Pacific Gas & Electric recently filed a proposal to close the last remaining nuclear power plant in the state: the Diablo Canyon power plant near San Luis Obispo, which has operated since the early 1970’s. In a surprise move, PG&E joined with several longtime adversaries – environmentalists and anti-nuclear groups -- to craft a plan to replace Diablo Canyon’s electricity with renewable solar and wind power within the next decade.
Clean energy advocates who oppose the sunsetting of nuclear power maintain that nuclear power, which generates the most electricity without harmful carbon emissions, is our best weapon against climate change. Others have pointed out that closing Diablo Canyon will result in increased costs to taxpayers in order to make up the difference in the state’s energy requirements.
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The announcement is “quite a big deal,” says David Baker, who covers energy for The San Francisco Chronicle. To give a sense of the plant’s importance to the state, Baker reports that last year, Diablo Canyon provided more than nine percent of all the electricity that was generated within California's borders; “all of that coming out of this one plant.
“So it was a bit of a bombshell.”
In a statement, PG&E’s legal counsel Bill Manheim wrote that the decision “was driven by the reality that we no longer need by 2030 the output of Diablo Canyon, and that from a policy perspective and from an economic perspective, it was better to replace the portion that is needed for our customers with energy efficiency and renewables.”
Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress, took issue with the company’s decision, maintaining that it will result in California’s increased dependence on natural gas. And he has harsh words for those in the environmental movement who have supported it.
“I really think it’s really a testament to how far lost the environmental movement is that so many of these groups have signed off on this deal that would increase methane leaks, increase carbon pollution,” Shellenberger says. “So what we’re looking at is a big increase in carbon emissions, big increases in electricity prices -- and really I have to say, just the corruption of a basic positive vision that California has had as an environmental and climate leader.”
Dian Grueneich, formerly of the Public Utilities Commission, finds California’s current energy situation “about the most interesting one we've ever tackled or been faced with.” She notes that, even though the announcement may seem sudden, the state actually has seven years to plan for replacement power.
“Our number one priority in California is energy efficiency,” says Grueneich, noting that the state has doubled down on its investment in that area. “And so yes, our loads are declining…overall, we use less energy” than we have in past years. She notes that in the future, large-scale plants such as Diablo Canyon may not be needed.
Baker agrees, with the caveat that although the need for energy may not shrink, it’s not expected to grow much either. Grid operators predict that in ten years, we’ll have “about the same electricity demand in the state that we have right now, but with a much higher percentage of solar, bit higher percentage of wind. And a lot of fast ramping natural gas plants that can move up and down as the rest of the system needs it.
“A big plant like Diablo, which was designed to go up to full power and just stay there day and night, is kind of a tough fit for all of that.”
The cost of decommissioning the plant has been estimated at $38 billion, adds Baker. Who pays? We do. “We have already, all of us in this room, been paying into that fund,” he explains; taxpayers have been contributing to a decommissioning fund since the plant’s beginning; by the end of last year, we’ve contributed $2.6 billion.
Climate advocates, including former NASA scientist James Hansen, have shifted away from the anti-nuclear stance of the 80s and 90s, now believing it to be part of the global warming solution.
“I get that,” admits John Geesman of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. “But I would distinguish between new nuclear plants, new nuclear technologies, and existing incumbent aging plants heading into the end-of-life, their hospice period.” Diablo Canyon, at the ripe age of thirty, has been plagued by failing parts and out-of-date technology.
“When you go inside the facility, you are stepping back in time,” says Grueneich, who has visited the site. “It's not a brand-new shiny, you know, state-of-the-art facility. It is one that has had to have various parts of it replaced and replaced and replaced.”
Nevertheless, Shellenberger discounts the popular fears surrounding nuclear plants, such as waste management, terrorist attacks and the catastrophic meltdowns depicted in 70’s-era films like “The China Syndrome” and “Silkwood.”
“The fear mongering on nuclear is putting us at risk,” Shellenberger says. “If we go and shut down this plant, more people will die from air pollution and accidents than if you keep it running.”
“All those issues are going to be reviewed in a public forum,” Grueneich reminds the audience, referring to the Public Utilities Commission hearings. She encourages those concerned about the closing to attend the hearings and join watchdog groups. “The PUC, in my experience, does best when there is really the public eye, keeping track of what's going on.
And this is, you know, one of the most important decisions that California has faced.”
Written by: Anny Celsi
Photography: Ed Ritger