California · Energy

Lightbulb Moment? Newsom considers saving Diablo Canyon nuclear plant from 2026 closure

Facing a three year window before Diablo Canyon Nuclear Generating station – California’s last-remaining nuclear power plant closes, Gov. Gavin Newsom has indicated a willingness to rethink the planned shuttering.

Diablo Canyon, operated by PG&E, is responsible for producing up to 9 percent of California’s power and does so without emitting greenhouse gasses, a major boon for environmental advocates hoping to transition the state away from climate change-driving fuels.

Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported Newsom as indicating the Golden State would seek a portion of the $6 billion unveiled by the Biden administration to rescue aging and closing nuclear reactors.

“The requirement is by May 19 to submit an application, or you miss the opportunity to draw down any federal funds if you want to extend the life of that plant,” Newsom told the paper. “We would be remiss not to put that on the table as an option.”

A joint Stanford-MIT study last year found that if Diablo Canyon were to remain open to 2035, the report states that it would reduce California power sector carbon emissions by over 10 percent from 2017 levels and save $2.6 billion in power system costs. 

With another 10 years of operation, Diablo Canyon would offer power system cost savings up to $21 billion, the report found, while sparing 90,000 acres of land from use for energy production. 

Newsom’s shift on nuclear power, his administration said after a Times editorial board interview on Thursday, reflects only a short-term solution and that he still supports an eventual closure of the plant.

But California’s chief executive leaving the door open, the paper noted, is an obvious sign to the shift in how American leaders are perceiving the benefits and costs of nuclear power:

But Newsom’s willingness to consider a short-term reprieve reflects a shift in the politics of nuclear power after decades of public opposition fueled by high-profile disasters such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, as well as the Cold War.

Nuclear plants are America’s largest source of climate-friendly power, generating 19% of the country’s electricity last year. That’s almost as much as solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower dams and all other zero-carbon energy sources combined.

Newsom told the paper that he’s mulled extending the life of Diablo Canyon since August 2020, when California’s Independent Systems Operator implemented the first round of large-scale rolling blackouts in 18 years.

Beyond rolling blackouts, the paper reported a Newsom spokesperson as also naming likely power shortages in the upcoming years if Diablo Canyon closed on time.

Such projections came from California’s grid operator.

Newsom told the paper that reliable electricity is “profoundly important.”

He also acknowledged the growing number of scientists, activists and former U.S. energy secretaries who have pressed him to rescue Diablo for climate reasons.

“Some would say it’s the righteous and right climate decision,” Newsom told the pub.

Beyond Newsom’s willingness, there are overlapping government agencies required to keep the lights on at the San Luis Obispo County-based plant. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission would need to expedite a renewal of its operating license, California state agencies would similarly need to sign-off, and the state Legislature would need to authorize continued use.

Last session, the Legislature declined to even grant a committee vote on a measure drafted by Asm. Jordan Cunningham (R–San Luis Obispo) to extend the plant’s life.

Before his departure from Congress, former Rep. Devin Nunes (R–Tulare) launched a similar bid to save the plant from closure.

PG&E, the plant operator, would also need to join California in its bid for Federal funds.

In a statement to the publication, PG&E left itself open to evaluating potential extension, with a spokeswoman saying it was “always open to considering all options to ensure continued safe, reliable, and clean energy delivery to our customers.”

“PG&E is committed to California’s clean energy future, and as a regulated utility, we are required to follow the energy policies of the state,” PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said.

The Times reported that Newsom asked PG&E to “consider what it would take to keep Diablo Canyon open longer, including the possible role of federal funds.”

“Based on the conversations we’ve been having with PG&E, it’s not their happy place,” he told the paper.

Reid Stone is a contributing reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun.