State commission renews Diablo Canyon’s cooling system lease to 2025

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant
Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

After a full day of public testimony in Sacramento and via telecast in Morro Bay, the California State Lands Commission on Tuesday extended a key lease for the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant — avoiding a plant shutdown in 2018 when the lease expires for the seawater intake and outflow structures that feed the facility’s cooling system.

The three-member commission, which consists of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Controller Betty Yee and state Finance Director Michael Cohen, voted unanimously to extend the lease to 2025 when plant owner PG&E intends to close Diablo Canyon.

The commission also voted not to require an environmental impact report before extending the lease — following a recommendation by commission staff that the report wasn’t needed because the license covers existing structures.

After hearing six hours of public testimony from dozens of speakers in Sacramento and Morro Bay, Newsom said his main concern was avoiding a sudden and unplanned shutdown of Diablo Canyon similar to the abrupt 2012 closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Clemente.

“Let’s not make the same mistake we did with San Onofre,” he said. “Let us not fail to plan.”

Yee said safety was her main concern, but having toured Diablo Canyon, she said she could see that safety was of paramount importance at the plant and saw no reason to shut down Diablo Canyon prematurely. Recognizing the concerns of speakers, she said, “These are not easy issues.”

PG&E announced last week that it will not seek renewal of the plant’s two operating licenses with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that would have allowed the plant to run until 2045. The agreement — reached with a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups — calls for Diablo Canyon to close when the licenses for its two reactors expire in 2024 and 2025.

At issue Tuesday were the two leases the State Lands Commission issued for the cooling water infrastructure in 1969 and 1970. One was for seawater intake and breakwaters; the other was for the plant’s water discharge channel. PG&E had applied to combine the two leases into one and renew it to 2025 to coincide with the shutdown date.

Diablo Canyon uses once-through cooling, which sucks seawater into the plant to condense steam from the plant’s electrical generators. The seawater is then discharged back into the ocean. The process kills some sea life, both as the water is sucked in and when water is discharged back into the sea about 20 degrees Fahrenheit higher than when it went into the plant.

The state Water Resources Control Board adopted a policy six years ago requiring all power plants in California to reduce environmental damage from their once-through cooling systems by more than 90 percent. Diablo Canyon was given a deadline of the end of 2024 to comply.

About 125 people attended Tuesday’s hearing via telecast at the Morro Bay Community Center, with many testifying in favor of the lease extension as a way to allow for an organized, well-executed nine-year move toward a final shutdown in 2025. Not renewing the lease could create economic havoc for San Luis Obispo County and put 1,500 people out of work, they said.

Some supporters wore black or green T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Keep Diablo Canyon Open.”

Opponents — many with hand-drawn signs of a skull and crossbones, a fish or a thermometer referring to the warm water the plant discharges into the ocean — pushed for the commission to do a full environmental impact report evaluating safety and ecosystem damage before deciding on a lease renewal. An environmental report could take several years to complete.

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill said PG&E’s plan to shut the plant down in 2025 when its licenses expire was “a responsible and thoughtful way forward.”

“Eight to nine years gives us time to replace the power,” he added.

Mary Webb of Cambria told the commission that the plant should be shut down as soon as possible and not in 2025.

“I am sorry, I don’t trust PG&E,” she said. “What assurances do we have that PG&E will do anything they say they will?”

Kristin Zaitz, a plant employee, told commissioners the plant has operated safely for 30 years and should be allowed to go to the end of its licenses.

“I am comfortable working at the plant and having my family live nearby,” she said.

PG&E Chief Nuclear Officer Ed Halpin has told The Tribune that a new state law requiring that half of a utility’s electricity come from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2030 was the main reason the utility decided to shut down the plant by 2025. Other factors were the growth of solar and wind production and the loss of customers because of community choice aggregation, which allows local jurisdictions to group power purchases to lower prices.

Dean Novotny, another plant employee, told The Tribune on Tuesday that he was disappointed PG&E decided not to renew the plant’s licenses.

“I believe that nuclear power should be considered as renewable,” he said.

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