The Nuclear Regulatory Commission held a controversial public hearing Thursday evening in San Luis Obispo on the decommissioning of the Diablo Nuclear Power Plant although an extension of the facility’s lifespan is being pursued. Unless reauthorized, the federal license for Pacific Gas & Electric’s 2.2 GW plant along the Central Coast terminates in 2025.
Speakers–from nuclear supporters to watchdogs–complained to NRC officials about the cognizant dissonance of pursuing conflicting ends. Many worried about the impact of a possible re-licensing given the plant’s maintenance deferrals, and the adequacy of a shortened re-licensing process. Others raised concerns about the impact of Diablo’s closure mid-decade on the state’s power system.
The NRC said that the public meeting on deactivating the plant is separate from a plant re-licensing request. “While continuing with their decommissioning actions, in light of recent political interest, PG&E has told us that they intend to pursue parallel paths in case a decision is later made to renew their operating licenses as a result of changing state policies,” Victor Dricks, NRC spokesperson, told Current.
PG&E will continue with the “actions it has filed with regulators regarding decommissioning unless those actions are superseded by new state policies,” said the utility’s Decommissioning Licensing Supervisor Brandy Lopez.
The utility also “expects” to file for a share of the $6 billion the Department of Energy will allocate to keep economically challenged nuclear plants online, although the regulated plant is not struggling financially.
“It’s Kafkaesque,” said David Weisman, Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility spokesperson, of the dual plant decommissioning and extension paths. “Ratepayer dollars are being spent on two simultaneous tracks with completely divergent outcomes.”
“It’s difficult to focus on decommissioning when the plan is presently being sabotaged by politicians and PG&E is threatening to break its promise to close the plant in 2025,” Jane Swanson, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace spokesperson, told the NRC.
Californians for Green Nuclear Power, which has been pushing to keep Diablo running to avoid higher greenhouse gases from expected sources of replacement electricity, want decommissioning activities suspended and the focus on Diablo Canyon’s license extension. “There’s no need to be spending ratepayer’s money if the plant will remain open,” said Carl Wurtz, the organization’s president.
If Diablo shuts down in three years, the state’s power will be “imperiled for decades,” added CGNP Government Liaison Gene Nelson.
Cost estimates imperiled
The cost to decommission Diablo was estimated in 2019 at $5 billion, but AN4R managed to get the cost reduced to $3.9 billion during last year’s decommissioning proceeding at the California Public Utilities Commission. That included reducing from seven to two years the time to move the spent radioactive fuels from pools into onsite casks and then restoring the site. If Diablo remains online beyond the expiration of its operational licenses for the two units, the “cost estimates are thrown out of whack,” according to Weisman.
PG&E has spent about $175 million as part of its decommissioning preparation work, he said. That amount exceeds the NRC’s 3% limit on decommissioning work before the formal license expiration, but the agency agreed to give PG&E a dispensation.
Last week, Rep. Salud Carbajal insisted that if there’s a temporary plant extension plan, families in his district “must be shown a clear roadmap” on NRC relicensing, “safety and environmental processes, and the plan for the additional nuclear waste that San Luis Obispo will be asked to keep in its backyard for more years to come.”
Carbajal also wants assurances that any plant extension will not jeopardize renewable energy proposals in his region, including the Morro Bay 1.5 GW offshore wind project slated for lease sale this fall. He also objects to Gov. Gavin Newsom and officials in Washington, D.C., “solely” deciding the fate of the plant.
In 2016, several stakeholder representatives agreed to the shutdown of Diablo when its licenses for its two units expire in 2024 and 2025. PG&E considered the plant uneconomic. The settlement was later approved by the CPUC.
Newsom did an about-face on the plant closure because of extreme temperatures’ impact on grid reliability, insisting it is kept open. In addition, last month, DOE extended its application deadline for funding to be disbursed to qualifying nuclear plants that are economically marginal following requests by the utility and Newsom. Also, a three-member majority of supervisors asked the governor in February to keep Diablo online.
Swanson characterized the officials’ reversals as “multiple betrayals of trust.”
San Luis Obispo Mothers also objected to Newsom’s record of campaign contributions from PG&E. The utility has contributed more than $10 million to support Newsom’s campaigns and ballot measures since 1998. The organization added the utility also has “contributed hundreds of thousands to Newsom’s wife’s foundation.”