Op-ed: California can’t be an energy leader without nuclear

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The state’s last operating nuclear power plant is scheduled to shut down in 2025, but calls to keep Diablo Canyon running are getting louder because of the clean energy it produces. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

A push has been underway for years to shut down Diablo Canyon, California’s last operating nuclear power plant. 

After years of campaigning, the plant’s critics thought they’d finally reached a breakthrough when Diablo Canyon’s operator, Pacific Gas & Electric, said it would switch off the generators in 2025.   

But we’re now seeing a campaign to keep Diablo Canyon up and running.  

Zócalo commentator Joe Mathews thinks that’s a good idea — but only the start of what Diablo can do for us.

Opinion column by Joe Mathews:

California can keep claiming to be an international leader in energy.

Or California can close its last operating nuclear power plant.

But it can’t do both.

Under a 2018 agreement, Diablo Canyon on the San Luis Obispo County coast is scheduled to close when its operating licenses expire in 2025. Whether it actually shuts down is emerging as a major test of Californians’ stated commitments to transform ourselves in the face of a scary future. 

Do we have the courage and imagination to take smart risks in response to climate change? Right now, our fears are winning — and framing the debate about Diablo. 

The fears that support shuttering the plant are understandable. The nuclear plant is located near earthquake faults. There are political fears of crossing the environmental and local groups who want the place closed. And then there are fears that the plant’s owner, PG&E, can’t handle the costs of safely operating the facility, and that it might make a deadly mistake there.

Unfortunately, those who want the plant kept open are also rooting their arguments in fear. They fear what the loss of a plant that produces 9% of the state’s electricity portends as the grid struggles and blackouts increase. They fear that Diablo Canyon’s power, which is carbon-free and does not depend on the weather like renewables, will be replaced with natural gas plants that contribute to climate change. 

In this contest of fears, neither side has been looking at Diablo as what it really is: an underperforming asset. When viewed through the practical prism of possibility rather than apocalyptic angst, Diablo should be seen as an opportunity for creative energy development to address multiple California problems.  

Luckily we have that prism, thanks to an extraordinary new study of Diablo from Stanford and MIT. Its argument, in brief: Instead of rushing to shut Diablo, let’s keep the plant open and ask more of it.

The study starts by noting that extending Diablo’s operations might reduce carbon emissions and save money for everyday Californians, who pay some of the nation’s highest electricity rates. The benefits could grow from there if Diablo were adapted for uses beyond electricity. 

Intriguingly, the study suggests that adding a desalination plant to the site could produce as much fresh water as the controversial project to build a tunnel under the delta. Diablo’s nuclear power also could be used to produce more of the hydrogen-based, zero-carbon fuels the state will need to transition to carbon neutrality. 

The study says Diablo Canyon might do all three things simultaneously — provide electricity, desalinate water, and produce hydrogen. The authors predict that this “polygeneration configuration” would make the plant more valuable, reducing the incentive to shut it down.

The study is clear-eyed about the widespread opposition to nuclear power and other obstacles to keeping Diablo open. The plant would need to go through a federal relicensing process to obtain new approvals for desalination plans, hydrogen production, and a new system to reduce the amount of water it takes in from the ocean. 

But risk-taking is never easy. Neither is global leadership. And a nuclear-free California will have little to model to countries where nuclear is part of the shift away from carbon.

The good news is that we will have allies if we shift course and reinvest in Diablo Canyon. Leading federal officials, including current Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and some predecessors — notably the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and Californian Steven Chu — are urging California to keep the plant open.

It would be good, before Diablo closes, to have a public debate that is based not on fears but on figuring out the best plan for the future. Any practical assessment of Diablo must acknowledge that the plant is already there and operating safely. Even if the facility closes, nuclear material, with its attendant risks, will remain on the site. 

So why not use this small piece of California land — less than 600 acres — for all its worth? Let’s roll with the Diablo we know and give it more to do.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman