Contentious California nuclear plant can keep operating, federal regulators decide

Contentious California nuclear plant can keep operating, federal regulators decide

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California’s biggest utility will be able to keep a disputed nuclear plant running while seeking official permission to extend the facility’s operations, a federal regulatory decided on Thursday. 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted an exemption on Thursday to Pacific Gas & Electricity that will allow the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant to continue operating under its current licenses while the agency considers its renewal application. 

While both Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and state legislators have been advocating for the extension as a reliable source of energy to support California’s clean energy transition, environmental groups remain vocal in their opposition for the plans. 

Located about 25 miles southwest of San Luis Obispo along California’s Central Coast, the Diablo Canyon first began operating in 1985. 

PG&E announced plans in 2016 to retire the facility and decommission the reactors when the licenses expire. But after California enacted legislation this fall to continue operations, the utility moved to apply for a license renewal. 

The licenses for Diablo’s two reactors are set to expire in November of 2024 and August 2025, respectively. 

The NRC exemption enables those licenses to remain in effect while the regulator reviews the renewal application, assuming that PG&E submits its request by the end of the year, according to the regulator.

“The exemption is authorized by law, will not present undue risk to the public health and safety, and is consistent with the common defense and security,” a statement from the NRC said. 

“Diablo Canyon’s continued operation is in the public interest because of serious challenges to the reliability of California’s electricity grid,” the regulator added. 

Throughout the renewal process, the NRC said that it would maintain oversight “to ensure continued safe operation.” If the license renewal is granted, the regulator said it would authorize the continued operation of the facility for up to 20 years. 

“PG&E will continue on the path to extend our operations beyond 2025,” Paula Gerfen, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer for PG&E said in a statement

That path, Gerfen continued, would aim “to improve statewide electric system reliability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“We are committed to California’s clean energy future,” she added.

The Diablo Canyon power plant — whose continued operations have garnered vehement opposition from environmental groups — gained a lifeline when lawmakers passed related legislation, S.B. 846, at the tail end of August. 

The bill granted legislative approval for the operation of each unit through the end of October 2029 and 2030, respectively, pending license renewal by the NRC.

Earlier that month, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) had proposed extending the plant’s shelf life, with a goal of maintaining a carbon-free, reliable power supply as the state shifts to renewables. 

In a visit to the Diablo Canyon plant on Wednesday, Newsom emphasized the importance of the facility to California’s clean energy transition. 

“As we experienced during the record heat wave last September, climate change-driven extreme events are causing unprecedented stress on our power grid,” Newsom said in a statement.

“The Diablo Canyon Power Plant is important to support energy reliability as we accelerate progress towards achieving our clean energy and climate goals,” the governor added.

The NRC’s decision to grant the exemption on Thursday follows a determination from the California Energy Commission earlier this week that the state should keep the plant running through 2030 to support grid reliability. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) expressed her support for the NRC’s decision, stressing that “the next few years are going to be critical for California’s energy transition.” 

Notably, Feinstein had changed course on the subject this past summer, explaining that “while California is leading the way on renewables, we aren’t there yet.”

“This decision will allow Diablo Canyon to serve as a bridge to a clean-energy future, maintaining a reliable source of carbon-free power as we continue to invest in renewable energy,” the senator said on Thursday. 

Environmental activists, however, slammed the NRC’s move as “unprecedented” in a collective statement.

The NRC has never approved an exemption for a license renewal that would enable a nuclear reactor to exceed its 40-year legal threshold without a comprehensive review, the groups said. 

“The NRC calls the exemption a mere ‘administrative’ decision, as if it were choosing paper clip sizes,” said Diane Curran, lead attorney for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace. 

“There is nothing ‘administrative’ about allowing this aging reactor duo to continue running for days, months or years, when each day of operation poses the risk of an accident that could devastate the entire state and beyond,” Curran added.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said that “public safety concerns were blatantly ignored by the NRC” over what he described as a “reckless decision to bend the law for PG&E.”

“A federal agency responsible for protecting public safety is now simply serving as the consigliere of the nuclear industry,” Cook added. 

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