California proposes to extend life of last nuclear plant at cost of $1.4 billion

Godofredo A. Vásquez/AP Photo
·3 min read

Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed keeping open California's last nuclear plant for up to another 10 years as the state wrestles with how to meet power demand while it reduces its reliance on fossil fuels for energy.

Plans to start closing the Diablo Canyon Power Plant over the next three years would be halted at a cost of up to $1.4 billion under draft legislation Newsom sent to legislators late Thursday, angering some of the governor's environmentalist allies.

Diablo Canyon provides nearly a tenth of the state's electrical power. Critics have long sought its closure for reasons that include the potential danger of a radiation leak because of earthquakes along the seismically active central coast of California. It was scheduled to close by 2025.

The proposed legislation would direct the California Public Utilities Commission to set a new closure date of Oct. 31, 2029 for one unit, and Oct. 31, 2030, for the other, according to the governor's office. By 2026, regulators could consider an extension, but not beyond Oct. 31, 2035.

The bill would carve out an exemption from state regulations to allow operators to maintain operations at the plant without conducting extensive technical analysis of the environmental effects.

Extending the life of the nuclear plant would come at a cost. Pacific Gas & Electric, which operates the plant, applied to the U.S. Department of Energy's $6 billion program to preserve the operations of nuclear power plants — though it's unclear how much will be granted, or when. The language proposed by Newsom's office this week would allow the state to grant PG&E a $1.4 billion forgivable loan to cover the costs of relicensing. Any extension would additionally require approvals by federal, state and local regulatory entities, the governor's office said.

PG&E said it is prepared to keep the plant running. "We are proud of the role that DCPP plays in our state, and we stand ready to support should there be a change in state policy, to help ensure grid reliability for our customers and all Californians at the lowest possible cost," the utility said in a statement.

Newsom in recent weeks has been praised for his calls for bold action on climate change, which includes speeding up the state's carbon neutrality goals and transition to renewable energy. But news of this proposed extension for the Diablo Canyon Power Plant angered environmental advocates, who lambasted the governor for proposing the state circumvent its environmental protection laws to keep the plant going.

Newsom drew criticism this year for proposing legislation that would allow the state to buy more fossil fuel-powered electricity in an emergency. Legislators, some of them reluctantly, passed that measure with the hope the state would use its remaining $3.8 billion in the energy budget for more ambitious climate action.

A joint statement from Environment California, Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council said legislators should reject Newsom's new bill "out of hand."

"The findings used to justify these extraordinary provisions include no citations to published studies by any California regulator or agency recommending a further life extension for Diablo Canyon because there are none," the statement said. "With Governor Newsom and the legislature working to appropriate climate budget funds and advance ambitious climate legislation in the waning days of the legislative session, this proposal is a dangerous and costly distraction."

The governor's communications director, Erin Mellon, said the state is focused on maintaining energy reliability while accelerating efforts to combat climate change.

"The Governor supports keeping all options on the table as we build out our plan to ensure reliable energy this summer and beyond," Mellon said in a statement. "This includes considering a limited term extension of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, which continues to be an important resource as we transition away from fossil fuel generation to greater amounts of clean energy, with the goal of achieving 100 percent clean electric retail sales by 2045."