How communities adjust to nuclear power plant closures
A Central Coast legislator and two pro-nuclear groups are taking an unusual step to keep Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant operating: They want an amendment to the state Constitution classifying nuclear power as a renewable energy source.
Then, with the plant’s production able to count toward California’s target for renewables, the hope is that someone would acquire it through PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings and continue to run it for another 20 years.
The effort’s a long shot, however, in a state controlled by Democrats more interested in investing in solar, wind, and geothermal energy, and with the plant facing significant relicensing hurdles.
Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, announced Wednesday that he filed a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit the Legislature from discriminating against any form of renewable or zero-carbon energy as part of California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard, qualifying nuclear as a source of renewable energy.
The operating licenses for Diablo Canyon’s two reactors expire in 2024 and 2025 respectfully, and the plant is slated for closure in 2026.
Logistical issues aside, Cunningham says qualifying the plant as a generator of renewable energy could allow the plant to operate up to 2045.
In June 2016, PG&E abandoned its efforts to relicense the plant’s reactors, citing among other factors the state’s renewable energy policy.
Reached by email Wednesday, Suzanne Hosn, spokeswoman for PG&E, declined to comment on the specifics of the legislation until the utility has reviewed it.
“PG&E is deeply committed to helping the state reach its clean energy goals in a way that manages costs for our customers, ensures electric reliability and gas safety that they expect and deserve, and creates a model program for others to follow,” Hosn wrote. “The Diablo Canyon joint proposal represented a significant milestone in planning to meet California’s bold clean energy vision and PG&E will continue to focus on safely running Diablo Canyon to the end of its current licenses.”
Though Diablo Canyon is currently under the control of PG&E’s trustee in its ongoing bankruptcy case, Cunningham says the reclassification could make the facility an asset worth up to $3.6 billion — according to calculations by his office — either for PG&E or outside investors interested in buying it.
“You’d suddenly make it a pretty valuable asset,” Cunningham said by phone Wednesday. “There’s a lot of money out there to buy assets that have such a high value.”
A difficult process
The first challenge in the process is simply getting a constitutional amendment passed. That requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Assembly and state Senate (to avoid a signature-gathering process) before a ballot initiative could be sent to voters.
“I’m not going to argue it’s not a long shot,” Cunningham said. “But we can’t make a serious dent in slowing the warming trend in the world without an investment in nuclear power.”
Cunningham said the shuttering of Diablo Canyon will cause a loss of 9% to 10% of California’s electric capacity, making it difficult if not impossible for the state to meet its mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2030.
If the state’s grid is unable to handle demand, it draws energy from other states, which may use natural gas sources, Cunningham said.
“That’s dirty power, and it’s expensive,” Cunningham said.
Though Cunningham concedes that nuclear energy production is not 100 percent carbon-free, he said it leaves a relatively small carbon footprint, and other renewable energies, such as wind and solar, will not be enough to meet the state’s energy demands.
“We’ve got a bad situation coming,” he said.
Also, anyone who may take over the facility will have to begin a lengthy relicensing process with the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, not to mention secure approval from state and local agencies for the plant’s continued operation.
“There’s been nothing to suggest that this is impossible,” Cunningham said.
County Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district includes the plant, said it’s difficult to foresee how an amendment will play out in Sacramento, but he said he’s grateful for Cunningham’s support of efforts to reduce emissions.
“I know he’s sincere about climate change and lessening the impact (Diablo’s) closure would have on the community,” Hill said. “I think for everybody who’s concerned, these are legitimate conversations.”
‘Lipstick on a pig’
But David Weisman, spokesman for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, which has called for the early closure of Diablo Canyon, likened the proposed amendment to a recent taxpayer bailout of Ohio’s two remaining nuclear reactors.
Saying that PG&E customers already pay among the highest rates in the country, Weisman said subsidies placed on the nuclear industry in other states have passed on extra costs to ratepayers.
“Ratepayers are already on the hook for a portion of billions of dollars in losses caused by PG&E’s negligence in Northern California,” Weisman said, referring to the utility’s liability for allegedly causing recent wildfires. “PG&E doesn’t want this plant.”
John Geesman, attorney for the Alliance, said the Diablo Canyon proposal will likely draw attention to the magnitude of Diablo’s above-market costs.
“This is an obvious attempt to put lipstick on a pig in hopes of attracting a purchaser of the asset in bankruptcy,” Geesman wrote in an email.
Should the amendment pass the Legislature, Cunningham said it’s too soon to tell if voters would be able to decide on the matter by the 2020 election.
“Somebody out there for our state and our nation needs to be driving the conversation of whether its realistic to reach these (emissions and energy) goals without keeping nuclear power,” he said. “We need an all-of-the-above approach.”