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Decommissioning Diablo 

Questions emerge after announcement of plant's closure

Since the day its construction was announced, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant was a magnet for controversy.

Opposition to the plant, which sits along a scenic stretch of coastline in Avila Beach, sprang up almost immediately. Those who opposed the plant vowed to one day close it. As the years dragged on, so did their efforts to shutter Diablo Canyon.

They got their wish on June 21, when PG&E announced plans to shut down the plant's two reactors by 2025. But even as the news rippled through SLO County, California, and the rest of the nation, the announcement was far from the last word on the issue and did nothing to quell the controversy that has swirled around the plant and its operations for the last 40-plus years.

click to enlarge IN THE BEGINNING :  Plans for the power plant were developed in the 1960s and ’70s but Diablo wasn’t built until the mid-1980s. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF PG&E
  • PHOTOS COURTESY OF PG&E
  • IN THE BEGINNING : Plans for the power plant were developed in the 1960s and ’70s but Diablo wasn’t built until the mid-1980s.

Cacophony

When PG&E announced plans for a nuclear power plant in the 1970s, it was the start of an exciting promise of clean and efficient energy, jobs, and an economic boost to the local economy.

But not everyone was convinced that building a nuclear power plant on the Central Coast was a good idea. In the intervening years, organizations began mobilizing, questioning the plant's operations and attacking that task from different angles.

Since 1973, Mothers for Peace has intervened in litigation involving seismic safety, radioactive waste storage, consequences from a possible terrorist attack, and opposition to the plant's license renewal.

After PG&E made its announcement in June, Mothers for Peace released a statement applauding the decision to close the plant and the decision to deliver a different type of energy. But the organization's members don't believe it's time to breathe easy just yet. The group remains concerned about the safety and environmental risks posed by current operation of the reactor, Mothers for Peace spokesperson Linda Seeley said.

"During the next eight years, we will heighten our vigilance over safety at the reactors," Seeley said. "Our work to safeguard public health and the environment is needed now more than ever. Every day that Diablo Canyon is online, PG&E is playing Russian roulette with the safety of our community."

Mothers for Peace is far from the only group that's kept a watchful eye on Diablo Canyon and PG&E. In 2005, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, another nonprofit, arrived on the scene.

The Alliance distanced itself from the stereotypical anti-nuclear protestor. Leaving behind the image of long-haired hippies chanting, waving signs, and being dragged off by police in front of Diablo's main gate, the Alliance fashioned itself as a "ratepayer watchdog," lobbying state agencies like the California Public Utilities Commission and California Coastal Commission, as well as federal regulatory agencies like the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission). Along with a small cadre of lawyers, the Alliance challenged PG&E before those same regulatory bodies on issues ranging from the plant's seismic safety to plans for its operating license renewal in 2025 through presenting hundreds of hours of testimony and thousands of pages of documents to those bodies.

That work eventually earned the Alliance a seat at the table as one of the organizations that PG&E called on to develop the current joint proposal to shut down the plant in in nine years.

"Parts of this proposal usher in a bold new paradigm for the state's energy future," said Rochelle Becker, executive director for the Alliance. "But for those of us in San Luis Obispo, the proposal also provides an orderly path to phase out the reactors."

click to enlarge PROTEST:  Since its inception, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant has attracted opposition. People have expressed concern over potential health issues, seismic safety, and even adverse effects to the environment. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • PROTEST: Since its inception, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant has attracted opposition. People have expressed concern over potential health issues, seismic safety, and even adverse effects to the environment.

A future with renewable energy

PG&E's proposal to decommission the plant by 2025 was an agreement made along with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, Coalition of California Utility Employees, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environment California, and Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. PG&E said it plans to replace Diablo with efficient and renewable energy. Part of the reason behind that decision, according to the company, is that Diablo Canyon's output is falling due to California energy policies and changing market conditions. The state has set a target to rely on 50 percent renewable energy, and the PG&E proposal offers a commitment to 55 percent renewable generation by 2031.

In a statement, PG&E Corporation Chairman, CEO, and President Tony Earley said that California's energy landscape is changing dramatically, with energy efficiency, renewables, and storage becoming central to the state's energy policy. As this transition takes place, Diablo Canyon's full output will no longer be required.

"Importantly, this proposal recognizes the value of [greenhouse gas, (GHG)]-free nuclear power as an important bridge strategy to help ensure that power remains affordable and reliable and that we do not increase the use of fossil fuels while supporting California's vision for the future," Earley said in the statement.

He added, "Supporting this is a coalition of labor and environmental partners with some diverse points of view. We came to this agreement with some different perspectives"and we continue to have some different perspectives"but the important thing is that we ultimately got to a shared point of view about the most appropriate and responsible path forward with respect to Diablo Canyon and how best to support the state's energy vision."

But what that will look like and what it will mean to the community is not completely clear.

Under the joint proposal, PG&E will retire Unit 1 in 2024 and Unit 2 in 2025. It will begin ensuring GHG-free replacement of nuclear energy by following procurement requirements laid out in the settlement starting in 2018 and continuing through 2031.

According to the joint proposal: "In step 1, PG&E will procure 2,000 GWh of new energy efficiency projects and programs to be installed from 2018 to 2024. In a second step, PG&E would procure another 2,000 GWh of energy efficiency or GHG-free energy to be initiated between 2025 through 2030. As a final step, PG&E commits to procure the necessary levels of additional GHG-free energy required to meet a 55 percent RPS [renewable portfolio standard] by 2031."

But not everyone is on board with PG&E's plans. While groups like the Alliance, Mothers for Peace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council rose to fight the operation and relicensing of the plant, another rose to defend it.

Citizens for Green Nuclear Power (CGNP) is a group that has advocated for the continued operation of the plant, claiming that nuclear power is a safe energy option that like other "green" energy sources does not produce carbon emissions. While they supported PG&E when the company was planning on seeking relicensing past 2025, the announcement of the planned shutdown drew heavy criticism from the organization, which characterized the move as "cowardice."

CGNP is skeptical of the company's goals and its ability to make good on the promise to replace Diablo's energy output. CGNP also claims the cost of some alternatives to nuclear power, like solar and wind, will actually lead to more greenhouse gas emissions and high prices for consumers.

"Given the huge, impractical costs associated with solar ... the predictable result is PG&E will be burning more natural gas in California to make up for the missing [Diablo Canyon] power and importing more dirty coal power from Colorado, Arizona, and likely Wyoming," reads a statement from CGNP issued shortly after the announcement of the joint proposal. "This means a higher power bill with more global warming and more emissions that harm people's health."

The billon-dollar question

By current estimates, Diablo Canyon provides nearly $1 billion each year for SLO County's economy through various means, like taxes it pays, the jobs it provides, and the money those employees subsequently contribute through their own spending.

The fact that both the source of such a massive amount of funding and jobs would essentially evaporate after 2025 is, unsurprisingly, weighing heavily on the minds of residents and elected officials in SLO County.

To offset the nearly billion-dollar loss, Blair Jones, PG&E spokesperson, said that the company will commit to paying $50 million to the county. This money will be paid out over the next 10 years. Jones explained that annually PG&E pays

$22 million in property taxes. However because of the devaluing of the property, the amount owed annually would gradually decline over the years before closure. To offset that, PG&E will make up the devalued amount, up to $50 million, so that the county gets a steady $22 million each year until the plant closes.

In an attempt to address the loss of roughly 1,500 jobs as a result of the plant's closure, PG&E also pledged to provide retention and re-training programs for its employees and will offer severance payments at the end of their employment.

But in order to deliver on those promises, the company still needs the state's utilities regulators to sign off on its plan, and individuals representing the county and other interests that would be economically impacted by closing the plant are already jockeying to have a say in that process.

Intervention

One of the most important steps for PG&E is getting the California Public Utilities Commission, CPUC, to sign off on the joint proposal to close Diablo Canyon.

Under the CPUC's policies, parties can apply to intervene in commission proceedings, giving them the ability to formally intervene in rate cases and other matters. For parties or entities that can prove they would be substantially impacted by the CPUC's decision on the issue, their application status to intervene can't be denied.

It wasn't long before several local entities, all of which were neither brought into the discussions nor party to the joint agreement, decided to exercise their option to join the discussion and proceedings when PG&E goes before the commission.

One of the first entities to assert itself was SLO County. After meeting in closed session, the SLO County Board of Supervisors announced that it had given its legal counsel the go-ahead to participate in the commission's proceedings on Diablo Canyon.

The county was followed soon after by another party: the San Luis Coastal Unified School District.

The money from PG&E has long represented a significant chunk of revenue for SLO County's education system, providing the county's school districts with nearly $13 million annually. San Luis Coastal alone received an estimated $10 million, or roughly 12 percent of its operating budget, from tax dollars generated by PG&E last year. That money goes into the district's general fund and pays for everything from providing extra programs for students to staffing and salaries on its campuses.

While the joint plan would provide funding to the district to mitigate the impact of Diablo's closing, Superintendent Eric Prater worried that what is suggested in the joint proposal is insufficient.

"The resources proposed in the mitigation program aren't nearly enough to transition the community PG&E has called home for nearly 40 years," he said.

On July 19, the SLO City Council also mulled joining the proceedings as an intervening party. Like the school district and the county, city staff urged the council to apply as an intervener, getting them a seat at the table.

"Based on the information available to date, the opportunity for the city to have the greatest influence on the process is related to the [joint proposal] filing," a staff report to the council read. "There may also be opportunities for input during the filing process for the actual decommissioning plan for [Diablo Canyon], but that is still being determined."

The council voted unanimously to direct city staff to continue to look into the issue, and determine if they have legal standing to intervene in the CPUC proceedings.

As local entities mull whether to get involved with the CPUC proceedings, the discussion alone has already had an impact.

On July 26, PG&E announced that it would delay submitting its plan to the regulatory body by two weeks. During that time, the company plans to meet with local stakeholders including the school district and SLO County.

"PG&E and the original parties are focused on a continued dialogue and exploring the issues raised in order to seek potential solutions that could be integrated into the filing with the CPUC on or before Aug. 11, 2016," a statement from the company read.

Looking ahead

Even after the likely lengthy process of getting the joint proposal approved, the process of actually shutting Diablo down and eventually dismantling it could extend far beyond 2025. PG&E President Geisha Williams said that coming up with a decommissioning plan would take two to three years and would also need approval from the CPUC. Once approved, the process itself"which includes dismantling the plant"could take as long as 20 years, according to Williams' remarks before the California State Lands Commission.

The actual time the process will ultimately take is something Seeley, of Mothers for Peace, was all too aware of.

"People are excited to know there's a light at the end of the tunnel, but that light is far away and a lot of things can happen during that time," she said.

Santa Maria Sun Editor Shelly Cone from New Times' sister paper can be reached at scone@santamariasun.com. New Times Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com.

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