Biden gives PG&E $1 trillion to keep the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant running

The case for nuclear power as a climate solution received a major boost Monday when the Biden administration announced it would give Pacific Gas & Electric Co. a $1.1 billion grant to help the company build the last nuclear power plant California to continue to operate.

The Diablo Canyon facility is currently scheduled to be shut down in two phases, with the first reactor shutting down in 2024 and the second in 2025. Gavin Newsom has spearheaded a vigorous push to keep the reactors running for another five years, saying they are badly needed to help the Golden State deal with power shortages and worsening heat waves.

Federal money does not guarantee that Diablo Canyon will stay open longer. But it’s looking increasingly likely that California will depend on the facility for at least a few more years — despite decades of anti-nuclear activism and ongoing public concerns about what would happen if an earthquake hit one of the nearby seismic fault lines of the plant would break out.

Patti Poppe, chief executive of PG&E, noted that Diablo Canyon provided more than 8% of California’s electricity last year — and 17% of the state’s climate-friendly, zero-carbon electricity. She also said the facility has a strong safety record.

“It’s a good choice for the state of California — and frankly, for the planet — that a well-functioning facility like Diablo Canyon could continue to serve,” Poppe said in an interview.

The $1.1 billion in federal money comes from the infrastructure bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden last year. It was intended to allow PG&E to repay most of the $1.4 billion loan to Diablo that lawmakers approved at Newsom’s urging.

This state money is intended to help PG&E meet the costs of re-licensing with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as maintenance, fuel purchases and additional on-site storage of radioactive waste needed to keep the facility operational beyond 2025 keep.

Final terms of the federal grant have yet to be negotiated with PG&E. U.S. Department of Energy officials say the money will be spread over four years, from 2023 to 2026. It is intended to cover PG&E’s projected losses from keeping Diablo Canyon open for an extended period of time, should the company’s operating costs — or its own — turn out lower than expected The income from the sale of electricity is higher than expected – not quite as much federal money is received.

If the plant doesn’t receive its federal license renewal — or any of the state permits it needs to remain in operation — the funding tap will be shut off.

“This is a critical step in ensuring our domestic nuclear fleet continues to provide Americans with reliable and affordable electricity as it is the nation’s largest source of clean electricity,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a written statement.

US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm speaks at the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in San Diego County.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm speaks at the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in San Diego County, flanked by Edison International CEO Pedro Pizarro and Rep. Mike Levin.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

The future of nuclear power has become one of America’s most contentious energy debates as the climate crisis deepens.

Nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have stoked deep public fears of meltdowns and nuclear fallout, with the 2011 crisis at Japan’s Fukushima plant hardening those feelings for many.

But worsening wildfires, heatwaves, droughts and other climate extremes associated with burning fossil fuels — and growing awareness that nuclear power plants currently produce half of the nation’s carbon-free electricity — have caused some to reevaluate the merits of facilities like Diablo .

A recent UC Berkeley poll co-sponsored by The Times found that 44% of California voters support building more nuclear reactors in the state, with 37% opposed and 19% undecided — a marked change from sentiment in the 1980s and 1980s 1990s.

The poll also found that 39% of voters oppose closing Diablo Canyon, 33% support the closure, and 28% are unsure.

“I’m just glad the tide has changed,” Poppe said.

Taking advantage of these changing tides, the governor persuaded state legislators to approve a $1.4 billion loan designed to keep Diablo running through 2030 — when solar panels and wind turbines stop generating — for one Record of 10 consecutive days.

The state managed to avoid rolling blackouts. It was less fortunate two years earlier, when a few hundred thousand households and businesses briefly lost power over two evenings during a brutal heat wave. In 2021, there was another slim chance when wildfire temporarily shut down several major power lines that bring hydroelectric power to California from the Pacific Northwest.

Continuing operations of Diablo Canyon is critical to stopping the lights while fighting climate change, supporters say.

“Some would say it’s the just and right climate choice,” Newsom told the Times editorial board earlier this year.

Government.  Gavin Newsom signs an executive order on the hood of an electric vehicle.

Government. Gavin Newsom signs an executive order – on the hood of an electric vehicle – mandating that all new passenger vehicles sold in California must be zero emissions by 2035.

(Associated Press)

The US had 93 operating nuclear reactors last year, generating nearly a fifth of the country’s electricity. These plants could go a long way toward meeting President Biden’s goal of generating 100% green electricity by 2035.

However, since 2013, 13 reactors have been shut down, often due to competition from cheaper energy sources such as solar, wind and natural gas. In some cases, nuclear shutdowns have led to more business for gas-fired power plants, which has increased the impact on the climate.

Pro-nuclear advocates say it’s crucial to support power plants that can generate clean electricity 24/7 – hence the $6 billion Congress has allocated to save struggling facilities like Diablo Canyon.

PG&E was the only company to receive nuclear rescue dollars Monday. At least one company was denied funding. But in a second round of financing planned by the Energy Ministry, more money could flow to ailing nuclear power plants.

Support our journalism

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.

Critics say it’s foolish to throw money into dying nuclear power plants.

When Newsom lobbied the legislature to approve the $1.4 billion Diablo-bailout loan, Ralph Cavanagh — a top official at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council and one of the key architects of the 2016 nuclear shutdown deal — punched out — to support the governor for what he described as “widespread exceptions” to basic environmental laws and for failing to investigate whether there are better, cheaper ways for the state to reliably keep electricity flowing.

Rapid growth in lithium-ion batteries, for example, played a key role in avoiding another round of rolling power outages this summer. Greater funding for batteries, energy efficiency and demand response — paying people to use less electricity when the grid is at its busiest — could negate the need for continued reliance on nuclear power, some experts and activists say.

“When a state is looking for resources to ensure system reliability under extreme conditions that occur for only a small fraction of the total hours in a year, the last thing it wants is a power plant designed for continuous year-round operation is capable of shifting most or all of its generation up or down in a matter of minutes without being built,” Cavanagh wrote.

Other experts and activists disagree. Dozens of scientists and academics have urged Newsom to keep the Diablo reactors running, as have former US Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, both of whom served under President Obama.

The potential for catastrophic meltdowns – however distant – is not the only concern enlivening anti-nuclear activists. The federal government has failed to build permanent spent nuclear fuel storage, which means radioactive waste canisters are piling up at power plants across the country — including the closed San Onofre facility in San Diego County.

How do the risks and damage of nuclear energy compare to fossil fuels? For Poppe the answer is clear.

“With the significant impacts of climate change here in California that we are experiencing with the extreme weather, we naturally want to be able to provide the cleanest energy that is most reliable for the people of California,” she said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *