California Lawmakers Vote to Save State's Last Nuclear Plant

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant got a lifeline early Thursday.

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The Diablo Canyon plant.
The Diablo Canyon plant.
Photo: AFP PHOTO/Mark Ralston (Getty Images)

California’s largest single source of electricity has lived to see another day. In a surprisingly overwhelming vote, the California Senate early on Thursday morning moved to extend the life of Diablo Canyon, the state’s last remaining nuclear power plant and a major source of carbon-free electricity.

The vote was on a bill proposed by Governor Gavin Newsom this month and introduced to the Legislature just a few days ago. The legislation will extend Diablo Canyon’s planned retirement date by five years, mandating its closure by 2030, and gives some state agencies loopholes around certain environmental laws to allow the plant to stay open. The bill frees up $1.4 billion in loans to the plant’s owners, Pacific Gas & Electric, to help the plant stay open, and also allows PG&E to submit an application for federal funding that closes this month. (Officials say that the federal government should be able to foot the cost for most of the $1.4 billion loan.) The plant still needs to apply to the federal U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep operating past its 2025 retirement date.

The vote comes after a summer of intense heat waves in California, as well as multiple warnings from the state’s grid about possible blackouts. More than 40 million people in the western U.S. were under a heat wave warning for Labor Day Weekend, and Californians were asked to set their thermostats to 78 degrees to help conserve electricity.

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“I’m not a proponent of the Diablo Canyon power plant. But I am a proponent of keeping the lights on,” Democratic Assemblymember Chris Holden told the AP. “If we don’t do this, we’re going to have to explain to our constituents why our foolish decisions have created circumstances in which they are compelled to live in a state in which they can’t use their air conditioner.”

Thanks to the somewhat last-minute nature of the bill—it was introduced on Sunday, just a few days before the legislature adjourned at the end of the month—some were skeptical that it would gather enough support in time to pass. But the bill passed the Legislature with almost two-thirds of the House and Senate in support, and now heads to Newsom’s desk for signing.

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The future of nuclear plants around the world, which provide carbon-free power, has been a longstanding point of tension between factions of the environmental community, and Diablo Canyon is no exception. Opponents of keeping the 2,250-megawatt plant open have cited safety concerns over the plant’s location on seismic fault lines, as well as a lack of long-term storage for nuclear waste. Like other nuclear plants around the country that face competition from cheaper power sources, cost has also been an issue for Diablo Canyon. In 2016, PG&E said that it would shutter both units of the plant by 2025, as it faced both competition from cheap renewables and natural gas as well as rising costs for inspections and upgrades, including pricy changes to the cooling systems that could reach a price tag of over $1 billion.

But Diablo Canyon is an enormous source of reliable, baseload carbon-free power, as well as the state’s biggest single source of electricity, including fossil fuels: it provided a whopping 9% of California’s total power last year and one-fifth of its carbon-free power. With California seeking to get to 100% clean power by 2045, it’s clear that retiring Diablo Canyon would put a serious dent in those goals. Supporters of the plant say that nuclear power is a crucial component to aggressive emissions reductions and should play a long-term role in a clean energy future, by providing baseload power for intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

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As the war in Ukraine causes an enormous shift in global energy prices, California isn’t alone in reconsidering its nuclear plants. Germany and Japan are also rethinking their nuclear retirements and policies. Earlier this year, the Biden administration earmarked $6 billion to help some of the nation’s struggling nuclear plants stay open—funding that PG&E will now be eligible to apply for.

“Maintaining operations at Diablo Canyon will keep our power on while preventing millions of tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere,” Isabelle Boemeke of the group Save Clean Energy told NPR. “This is a true win-win for the people of California and our planet.”