U.S. grants PG&E $1.1B to keep Diablo open longer
By Jorge Mercado
Senior Staff Writer
The federal government has turbocharged Pacific Gas & Electric’s push to keep its controversial Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant online.
The U.S. Department of Energy has given the project a $1.1 billion grant to help keep California’s last nuclear power plant operating through 2030, PG&E announced Nov. 21.
The lifeline does not guarantee Diablo Canyon will remain operational, but it does greatly enhance its chances.
PG&E was originally set to start decommissioning the plant in 2024. But then California Gov. Gavin Newsom spearheaded lobbying of state lawmakers to extend the power plant’s life.
That push paid off after an extended session on Sept. 1 by the California Legislature ended in a vote overwhelmingly in favor of Senate Bill 846, giving the state the option of keeping the power plant open through 2030, five years past its currently scheduled closure.
The bill included a $1.4 billion forgivable loan made to PG&E from the state to kick-start the extension process.
The state money would also help the utility maintain the plant and purchase additional on-sight storage for waste.
However, that loan was made with the expectation that PG&E would apply for and receive federal money to repay the state.
The federal grant will, indeed, be used pay back the majority of the state’s loan, PG&E spokeswoman Suzanne Hozn said in an interview.
The $1.1 billion in federal money comes from the $1 trillion infrastructure law passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last year.
Had the Biden Administration denied PG&E’s request, the plant would have shut down in 2025 as originally intended.
Still, there is a long road ahead for PG&E.
“There are key federal and state approvals remaining before us in this multi-year process,” Hozn said, adding, that “we remain focused on continuing to provide reliable, low-cost, carbon-free energy to the people of California, while safely operating one of the top performing plants in the country.”
But critics continue to express concern about the danger of an earthquake erupting along one of the seismic fault lines near the facility. Nuclear fallout from such damage to the plant could drift across much of the nation, they say.
But, Gov. Newsom, academics and scientists argued that the need for clean and renewable energy outweighed such concerns. Without Diablo, they have argued, the state would be left unprepared to handle the energy needs of all if it had closed in 2025.
Detractors have also argued that PG&E should have to file an application with the NRC to have an extension for Diablo Canyon considered.
On Oct. 31, the utility filed its first licensing action with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for renewing the operating licenses for Diablo Canyon’s Units 1 and 2.
PG&E has hoped to pick up on where it left off when it last applied to renew its license. Back in 2009, the utility applied to renew the license through 2045.
But PG&E abandoned the application process in 2018, after it was made clear the plans to close the plant fully by 2025.
On Nov. 17, four groups — San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, Environmental Working Group, Committee to Bridge the Gap and Friends of the Earth — sent a letter to the NRC, urging them to deny PG&E’s request to reopen its former license renewal paperwork.
“Accommodating PG&E in its never-ending chess game to keep the old, toxic nuclear power plant up and running would undermine aspects of the license renewal review that are crucial for safety and would hamstring effective public involvement by the many groups and citizens concerned about extending the life of the Diablo Canyon units,” the letter read.
PG&E’s Hozn maintained that Diablo continues to operate safely and meet industry-established safety standards.
She added that with the passing of Senate Bill 846, a “cross-functional team” is reviewing and updating short and long-term maintenance and projects for the plant. She said the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will also continue to inspect and assess the plant’s operation.
For continued operation, the plant needs renewed licenses from the NRC, as well as approval from the Department of Energy, the California State Lands Commission, the California Energy Commission, the California Coastal Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission.