One year ago this week, San Luis Obispo awoke to a headline in The Tribune that was half-a-century in the making. Disappointing to many, welcomed by others, it nonetheless came as a shock to read the words “PG&E agrees to close Diablo Canyon in 2025.”
For many, the PG&E announcement was anti-climatic. State agencies had been reviewing energy policy for over a decade. Permits for Diablo’s ongoing operation for issues involving land and water usage and seismic concerns were going to pose major stumbling blocks for relicensing, with increased expenses to ratepayers.
In the four years preceding last June’s Tribune headline, there had been half-a-dozen premature nuclear plant closings nationwide. California’s Legislature and oversight agencies had been shocked by the sudden failure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and its impacts on grid reliability. Agencies and regulators charged with planning the state’s energy future began to question the need to rely on Diablo Canyon’s output beyond its current license. As well, economic analysis brought to light during PG&E’s General Rate Case at the California Public Utilities Commission cast doubt on the fiscal prudence of extended operations.
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As part of the current joint proposal to retire Diablo Canyon (a proposal which the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility — A4NR — was an original signatory), and with community input, the Diablo closing contains negotiated benefits for San Luis Obispo as the host community.
Since last June, there have been thousands of pages of legal documents filed and weeks of hearings and meetings regarding the proposal to close Diablo — all conducted in a transparent and collegial manner. Some groups interested in ironing out their specific differences within the overall proposal (thus saving time and expenses) have placed these individual settlement agreements before the CPUC. In one such case, A4NR spearheaded a settlement among ratepayer advocates that would save customers from paying a substantial portion of PG&E’s abandoned NRC license renewal costs. Those who disagreed with these proposals were free to explain their opposition in testimony and briefs.
Issues as diverse as employee and community protection, fair rates, replacement power and environmental impacts have been addressed by local and statewide experts. San Luis Obispo County, cities, coastal schools, local ratepayer advocates, environmentalists and unions have had their voices heard.
Most importantly, this retirement was the decision of the utility itself, based on PG&E’s analysis of future energy needs, impending trends in political policy and economic markets. We are no longer living in 1967, and it has simply become time to start creating the world of 2067.
PG&E clearly sees this new energy future, and along with the joint parties presented California with a groundbreaking approach to nuclear plant closure. Unlike the previous closures, the joint proposal requests funding that will maintain a level of payments to SLO County supporting schools and vital safety and infrastructure needs for the remaining years of the plant operation.
In response to the requests of smaller municipalities, the proposal includes funds for local development preparations as well as support for a broader countywide economic redevelopment grant program. To address some of the safety concerns, the proposal seeks to ensure that the workers at the plant are compensated in a manner that will hopefully keep them engaged and pro-active during these waning years of service, when vigilance is most critical.
A key nationwide precedent in the joint proposal, and one which A4NR initiated and advocated, would be PG&E’s agreement to maintain ongoing support for the San Luis Obispo County Office of Emergency Services to maintain readiness and the emergency alert siren system through the entire decommissioning process.
Given that waste transfer operations and other potential sources of a release or incident could occur in the ensuing years, this is an important safeguard.
One thing is certain: Diablo will close no later than 2025. If the joint proposal is approved by the CPUC, should PG&E close Diablo sooner, the community benefits entrenched in the agreement will remain in place. That is key.
San Luis Obispo County and its residents should be proud of participating in this precedent-setting approach to nuclear plant closures. Much like the military base closures that rocked communities in the 1980s and 1990s, these paradigm shifts are greeted first with shock and later with acceptance.
Shock was the word of the day a year ago. Today, as the joint proposal awaits reconciliation at the CPUC, a potentially polarized SLO seems to be finding its footing and preparing for a new future. Opportunity awaits us.
Rochelle Becker is the executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.