LOS ANGELES (AP) — An aggressive push toward renewable energy has hurtled into anxiety about keeping the lights on in California, where the largest utility is considering extending the life of the world’s last operating nuclear power plant. condition.
California is the birthplace of the modern environmental movement that for decades has had a strained relationship with nuclear power, which produces no carbon pollution like fossil fuels, but leaves behind waste that can remain dangerously radioactive for centuries.
Now environmentalists find themselves at odds with someone they generally view as an ally: Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, a green energy advocate who supported the 2016 deal calling for the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant to close by 2025, but now it is a leading voice to consider. a longer operating career.
Newsom is often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate and a lawyer for a consumer advocacy group that routinely challenges the operator of the Pacific Gas & Electric plant in rate cases it believes “national political ambitions” are at stake.
The push to keep Diablo Canyon running “clearly comes from the governor’s office,” said Matthew Freedman of The Utility Reform Network. Newsom “is aware that problems with the reliability of the electrical system can become a political liability and he is determined to take all possible measures to avoid any possibility of lights going out in California.”
Newsom certainly wants to avoid a repeat of August 2020, when a record heat wave caused a spike in energy use for air conditioning that overloaded the power grid. There were two consecutive nights of rolling blackouts affecting hundreds of thousands of residential and business customers.
In a statement, Newsom Communications Director Erin Mellon did not address the policy issue, but said the governor is focused on maintaining reliable power for homes and businesses while accelerating state efforts to meet his aggressive goals to reduce carbon pollution. He continues to support closing Diablo Canyon “for the long term.”
The debate over the plant comes as the long-suffering nuclear industry sees climate change as reason for optimism. President Joe Biden has embraced nuclear power generation as part of his strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.
Nuclear power provides about a fifth of the nation’s electricity, though industry-produced generation has declined since 2010. Saving a plant in green-energy-friendly California would carry symbolic weight, but the window for making an abrupt change seems narrow.
Patricia “Patti” Poppe, CEO of PG&E told investors on a call last month that state legislation would have to be enacted in September to pave the way for PG&E to change course. She said the utility faced “a real sense of urgency” because other steps would be required to keep the plant running, including ordering more reactor fuel and storage containers to house spent fuel that remains highly radioactive. .
Extending the operational life of the plant “is not an easy option,” Poppe said. “Facility permitting and relicensing is complex, so there are a lot of hurdles to overcome.”
The plant on the coast midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco produces 9% of the electricity for California’s nearly 40 million residents. The state previously set aside up to $75 million to extend the operation of older power plants scheduled to close, but it remains unclear if taxpayers could be covering part of the bill, and if so, how much, to keep Devil at work.
The Newsom administration has been pushing to expand clean energy as the state aims to reduce emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. California installed more clean energy capacity in 2021 than in any other year in state history, administration officials say, but warn reliability remains in question as temperatures rise amid climate change.
For Diablo Canyon, the issue is whether the Newsom administration, in conjunction with investor-owned PG&E, can find a way to cancel the 2016 closure deal agreed to by environmentalists, plant worker unions and the company. of public services. The decision to close the plant was also supported by California utility regulators, the Legislature and then-Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.
Plant workers now support keeping the reactors open for an extended period, while anti-nuclear activists and environmentalists have rejoined a battle they thought was resolved six years ago.
“It makes sense to keep Diablo open,” said Marc D. Joseph, an attorney with the California Coalition of Public Utility Employees, which represents workers at the plant. “There is no one involved who wants to see carbon emissions increase in California.”
Critics question whether it’s feasible, or even legal, for the utility to break the deal.
“I don’t know how to unwind it, and I don’t think it should be unwinding,” said Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that negotiated and signed the pact.
Friends of the Earth, another signatory to the agreement, would oppose any effort to extend the operating life of the reactors. “None of the conditions have changed to go back on that agreement,” said the group’s president, Erich Pica.
There is also concern about the safety of the aged plant. Construction on Diablo Canyon began in the 1960s, and critics say possible tremors from nearby earthquake faults that weren’t recognized when the design was first approved (a nearby fault wasn’t discovered until 2008) could damage equipment. and release radiation.
Lifting the deal would put “a large number of people at great, great risk. That’s what’s at stake here,” said Daniel Hirsch, retired director of the program on nuclear and environmental policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a longtime critic of nuclear plant safety.
PG&E, which has long said the plant is seismically safe, hasn’t said much about whether it will push to extend operations beyond 2025. It is evaluating that possibility as it continues to plan for the plant’s closure and decommissioning “unless those actions be superseded by new state policies,” PG&E spokeswoman Suzanne Hosn said in a statement.
PG&E is considering asking for a share of $6 billion in federal funds that the Biden administration set up to bail out nuclear plants at risk of closure. The utility announced the move after Newsom suggested a longer operational run would help the state deal with potential power outages in the future.
The Department of Energy recently redrafted rules at the request of the Newsom administration that could pave the way for a Diablo Canyon application. But some environmentalists question whether those changes conflict with the federal law that provided the funds.
As part of the closing agreement, the state granted PG&E a short-term lease for submerged ocean water intake and discharge structures through 2025, which would also have to be extended to keep the plant operating.
Factors cited in the lease echo language in the closing agreement, including that the utility would not seek an extended operating license and PG&E was expected to use that period through 2025 to develop a renewable energy portfolio. and greenhouse gas-free efficiencies to replace that of Diablo Canyon. Energy.
PG&E said in a statement that it has met its replacement power requirements to date.
PG&E’s decision to close Diablo Canyon came at a time of rapid change in the energy landscape.
With heavily Democratic California prioritizing renewables to meet future energy demand, the utility predicted that the power need for large plants like Diablo Canyon would be reduced after 2025. There was even a risk of generating too much power. .
Rather than too much power, state officials have warned of a possible electricity shortage this summer as a warming climate creates higher power demand, wildfires sometimes incinerate power lines and a prolonged drought has curtailed hydroelectric power. . An emerging tariff dispute, involving products assembled in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia using parts and components from China, has delayed solar and storage projects, administration officials say.
But environmentalists argue that a nuclear plant, which generates large amounts of power continuously, is not a solution for filling occasional gaps, such as when the sun’s energy dips after sunset.
Reliable electricity “isn’t a problem 24/7,” the NRDC’s Cavanagh said. “The last thing you want to solve a problem like that is a giant machine that has to run 24/7 to be economical.”