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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Gabrielle Canon and agencies

California’s last nuclear power plant gets $1bn funding to extend life

The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was scheduled to shut down in 2025.
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was scheduled to shut down in 2025. Photograph: Michael Mariant/AP

California’s last nuclear plant could get a new lease on life after the Biden administration announced the approval of up to $1.1bn in conditional funding on Monday. The grant funds may offer a path to keeping the ageing facility known as Diablo Canyon online beyond its scheduled shutdown in 2025.

Tucked against picturesque bluffs along California’s central coast, the plant has faced a spate of controversies over the decades, for its impact on underwater ecosystems, the production of toxic waste and its proximity to earthquake fault lines. Its planned closure by 2025 seemed an all-but-certain step in California’s ambitious journey toward a greener future.

But concerns over the state’s ability to generate enough green energy to fill the gap left by the plant’s closure grew as the deadline neared. The state is far from finding a reliable and climate-conscious replacement for the energy produced by the plant. The largest single-source provider in the state generates more than 8% of California’s electricity, enough to supply more than 3 million residents. California is facing steep energy challenges that are only expected to worsen as the climate crisis intensifies.

It’s an issue being grappled with in states across the US. The nuclear power industry’s 92 reactors generate more than half of the country’s virtually carbon-free electricity, but about a dozen reactors have closed since 2013 in the face of competition from renewable energy and plants that burn plentiful natural gas.

As part of its effort to fight the climate crisis, the Biden administration set aside these grant funds to keep struggling nuclear plants online.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has also been among those strongly advocating for extending the life of Diablo Canyon, thereby giving the state more time to complete its ambitious green energy transition. In September, the governor pushed state lawmakers to approve a $1bn loan to keep the facility running an additional five years. The federal funds – the terms of which are still being negotiated – would help cover operating costs and be doled out over the course of four years.

Diablo Canyon still has obstacles to cross though, most significantly the need for a renewed license from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Significant upgrades were needed to ensure the plant could continue to operate safely and sustainably. And there are still vocal critics of any plan to keep it open.

“The danger of Diablo Canyon is that it is a tempting way of somehow assuming that there’s an easy way to avoid responsibility for the next phases of the clean energy transition,” said Ralph Cavanagh, the energy co-director of the environmental advocacy organization Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and clean energy program, who helped negotiated the plant’s decommission.

Diablo Canyon supplies 8% of California’s electricity.
Diablo Canyon supplies 8% of California’s electricity. Photograph: Michael Mariant/AP

Critics also highlight how the region is vulnerable to earthquakes and that there is no permanent place for disposing of radioactive nuclear waste.

Suzanne Hosn, a spokesperson for PG&E, the utility company that operates the plant, said Diablo can “safely withstand extreme natural events, including potential earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding”.

Hosn pointed to analyses performed in 2015 by the NRC after the 2011 crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan that was slammed by a tsunami, releasing radioactive materials and forcing the evacuation of some 80,000 residents. The NRC said in the 2015 reports that Diablo was safe from tsunamis including ones generated by underwater landslides and earthquakes.

Calling nuclear the “nation’s largest source of clean electricity”, US secretary of energy, Jennifer Granholm, said the grant was a “critical step toward ensuring that our domestic nuclear fleet will continue providing reliable and affordable power”.

Biden has set a goal of decarbonizing the grid by 2035, and the administration is relying on nuclear energy to play a part. The grant is intended to ensure that plants like Diablo Canyon can stay afloat.

“We can protect these facilities and the communities they serve,” Granholm said.

Reuters contributed reporting to this story

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