Five things to know about nuclear power in California
As California makes progress toward meeting its ambitious climate goals, one concern has gone unanswered: How can it stop burning fossil fuels while ensuring the power grid remains reliable?
That question is at the center of a debate over the state’s use of nuclear power.
Nuclear power does not rely on fossil fuels, so it doesn’t produce large volumes of planet-warming pollutants as other energy sources do. While it’s seen as a climate-friendly alternative, opponents cite safety threats and problems storing radioactive waste.
Now, nearly six years after the decision to close California’s last nuclear power plant — the 2,240-megawatt Diablo Canyon facility — Gov. Gavin Newsom says he is considering applying for federal funding that would keep it open past its scheduled 2025 closure. It’s a move, he said, that could avoid rolling blackouts and power shortages as the state transitions to renewables and braces for more extreme heat, wildfires, drought and floods.
Newsom has until May 19 to apply for the funding and would need the facility’s owner, Pacific Gas & Electric, to get on board, too. Some experts say if Diablo Canyon is shut down, there’s a good chance state officials will be scrambling to replace the lost megawatts.
So what should Californians know about the state’s reliance on nuclear power? Here are five key takeaways:
Diablo Canyon supplies enough power for 3 million people
Perched on California’s gusty Central Coast, Diablo Canyon has been supplying power to the state’s electric grid since 1985. But the plant near San Luis Obispo has been battered by controversy the entire time.
Just a few years into construction, PG&E found the site was near several seismic fault lines. That spurred lawsuits and massive, statewide protests, culminating in the largest arrest in the history of the country’s anti-nuclear movement. Despite the opposition, the plant was completed.
Today, the facility employs about 1,500 workers. Its 2,240 megawatts of electricity generation is roughly enough to support the needs of more than 3 million people, according to PG&E.
Nuclear power accounted for 9.3% of California’s electricity in 2020; natural gas was by far the primary source at about 37%, according to the California Energy Commission.
California gets nuclear power from out of state, too
Most of California’s nuclear energy is generated by Diablo Canyon, but it also imports nuclear-powered electricity from Arizona and Washington state, according to the California Energy Commission.
Twenty-eight states have at least one commercial nuclear reactor. But some also are facing possible closure in the decades to come.
Arizona’s Palo Verde Generating Station is the country’s largest power plant, with three nuclear reactors built in the late 1980s. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2011 granted the plant a license to continue operating until 2047.
Twelve commercial reactors have closed in the past decade, including in New York, Massachusetts, Nebraska and Iowa. Yet Oregon-based NuScale Power recently gained approval to build test reactors in Idaho in 2029 and 2030.
California imports more electricity than any other state — about 30% of its supply in 2020, including some from coal-fired plants that are larges sources of greenhouse gases, according to the California Energy Commission.
Hurdles remain to keeping the plant open
In 2016 PG&E announced plans to permanently shutter Diablo Canyon, noting that the transition to renewable energy would make continued operations too costly. The California Public Utilities Commission approved the closure in 2018, after the utility reached a settlement agreement with advocacy groups and environmentalists. One reactor is slated to close in 2024, followed by the second in 2025.
Faced with a potential power crunch as climate change ravages the state, Newsom said PG&E should consider applying for $6 billion in federal funds that the Biden administration set aside to rescue nuclear plants from closing.
But the prospect of keeping it open could face numerous technical, financial and logistical hurdles.
PG&E and the Nuclear Regulatory Commision, which issues the licenses to keep the plant operating, would have to expedite the renewal process in time for the quickly-approaching shutdown.
PG&E did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In a statement to CalMatters, the CPUC said “all options are on the table.”
“Electricity reliability for California is a main priority,” said spokesperson Terrie Prosper. “Extending the operation of Diablo Canyon will require examination by the CPUC.”