The ‘Diablo’ is in the details

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is slated to close in 2025.
Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is slated to close in 2025.

With the future of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. uncertain due to litigation related to the state’s deadly and destructive wildfires, I’m frequently asked how this could affect us locally.

The truth is we do not yet know, but there is certainly more to it than we have been discussing publicly.

The tenuous situation of San Luis Obispo County’s largest private employer should concern us for a few critical reasons.

One concern, which continues to grow, is whether the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant will indeed operate until its licenses expire in 2024 and 2025.

An equally important question is when and how decommissioning will occur.

Another factor that has crept into the picture is this: PG&E could sell the decommissioning plant and its lands to another entity. Bankruptcy, which is being explored, would obviously increase the likelihood of this occurring, but it could also occur simply because PG&E would like to be relieved of the liability.

As more aging nuke plants are scheduled to go offline in the country, we’ve begun to see sales of these plants for accelerated decommissioning. Outsourcing of this difficult and costly task is not new, with the transfers of licenses needing approval by a federal agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the transfer of the decommissioning trust funds needing state approval by the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC).

A sale of this kind has not been seriously contemplated locally. Thus, it has not entered into any of the many discussions over the past few years about the closing nuclear plant. But we need to not only look at how this could occur, but also develop a strong and detailed advocacy position on what we want.

Essentially, a company such as Holtec International, an energy technology firm, agrees to buy and decommission plants with the promise that it will be done sooner, with site remediation also carried out more quickly. All that sounds good and the process would still require NRC oversight and monitoring.

But here are in our community, trust for how Diablo Canyon Power Plant operates has obviously been well and long established with PG&E — not an outside firm driven by profits to do the job more cheaply than PG&E.

Additionally and crucially, one of the ways PG&E has earned so much trust and goodwill in our community is obvious: Their employees live here, spend here, pay taxes here, raise their families here. PG&E pays very well and employs skilled labor through our local unions. A sale of the plant would not guarantee the decommissioning would be carried out by our local workers unless, of course, we demand it.

That should be the key component of our advocacy platform, and the county has the leverage to make it happen.

Finally, while the Decommissioning Engagement Panel set up and run by PG&E has been and continues to be a very useful endeavor, I am also sympathetic to a dissenting opinion offered by panel member Alex Karlin, a retired administrative judge for the NRC. Judge Karlin suggests the process serves the interests of the company far more than those of the community, and that is true as far as our immediate interests are concerned.

One area that has been boldly underscored by the panel, with smart and serious input from the public, is the future use of the lands, and that, too, must be a crucial element of the advocacy position formed and taken by the county.

While a sale of any kind might not occur, it wasn’t so long ago when the relicensing of Diablo Canyon and its continued operation were taken for granted.

Since the startling news of the joint agreement to close, our community has worked hard with the critical help of Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham and Sen. Bill Monning to mitigate the loss of tax revenue that will occur. There is still much more to do to ensure a decommissioning that will also lessen the sting of the plant’s loss.

We must be specific in our concerns and demands that decommissioning be carried out as safely as possible and in a manner that minimizes the inevitable disruptions that will occur (think: thousands of truck trips through Avila Beach).

We must also be clear that we expect decommissioning to start promptly and draw largely from our local workforce.

And, we must delineate a strong position about the future use of the lands that have been identified as serving the greater public interest, both for conservation and public access, and for reuse and repurposing in ways that could be the focus of future economic development.

Supervisor Adam Hill represents the 3rd District on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.