California’s Last Nuclear Power Plant to Close, Replaced With Green Energy

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Samantha Masunaga
Los Angeles Times
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency


LOS ANGELES — California’s last nuclear power plant will be phased out by 2025, under a joint proposal announced Tuesday morning by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and labor and environmental groups.

Under the proposal, the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County would be retired by PG&E after its current Nuclear Regulatory Commission operating licenses expire in November 2024 and August 2025.

The power produced by Diablo Canyon’s two nuclear reactors would be replaced with investment in a greenhouse-gas-free portfolio of energy efficiency, renewables and energy storage, PG&E said in a statement.

The proposal is contingent on a number of regulatory actions, including approvals from the California Public Utilities Commission.

The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, built against a seaside cliff, provides electricity for Central and Northern California. It produces about 2,160 megawatts — enough to power more than 1.7 million homes.

Tuesday’s announcement comes after a long debate over the fate of the plant, which sits near several earthquake fault lines. The Hosgri Fault, located 3 miles from Diablo Canyon, was discovered in 1971, three years after construction of the plant began.

Calls to close Diablo Canyon escalated after a 2011 quake in Japan damaged two reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant there, leading to dangerous radiation leaks. In the aftermath of that disaster, state and federal lawmakers called for immediate reviews of Diablo Canyon and the San Onofre nuclear plant in San Diego County, which was still in use.

“Our two plants need immediate inspections and investigations, and they need to look at the increased risk of serious earthquakes, an increased risk of tsunamis and at the safety cultures at those plants,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said at the time, noting that nearly half a million people lived within 50 miles of Diablo Canyon.

The San Onofre plant was shut down for good in 2013 as a result of faulty equipment that led to a small release of radioactive steam and a heated regulatory battle over the plant’s license.

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The same year, a former inspector called for Diablo Canyon to be closed until risks posed by potential earthquakes there could be evaluated. In documents submitted to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission as recently as last year, PG&E said Diablo Canyon can safely withstand earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding. Officials said the safety testing also took into consideration the effect a quake on one fault would have on the other three fault lines in the area.

Daniel Hirsch, director of the program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said the proposal announced Tuesday was thoughtful.

“It is not simply a decision to phase out the plant, but to replace it with efficiency and renewables,” he said. “So it is a very strong net gain for the environment.”

As the state boosts its energy efficiency goals and plans for renewables, including solar and wind power, Hirsch said, Diablo Canyon is “getting in the way.”

“It can’t alter the amount of power it produces, so on a day when a lot of solar energy is produced, or wind, we have to shut some of that (renewable energy production) down because we can’t turn down Diablo,” he said.

PG&E Chief Executive Tony Earley also acknowledged the changing landscape in California, noting that energy efficiency, renewables and storage are “central to the state’s energy policy.”

“As we make this transition, Diablo Canyon’s full output will no longer be required,” he said in a statement Tuesday. That eventually would make the nuclear plant too expensive to operate, Earley said during a conference call with reporters.

Hirsch tempered his approval with caution, saying that as long as the plant remains in operation, safety risks remain.

“Diablo really does pose a clear and present danger,” he said. “If we had an earthquake larger than the plant was designed for, you could have a Fukushima-type event that could devastate a large part of California.”

In the mid-2000s, the nation’s utilities had anticipated a “nuclear renaissance” that would usher in a new age of centralized power plants. Power companies submitted proposals to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 21 new reactors. President George W. Bush pushed federal loan guarantees to hasten nuclear plant construction.

All but four of the proposed units have made it to the construction phase — two units in Georgia at the Vogtle generating station owned by Southern Co., and two units in South Carolina owned by SCANA Corp.

However, instead of a renaissance, the nuclear industry began to unravel.

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Duke Energy announced in February 2013 that it would close the Crystal River, Fla., nuclear plant after a steam generator replacement project led to cracks in the concrete reactor containment building. The plant became too costly to fix.

Then in May 2013, Dominion Resources Inc., permanently shut down the Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin after the power company said it was no longer affordable to operate the facility.

A month later, Southern California Edison permanently closed the San Onofre plant after the determining that fixing the new but faulty steam generators would prove too expensive.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the nuclear industry was the vast amount of natural gas that became available in the United States because of fracking.

Natural gas plants now are far cheaper to build and operate than a nuclear plant. A natural gas facility runs at about 8 or 9 cents a kilowatt hour compared with twice that much for a nuclear plant.

And the push for renewable energy has turned attention to solar and wind power to help reduce emissions and combat human-caused climate change.

Although Diablo Canyon is California’s last operating nuclear power plant, the state will still get some of its electricity from the Palo Verde nuclear plant

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To craft Tuesday’s joint proposal, PG&E worked with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, the Coalition of California Utility Employees, the National Resources Defense Council, Environment California, Friends of the Earth and the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.

Under the proposal, PG&E will provide a retraining and development program to redeploy some of the plant’s employees to the decommissioning project or other positions within the company and will offer severance payments at the end of employment.

PG&E has agreed on these benefits with IBEW Local 1245 and said it would “immediately engage in bargaining” with its other unions. The proposal also provides for nearly $50 million in payments from PG&E to San Luis Obispo County to offset declining property taxes through 2025.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., whose district includes Diablo Canyon, said she was pleased PG&E worked with a number of stakeholders to ensure a “responsible transition.”

“In particular, I appreciate PG&E’s focus on ensuring that their employees, the county and our region’s energy needs will be provided for during this transition away from nuclear power,” she said in a statement (goodnewsnetwork.org).

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(Los Angeles Times staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this report.)


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