Diablo Canyon just as Brockovich highlighted the dangers of contaminated groundwater near a PG&E facility in the Barstow area.

Kristin Zaitz, left, and Heather Hoff of Mothers for Nuclear in Avila Beach, near Diablo Canyon.

Kristin Zaitz, left, and Heather Hoff of Mothers for Nuclear in Avila Beach, near Diablo Canyon. Each of them was once highly suspicious of nuclear power.

(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

But after they got through the door, Hoff and Zaitz were turned around. They concluded that they had embraced unwarranted fears and misconceptions about nuclear power, and they came to believe that if one cares about climate change, one cannot disagree with nuclear power.

Hoff’s electric car has a bumper sticker that says “Split Don’t Emit!”. (split as if into atoms) — and both she and Zaitz have tried to calm public fears.

Zaitz said nuclear power met both her “environmental and humanitarian” concerns and she couldn’t understand why there wasn’t more outrage about the pollution and diseases caused by dirty power plants.

She and other Diablo Canyon supporters have been buoyed by President Biden’s billion-dollar offer to keep nuclear plants open longer as part of a sweeping plan to cut carbon emissions. And their arguments are, to a certain extent, persuasive.

But the opponents put forward stronger arguments, in my opinion.

The Diablo Canyon facility is located on and near several earthquake faults, not all of which were adequately accounted for when the facility opened. It sucks in millions of gallons of seawater every day for cooling and spews out warmer water, killing some fish and altering the marine environment.

And then there’s the possibility of a Chernobyl- or Fukushima-type disaster, along with the unanswered question of where to safely store nuclear waste.

“Accidents don’t happen often, but when they do, they’re catastrophic,” said Linda Seeley, who is with Mothers for Peace and a member of the decommissioning panel that spent several years planning the exit.

Seeley told me she was accused of being a “fearful cat,” and she pleads guilty to the charge.

“We understand the danger of nuclear waste and the fact that you can’t put it anywhere,” she said.

Anti-nuclear activist Rochelle Becker (left) and conservationist Kara Woodruff hike the Point Buchon Trail near Diablo Canyon.

Anti-nuclear activist Rochelle Becker (left) and conservationist Kara Woodruff hike the Point Buchon Trail near Diablo Canyon.

(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

It’s not just a matter of nuclear or non-nuclear, Rochelle Becker, director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, told me as we walked a breathtakingly beautiful coastal trail near Diablo Canyon. The question arises as to whether it makes sense to reverse so blatantly after years of planning a closure agreed in 2016.

And who was involved in this deal six years ago to initiate the exit?

All interested parties, basically including PG&E, the main union, the legislature and the then Lt. Governor Newsom. In fact, Diablo Canyon employees received a 25% raise in anticipation of changing jobs after the shutdown.

Six years later, it’s not even clear that PG&E intends to keep Diablo Canyon open, though it might be hard to resist the big taxpayer handout Newsom is churning out. Some lawmakers have considered introducing a competing bill that emphasizes renewable energy over nuclear, but it wasn’t clear that that would get anywhere.

“I just can’t quite get it,” said Becker, who predicts that maintaining an aging facility could result in ever-increasing costs that taxpayers and taxpayers are left with.

During our walk, Becker referred to PG&E as a criminal more than once. The company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter two years ago for starting the fatal campfire.

And yet, Becker said, despite the utility’s checkered past, the governor’s proposal would remove environmental audits. She and others are angry that Newsom used a legislative process that left little time for discussion and scrutiny.

“Basically,” said Andrew Christie of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, “it looks like someone’s trying to push through a bill as soon as possible.”

Indeed, a Senate committee hearing on the governor’s proposal was held Thursday afternoon. But when I heard it, I felt like months of important energy policy and public cost issues had been crammed into a criminally short time.

It took lawmakers about three hours to interview a Newsom employee. Public comments shared like those I heard during my visit lasted an additional hour. And I haven’t heard any compelling evidence that the state power grid will still need Diablo Canyon in 2025. The next day, as the legislature clock ticked, the assembly sped through its own hearing, one rush job after another.

If the governor and lawmakers had moved to bringing more renewable energy sources online with this urgency, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

“When you say you’re going to pour billions of taxpayer dollars … to keep this plant running, you’re telling the people who want to build efficient renewable energy not to bother,” said Amory Lovins, Stanford -Professor of Civil and Environmental Sciences Engineering.

By the way, regardless of whether the expansion is approved by Newsom or not, Diablo Canyon will be open for three more years. This gives us time to accelerate the inevitable shift to the energy of the future instead of investing in the energy of the past. Column: One side has the better argument on Diablo Canyon

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