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Diablo Canyon: To be or not to be?

The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo County at Avila Beach. (Photo: Michael L. Baird, via Wikipedia)

A final decision looms on whether to close California’s last operating nuclear power plant.

The California Public Utilities Commission will hear closing arguments tomorrow, Nov. 28, on the fate of the controversial Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County. The commission is expected to make a decision by the end of the year.

“The consequences of a major seismic event at that facility are almost unthinkable from a public health and safety perspective.” — Matthew Freedman

Located near Avila Beach, the plant has been operating since 1985. It provides power for more than 3 million people and employs 1,500 people.

Administrative Law Judge Peter V. Allen earlier this month approved Pacific Gas & Electric’s plan to retire Diablo Canyon when its federal licenses expire in 2024 and 2025.

“California’s energy landscape is changing dramatically,” PG&E said in a response to the decision on its website. “State policies that focus on renewables and energy efficiency, coupled with projected lower customer electricity demand in the future, will result in a significant reduction in the need for electricity produced by Diablo Canyon Power Plant past 2025.”

Matthew Freedman, staff attorney for ratepayer advocacy organization the Utility Reform Network, praised the decision to close the plant.  The group has monitored costs of building and operating the plant for most of its existence and has seen a consistent trend of overspending since its inception.

“We think the state needs to plan for diverse and balanced portfolio of alternative resource,” he said. “The idea of shutting it down in the mid-2020s gives plenty of time for the state to plan for replacement options.”

He said there are reliability concerns with nuclear plants in general, citing the example of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The plant was abruptly closed in 2013 following the discovery of tubing wear issues which resulted in leaking radiation.

Moreover, he said there are serious safety concerns about the Diablo Canyon plant’s location in a seismically active part of the state. “The consequences of a major seismic event at that facility are almost unthinkable from a public health and safety perspective,” he said.

Two major faults along 250 miles, the Hosgri Fault and San Gregorio Fault, are located near Diablo Canyon.

Nelson said nuclear power is more efficient than wind and solar and isn’t dependent on the weather. He predicts electricity rates will go way up if the plant closes.

But Californians for Green Nuclear Power, another advocacy organization, has argued to keep the plant open.

Gene Nelson, a board member for the group, said the plant was built to last 100 years, a point contested by the Utility Reform Network, which calls that wishful thinking.  Nelson also says that as recently as 2010, PG&E was arguing that the most cost-effective decision was to re-license the plant.

Nelson said nuclear power is more efficient than wind and solar and isn’t dependent on the weather. He predicts electricity rates will go way up if the plant closes.

Regarding the safety concerns, Nelson contends that nuclear power is “by far” the safest power generation source. No one died in the Three Mile Island major nuclear plant accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, and an 18-year study of the health of the nearby residents noted no unusual health trends, according to the American Nuclear Society.

The Diablo Canyon plant has paid great attention to safety, Nelson said. “There’s never been any kind of significant issue about the plant,” he said.

PG&E’s plan for closure called for spending $363.4 million for retraining and retaining employees but the administrative law judge approved only $171.8 million for PG&E to recover in rates.  In the decision, the judge said PG&E was asking ratepayers to pay to retain every full-time employee there without adequately addressing how many would continue to work there without a retention payment or would leave even with one.

PG&E also asked that it be able to spend $85 million on nearby communities to make up for the loss of the plant, which is one of the largest employers and charitable contributors in the San Luis Obispo area.  The judge said ratepayers should not have to pay that cost, but PG&E could make the payment with shareholder funds.

Lee Johnson, economic development manager for San Luis Obispo,  said he hopes PG&E finds some way to mitigate the impact of the closure on the region. He said the plant has a $1 billion economic impact in the area, including property tax revenue and high-paying jobs for its employees.

“The community has had the burden or pleasure of having a nuclear plant in our backyard for an extended period of time,” he said. “Something should be done for the county.”

 


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