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Nuclear option: Support increases for keeping Diablo Canyon open 

When Central Coast state Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham was first elected to office in 2016, it was just a few months after PG&E made its fateful decision to close Diablo Canyon Power Plant in 2024 and 2025—putting a sunset date on nuclear power in California.

In the intervening years, Cunningham has been a vocal and often solitary critic of that course in Sacramento, skeptical of the state's ability to replace Diablo's power once it goes offline and SLO County's ability to replace the high-paying jobs it provides for the community.

"I feel like I've been the lone voice in the wilderness for five years in the state Assembly," Cunningham told New Times on Dec. 9. "I'm asking all these people year after year, what is our plan to replace Diablo's carbon emission-free power? And there really isn't one."

click to enlarge SAVE DIABLO? Members of Save Clean Energy, a new nonprofit, rally in front of the SLO County Courthouse on Dec. 4 for keeping Diablo Canyon Power Plant open beyond 2025. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAVE CLEAN ENERGY
  • Photo Courtesy Of Save Clean Energy
  • SAVE DIABLO? Members of Save Clean Energy, a new nonprofit, rally in front of the SLO County Courthouse on Dec. 4 for keeping Diablo Canyon Power Plant open beyond 2025.

Long an outlier, Cunningham is now getting serious support from leaders in political, academic, and environmental circles. With Diablo's decommission date inching closer, they are asking similar questions: Is it wise to power down Diablo in three years? Is California ready to quit nuclear? Are we far enough along with renewables?

A recent study by Stanford and MIT researchers made headlines last month by making a detailed case for keeping the plant open at least another decade—while also proposing that it become a simultaneous producer of clean hydrogen and desalinated drinking water. The authors said that keeping Diablo open beyond 2025 could save the state and ratepayers billions of dollars, safeguard grid reliability, and reduce electricity-related CO2 emissions by 11 percent in the near term.

"Even assuming rapid and unconstrained build-out of renewable energy, the continued operation of Diablo Canyon would significantly reduce California's use of natural gas for electricity production," one of the study's conclusions read.

In recent weeks, momentum has built around the report.

click to enlarge TOO LATE? 3rd District SLO County Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg speaks at a Save Clean Energy rally to keep Diablo Canyon Power Plant open past 2025. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAVE CLEAN ENERGY
  • Photo Courtesy Of Save Clean Energy
  • TOO LATE? 3rd District SLO County Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg speaks at a Save Clean Energy rally to keep Diablo Canyon Power Plant open past 2025.

On Dec. 4, activists with a newly formed nonprofit, Save Clean Energy, held a rally outside the SLO County Courthouse in support of preserving Diablo Canyon and finding "pragmatic solutions to our energy and climate crisis."

SLO County 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg spoke at the rally in support, and called the Stanford/MIT study a "mind-blower."

"When the report first was presented to me, I was shocked that such an effort was made to offer information, science, ideas, and data that had not really been presented before," Ortiz-Legg said. "This was new. Things have changed in five years. ... Even if I do not have any authority to say 'live or die' regarding Diablo, I do have the ability to respectfully ask for the conversation."

The state's last nuclear plant is not only gaining support from some academics, activists, and local politicians, but from the Biden administration. President Biden's two major pieces of legislation—the adopted infrastructure bill and the proposed Build Back Better bill—include subsidies and tax credits for nuclear power plants.

Last month, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm spoke directly about Diablo Canyon, suggesting that California should revisit its 2018 decision to approve PG&E's decommissioning plan.

"Perhaps it's something that they might reconsider," Granholm told the news agency Reuters. "This is clean, dispatchable base load power."

Cunningham believes that more people are coming to his side on Diablo because of the state's slow progress in building out the nonnuclear renewable energy infrastructure necessary to run a clean and reliable grid.

"There was a bit of sunny optimism back in 2016," Cunningham said. "We're no closer to meeting our energy requirements than we were five years ago, and yet the [zero] emission targets [by 2045] get closer every year."

Cunningham argued that California has to significantly grow its statewide battery storage capacity to ensure it can keep the lights on during peak demand without nuclear power or natural gas. He said he's supportive of the state's renewable energy agenda, citing his support for a large battery storage facility proposed in Morro Bay, but he believes that transition will take a long time.

"You just can't build large-scale storage plants very quickly," he said. "We need probably dozens of those massive storage plants, and we need them, like, by 2025. There's only three or four that I know of in the state of California that are in the pipeline. So, we just aren't realistically going to have that storage to replace the Diablo energy."

This renewed pro-Diablo movement has plenty of detractors, including the plant's owner, PG&E. In repeated public statements, the utility has said it is "unwavering" in its commitment to decommission Diablo's two reactors in 2024 and 2025.

"PG&E's plans for Diablo Canyon Power Plant have not changed," spokesperson Suzanne Hosn told New Times. "PG&E is committed to California's clean energy future. ... The state has made clear its position on nuclear energy, and the plan to retire Diablo Canyon Power Plant has been approved by the California Public Utilities Commission and the state Legislature. Our focus therefore remains on safely and reliably operating the plant until the end of its ... licenses."

While PG&E is holding firm for now, longtime opponents of Diablo Canyon and nuclear power are feeling uneasy about the recent momentum to save it. SLO Mothers for Peace spokesperson Linda Seeley told New Times that Diablo watchdogs did not take the chatter very seriously until the Biden administration started signaling its support.

"PG&E stands by [its decision], but I'm very concerned about this extreme pressure on them," said Seeley, who's also a member of PG&E's Diablo decommissioning citizen panel. "It really wouldn't be on them, but it'd be on Gov. Newsom. Our worry is [Newsom] could order PG&E, as part of this climate catastrophe we're in the middle of, to keep it open."

According to Seeley, the arguments against Diablo Canyon haven't changed: its location on active earthquake faults makes the threat of a nuclear disaster ever present. Then, there's the issue of the highly radioactive spent fuel, which is stored on-site.

"The nuclear waste does not have a solution," Seeley said. "Our local officials [and] the Biden administration [are] not paying attention to the nuclear waste. The only people paying attention are the people living around nuclear power plants who are burdened with the waste for the foreseeable future."

Seeley and Cunningham agree on one thing: a shift in Gov. Newsom's position on nuclear power is likely the x-factor in any theoretical saving of Diablo Canyon. The plant's continued operation would face substantial hurdles, including the renewal of its federal licenses and a significant investment in its seawater intake system to conform to state regulations.

"I think there's a lot of political things that would make extending the license difficult," Cunningham said. "But I think it's a conversation that we need to be having." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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