Newsom: California rethinking Diablo Canyon nuclear closure

With the threat of power shortages looming and the climate crisis deepening, Governor Gavin Newsom may try to delay the long-planned shutdown of California’s largest power source: Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.

Newsom told the LA Times editorial board on Thursday that the state would seek a $6 billion portion in federal funds to rescue nuclear reactors facing shutdowns, an amount that the government would not consider closing. Biden announced this month. Diablo Canyon owner Pacific Gas & Electric is preparing to close the plant – which generated 6% of the state’s electricity last year – by 2025.

“The requirement is to submit the application by May 19, or you will miss the opportunity to draw down federal funds if you want to prolong the life of that tree,” Newsom said. “We would be remiss not to put that on the table as an option.”

State officials can then decide whether to pursue that option, he said. And a spokesman for the governor clarified that Newsom still wants to see the facility closed permanently. It’s been six years since PG&E agreed to close a plant near San Luis Obispo, instead of investing in costly earthquake safety and environmental upgrades.

But Newsom’s willingness to consider a short-term amnesty reflects the political shift in nuclear power following decades of public outcry over famous disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, as well as the Cold War.

Nuclear plants are America’s largest source of climate-friendly electricity, generating 19% of the country’s electricity production last year. That number is roughly equal to solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric 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 the Golden State, with 37% opposed and 19% undecided – a changed significantly from the 1980s and 1990s.

The poll also found that 39% of voters oppose the closure of Diablo Canyon, with 33% in favor of the closure and 28% uncertain.

Pacific Gas & Electric's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in the distance

Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is California’s largest source of electricity.

(Michael A. Mariant / Associated Press)

Nuclear advocates say closing plants like Diablo would make it much harder to meet President Biden’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2035 and eliminate much of the heating emissions. planet by mid-century — essential to avert the worst effects of climate change, scientists say, including heatwaves, wildfires and more dangerous floods.

Nuclear plants can produce electricity around the clock. The incredible growth of lithium-ion battery storage has made it easier and cheaper for solar panels and wind turbines to do the same, but those renewables still play a much smaller role when it comes to energy. The sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, at least for now.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Commerce is considering tariffs on imported solar panels, which could hamper construction of the clean energy projects California is looking to to avoid power outages for several summers. coming, when Diablo and several gas-fired power plants closed. Newsom said in a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo this week that her department’s tariff investigation has delayed at least 4,350 megawatts of solar storage projects – double that capacity of Diablo Canyon.

He urged Raimondo to “take immediate action to resolve this issue as soon as possible.”

“This Commerce Department tariff issue is one of the biggest stories in the country,” Newsom told The Times editorial board. “Looking at the 250% tariff retroactively on everything that comes out of Malaysia or Vietnam and Taiwan, elsewhere – this is serious.”

The governor said he has been thinking about keeping Diablo open for longer since August 2020, when California’s main grid operator was forced to implement power cuts during a severe heatwave. Temperatures remained high after sunset, leaving insufficient electricity to keep air conditioners running humming after solar farms stopped producing.

Several hundred thousand homes and businesses lost power for two evenings, none of which lasted more than two and a half hours at a time, officials said. The state only avoided more power shortages during another heat storm a few weeks later, highlighting the fragility of the power grid undergoing a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Newsom spokesman Anthony York said the governor’s decision to review the timeline to close Diablo Canyon was in anticipation of potential power outages over the next few years. Those forecasts, he said, come from the California Independent Systems Operator, which oversees most of the state’s power grid.

Anne Gonzales, a spokeswoman for the grid operator, could not immediately provide forecasts. She said in an email that the agency supports “reviewing and exploring all options” for keeping the lights on, as doing so is made more difficult by climate impacts including heatwaves. harsher, more aggressive wildfires and reduced hydroelectricity supplies due to drought.

Newsom told the editor that a reliable power source is “extremely important.” He also admits that a growing number of scientists, activists and former US energy secretary have been pressing him to rescue Diablo for climate reasons.

“Some would say it was the sensible and right climate decision,” Newsom said.

Extending plant closures – PG&E is on track to close its first reactor in 2024 and second in 2025 – will not be easy even with funding from the Biden administration. . The Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission will need to quickly renew Diablo’s license to operate. Newsom suggests that some state agencies also need to get involved – as did the Legislature, which last year even refused to put up a committee vote on a bill designed to keep Diablo Canyon is open.

In order for Newsom to be able to prolong Diablo’s life, he also needs PG&E’s cooperation in applying for federal funds. The company pledged to close the plant by 2016, when it reached an agreement with environmental groups and its own workforce union to get out of the nuclear business – a decision that was ultimately decided. approved by regulators and legislators.

When asked if PG&E was willing to change course on Diablo, spokesman Lynsey Paulo said in an email that the company is “always ready to consider all options to ensure continued power delivery.” clean, safe and reliable for our customers.”

“PG&E is committed to California’s clean energy future, and as a regulated company we are bound to follow the state’s energy policies,” said Paulo.

Newsom said he’s asked PG&E to consider what will be needed to keep Diablo Canyon open longer, including the possible role of federal funds.

“Based on conversations we’ve had with PG&E, it’s not their happy place,” he said.

An aerial view of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

An aerial view of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

The company declined to comment on how federal funds could be used for Diablo’s benefit. State officials had previously told The Times that operating Diablo before 2025 would require billions of dollars in upgrades to comply with earthquake safety rules and environmental regulations governing its use sea ​​water to cool the power plant.

For Ralph Cavanagh — co-director of the clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and key architect of the 2016 Diablo Canyon closure agreement — applying for federal funds would be a chore.

Cavanagh said he understands that only certain types of power companies with specific economic challenges are eligible for nuclear funding, and PG&E is not one of them. The infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year – which sets aside money Newsom wants to seek – says the fund is only for nuclear plants that compete in a “competitive electricity market”, which Diablo Canyon does not.

York, a spokesman for Newsom, acknowledged in a text message that there are “some questions about whether Diablo is eligible for federal funds, and” PG&E will need to speak to “the Department of Energy.” federal authority for further clarification.

Cavanagh also said solar, storage and other clean energy sources could replace Diablo cheaply and reliably, as envisioned in the 2016 deal. For supply chain issues and tariffs have slowed solar and battery storage projects, he pointed out that both Diablo’s reactors will remain online through the summer of 2024, with the second reactor pulling until August 2025.

“We have time to get our arms around that,” he said.

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While the NRDC advocates keeping some nuclear plants operating in places where safety risks are lower, the technology’s harshest critics argue that nuclear is fundamentally unsafe. They consider Diablo Canyon particularly risky because it lies near several seismic fault lines along California’s Central Coast. Since the 1970s – then-Government. Jerry Brown opposes factory construction – Diablo has raised fears of an earthquake causing deadly radiation to spread across the state.

Nuclear waste is another concern. With no permanent underground storage for spent fuel, radioactive waste is piling up at power plants around the country, including the closed San Onofre facility along the way. along the coast in San Diego County.

Nuclear waste containers near the Pacific coast at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Nuclear waste containers near the Pacific coast at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Diablo Canyon rescue isn’t California’s only option to prevent power outages.

There are other steps the state can take – and in many cases are actively taking – to keep the lights on after sunset for the next few summers, such as adding batteries to the grid, paying for homes to use less energy and coordinate their electricity supplies more closely with other Western states. Long-term options include investing in offshore wind and geothermal energy.

Newsom told The Times editorial board he plans to announce a “recovery fund” in next month’s update to his annual budget proposal, to pay for projects that help avoid blackouts. in the next few years.

But the governor also thinks keeping Diablo Canyon around for at least a while longer is worth considering, despite the political backlash it could provoke. He points to modeling by the state’s Public Utilities Commission and Independent System Operator showing that worse heat waves – fueled by climate change – are making maintaining light a challenge. should be more difficult.

“We threw away the old book. We will watch for the worst case scenario,” he said. “We’re very awake.”

Nuclear support is a key climate priority for the Biden administration. But federal officials do not seem optimistic PG&E will apply for a share of the Department of Energy’s $6 billion nuclear bailout fund. During a visit to Southern California last week, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told reporters she was “not sure that the community [around] Diablo Canyon is still on board. ”

https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2022-04-29/california-promised-to-close-its-last-nuclear-plant-now-newsom-is-reconsidering Newsom: California rethinking Diablo Canyon nuclear closure

Edmund DeMarche

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