An aerial view of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in southern San Luis Obispo County.
An aerial view of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in southern San Luis Obispo County.  (Joe Johnston / San Luis Obispo Tribune file photo)

Just three years before Diablo Canyon Power Plant is expected to close, California seems to be having second thoughts about shutting down the state’s last operating nuclear power plant.

Amid growing worries about how the state plans to keep the lights on once Diablo Canyon goes offline in 2025, The Los Angeles Times on Friday reported that Gov. Gavin Newsom is rethinking the state’s stance on the plant — and plans to seek a piece of the Biden administration’s $6 billion federal funding package geared toward rescuing nuclear reactors.

Diablo Canyon is the single largest producer of electricity in the state, generating roughly 6% of California’s power in 2021, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“The requirement is by May 19 to submit an application, or you miss the opportunity to draw down any federal funds if you want to extend the life of that plant,” Newsom told the Los Angeles Times editorial board. “We would be remiss not to put that on the table as an option.”

A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office later told the Times that Newsom “still wants to see the facility shut down long-term.”

The Governor’s Office did not immediately return a Tribune request for comment Friday morning.

Why is California Reconsidering Diablo Canyon Closure?

PG&E, which owns Diablo Canyon, announced plans to shutter the plant in 2016 once the licenses for its reactors expire in 2024 and 2025, as part of an agreement between labor unions, environmental groups and nuclear stakeholders. The California Public Utilities Commission approved the joint proposal in 2018.

The agreement came about as the utility company was weighing whether to pursue the costly re-licensing process for the plant’s two reactors.

But a study released in November claimed keeping Diablo Canyon running even 10 years beyond its expected closure date would help California meet its shifting energy needs.

The study, conducted by a group of researchers with the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) and Stanford, found that keeping the plant open would help the state meet “the increasing challenges of climate change by providing clean, safe and reliable electricity, water and hydrogen fuel for Californians.”

According to one of the study’s authors, Jacobo Buongiorno — a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT — the decision to close the state’s last remaining nuclear power plant was made at a time when California’s energy priorities were different.

“Things have changed,” Buongiorno said during a press conference after the study’s release. “There have been some new opportunities and new challenges.”

According to Buongiorno, in the years since the agreement was approved, California has set aggressive decarbonization goals that aim to transition the economy into one with significantly reduced carbon dioxide emissions. The state has also prioritized finding more clean, zero-carbon energy sources.

At the same time, Californians have been forced to deal with rolling brown-outs and the ongoing threat of wildfire as the state’s drought worsens, all issues that draw the stability of the state’s energy grid in a post-Diablo Canyon world into question, he said.

In recent months, a number of local officials have questioned whether closing Diablo Canyon is the best plan. Most recently, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors approved sending a letter to Newsom asking him to keep the plant open.

Numerous groups and activists have hosted rallies or pushed for the plant to stay open, including musician Grimes.

What Does PG&E Say About Push to Keep Power Plant Open?

News of Newsom’s intent to pursue Biden administration funding seems to have changed PG&E’s tune somewhat.

Prior to Friday, PG&E has consistently said it is committed to pursuing decommissioning of the plant, as approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, in spite of the strengthening push to keep it open.

On Friday, however, the company sounded much less firm on its commitment to closing the plant.

“PG&E is committed to California’s clean energy future,” spokeswoman Suzanne Hosn told The Tribune in an email. “The people of PG&E are proud of the role that Diablo Canyon Power Plant plays in our state. We are always open to considering all options to ensure continued safe, reliable, and clean energy delivery to our customers.”

Reaction to Gavin Newsom’s Plan

Soon after the Los Angeles Times story was published Friday, pro-nuclear environmental group Save Clean Energy released a statement praising the governor’s plan.

“To meet our clean energy goals and keep the lights on, this is the smart decision for Californians and the future of our planet,” Save Clean Energy executive director Isabelle Boemeke wrote in a news release. “We strongly commend the governor for his willingness to adapt as times change, and to make policy decisions based on science and the need to protect our planet for future generations. His decision will enable California to remain a global leader on climate change.”

Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu also commented on the announcement, saying Newsom was “making the right decision.”

“Diablo Canyon is integral to meeting California’s clean energy goals, and given the rate at which renewables are being deployed, taking the state’s largest producer of clean energy offline is guaranteed to result in increased emissions,” Chu said in the Save Clean Energy news release. “The UN (United Nations) is warning that we are heading towards climate catastrophe, and bold moves like this that are based in reality, rather than aspiration, are what it’s going to take to save our planet.”

State Sen. John Laird also released a statement on Newsom’s comments on Friday, noting the “hundreds of millions of dollars” and years of planning that have already gone into preparing for the plant to fully close in three years.

“The shuttering of Diablo Canyon has been years in the making, with hundreds of millions of dollars already committed for decommissioning,” Laird said in an emailed statement. “Along with the residents of the Central Coast, I am eager to see what the governor and federal officials have in mind.”

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