Viewpoints

Losing Diablo will be tough on SLO’s economy. Feds are looking at ways to help

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.

To date, 25 nuclear power plants have closed — or are scheduled to close in the near-term — in 16 states. 

Here in California, all but Diablo Canyon have closed prematurely, and with PG&E’s bankruptcy undetermined, there is no guarantee the plant will remain operational through its final licensed expiration in 2025. That news should alarm businesses and residents in San Luis Obispo County, for in spite of the short term fiscal reprieve granted by the passage of SB 1090, the county has yet to put a long-term plan for post-Diablo growth on the table. 

The good news is that we are not alone.

It was my privilege to have been invited to speak on behalf of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility (A4NR) at the first-ever, federal roundtable for developing best practices to support communities experiencing both tax and job loss from nuclear power plant closures. 

Held in the Washington, D.C., offices of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross two weeks ago, I, along with several other community representatives and staff from various federal agencies, engaged in a day-long dialog addressing the challenges and strategies that will be needed to successfully negotiate a transition to a post-nuclear power paradigm.

At the roundtable, I learned the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration and the Department of Energy had been tasked to provide a report to Congress on how federal agencies would provide resources for the economic impacts of the nation’s nuclear plant closures. 

While SLO County leaders have looked to Sacramento for aid, it becomes apparent that they can (and should) cast a wider net to the federal government for possible assistance. Congressman Salud Carbajal has taken the lead with proposed legislation to this end, but even without legislation, there may be grants and programs that can assist SLO County.

To start, representatives of seven federal agencies listened as the Mayor of Zion, Illinois, the Windham Regional Commission of Vermont, and A4NR related the financial challenges of job and tax losses, plummeting housing prices and attracting new investments tied with the uncertainty of removal of thousands of tons of radioactive waste sited in their communities.

We heard that the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development, as well as EPA and NRC, might be amenable to comparing the local impacts of nuclear power plant retirements to base closures or brownfields, and learned about  programs that could be available as nuclear plants close.

The topic of decommissioning was fairly new to many at the table, and the stories of hardships related by the local representatives raised some eyebrows. By the end of the day, I left with a feeling that although morale might be down at a federal level due to leadership changes and budget cuts, everyone now understood what communities were facing, and how those in our nation’s Capitol might help.

Among the examples presented, the Zion site (north of Chicago) has been fully decommissioned, but the surrounding area is economically depressed, not only from the lost jobs but also the businesses that depended on them. 

As Mayor Al Hill stated, no one is interested in investing in the lakefront property until the high-level radioactive waste is removed. Mayor Hill has worked with his representatives to propose legislation, using a little-explored clause in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 that might create economic payments to impacted communities.

Vermont’s main message was the lack of a national model for economic impact mitigation, and the need to be proactive regarding decommissioning, noting: “It is very important to share that information early and often with the plant, the public and with policymakers, even if they may not be particularly receptive of that information at first.” 

A4NR gave examples of California’s challenges due to the lack of trust and transparency regarding the bankruptcy of PG&E and the decommissioning mishaps at San Onofre that contribute to increasing ratepayer costs as the reactors are shutdown. 

We discussed the composition of utility selected community engagement panels, and the prospect of SAFSTOR (deferring decommissioning for as many as 60 years to allow radioactive contaminants to decay) versus full, prompt decommissioning. Both issues are currently the subjects of a new rulemaking by the NRC, and SAFSTOR still remains a possible option for Diablo Canyon.

One area of agreement among all participants was the need for the federal government to live up to its commitment of providing a final repository for high-level radioactive waste. With our reactors now all but closed, California can add its voice to the dozens of other states and sites in joint advocacy.

The next step is reaching out to the 67 nuclear power communities to provide a fuller picture of what is needed now and what may be needed at reactors retire. As the report is delivered and new information released, A4NR will post it on our website at www.a4nr.org

Rochelle Becker is executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.

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