Diablo Canyon employees have time to mull options

With 2025 in mind, Diablo Canyon workers talk about their future

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant employees have eight years to decide whether they want to stay in SLO County or move to another plant after it was announced that Diablo Canyon would close in 2025.
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Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant employees have eight years to decide whether they want to stay in SLO County or move to another plant after it was announced that Diablo Canyon would close in 2025.

Sadness and uncertainty are the two main emotions felt among the nearly 1,500 employees at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant since it was announced nearly two weeks ago that the plant will shut down in 2025.

Many are not sure whether they will be able to continue to work for the utility during the plant’s decommissioning phase, which could last decades, or if they will be forced to find new jobs — either local jobs outside the nuclear industry or jobs at other nuclear plants in the nation.

“Diablo Canyon has been an integral part of our community,” said Albert Contreras, a radiation protection worker at the plant and one of the few employees contacted by The Tribune who was willing to talk on the record. “To know that it is going away or is coming to an end is sad.”

Plant owner PG&E is offering annual bonuses in an effort to retain employees for the remaining eight years of the plant’s scheduled operation, spokesman Blair Jones said.

The utility is offering all employees, both union and nonunion, annual bonuses amounting to a quarter of their base pay if they agree to remain working at the plant. The bonuses are offered in two multiyear packages: the next four years and then the following three years.

In 2014, the average salary at Diablo Canyon was $157,000. Using that figure, the average annual bonus would be $39,250. The bonuses would be paid annually.

It is vital that the plant retain as many of its employees as possible until 2025, and it is important to recognize their service, PG&E said in its agreement to close the plant in 2025.

“PG&E and all of California have benefited from a well-trained, highly skilled and dedicated workforce at Diablo Canyon for its 31 years of operation,” the agreement states. “It is critical to retain these highly qualified personnel at Diablo Canyon during the remaining years of operation.”

The utility also announced that it will offer retraining for employees to help them transition to either the decommissioning phase or other jobs within the company. PG&E employs some 20,000 people in its service area of Central and Northern California.

In decommissioning, the reactors are shut down and the reactor fuel is transferred to cooling pools where it will remain for at least five years before being transferred to dry casks. The plant will gradually be dismantled over decades. Some of the existing buildings could be converted to other uses.

The retention and retraining programs are expected to cost PG&E ratepayers about $350 million. The programs must be approved by the state Public Utilities Commission, which could happen this year. These programs will begin before the plant closes, but the details have not been worked out.

Those employees who are not retained will be offered a severance package. For union employees, it will consist of four weeks’ pay plus two weeks’ pay for each year of service and a $5,000 lump sum. Nonunion employees will receive three weeks’ pay for each year of employment and a $9,000 lump sum.

On June 21, PG&E announced that it will not seek license renewal for the plant, which would have allowed it to operate until 2045. The state’s shift to a majority of renewable power by 2030 was cited as the main reason for the decision. Nuclear power is not considered renewable.

The closure agreement was reached with a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups.

The announcement left many employees wondering about their futures.

“People are getting really stressed out,” said Heather Matteson, a reactor operations procedures writer at the plant. “They don’t have enough information to make a decision right now.”

The plant will continue to operate at full power until 2024, when the first operating license will expire. This gives employees time to plan their future, said Kristin Zaitz, a civil engineer who works on the plant’s seismic issues.

“It’s a little too early to say what I am going to do,” she said. “It’s great that employees get time to plan, but it’s sad that so many people are going to have to move away.”

Both Matteson and Zaitz are members of a group of plant employees called Mothers for Nuclear who are lobbying PG&E as well as state regulators and legislators to keep the plant running past 2025.

Jon Jensen, a reactor operator at the plant, knows he will find a job at another plant. He is willing to move anywhere to find a job, even overseas to someplace like Russia or China, he said.

“I got into nuclear power because I am an environmentalist,” Jensen said. “Diablo Canyon may be closing down locally, but nuclear is going to be the answer to climate change worldwide.”

Matteson said she plans to work at the plant for as long as possible. She has extended family in the area and the fact that she worked as a reactor operator for 11 years means PG&E will likely need her skills until the plant’s closure.

“Either you choose to stick it out or not,” she said. “I’m staying in San Luis Obispo.”

Plant employees expressed a love for the Central Coast, its scenic beauty and mild weather as the main reason they would prefer to stay in the area.

“This is the best place on the planet,” Jensen said. “It’s too bad California’s energy policy is forcing a great thing out.”

Both Zaitz and Contreras said they are optimistic that they can remain employed at the plant while it goes through its $3.8 billion decommissioning. The plant’s dry cask storage facility for highly radioactive spent reactor fuel will also remain onsite for the foreseeable future.

“I could be needed in the decommissioning phase,” Zaitz said. “I am just not sure what the future holds for me and my family.”

Matteson said she is not sure she wants to be a part of the decommissioning process because of the emotional pain the closure is causing employees.

“I have eight years to think about that,” she said.