The Future of California’s Last Nuclear Power Plant


At a gathering of nuclear professionals and enthusiasts in Anaheim a couple of months ago, the tenor of the conversations about the Diablo Canyon Power Plant — California’s last operating nuclear reactor — turned inconceivably hopeful.

The American Nuclear Society’s convention, held for four days in the shadow of Mickey Mouse, couldn’t have picked a better venue to uplift spirits. And no one flashed a bigger grin than Gene Nelson, a standout not just for his towering height but also for his signature headbands and his yearslong campaign to keep Diablo Canyon running beyond a planned shutdown by the end of 2025.

“I thought our chances were zero,” Nelson, a government liaison for Californians for Green Nuclear Power, told the conference attendees about the effort to maintain nuclear power in the state. “What has happened since then, it’s been like a snowball.”

Pushing that snowball is Gov. Gavin Newsom. Though it seemed improbable that Diablo Canyon’s supporters could overcome the numerous challenges to maintain the plant’s operations, a lot has changed and those hurdles appear to be getting swallowed up in the growing clean energy movement.

This month, Newsom proposed a measure that would provide a forgivable loan of $1.4 billion to the plant’s owner, Pacific Gas and Electric, to help resolve permitting, licensing and cost issues. The California Assembly would need to pass the legislation and have it signed in September to make the whole idea possible.

In addition, the U.S. Energy Department made $6 billion available to nuclear plant owners to help keep existing facilities operating.

But some of the bigger obstacles remain: receiving a license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and ensuring that the facility, which came online in 1985, meets current standards. There are also the state approvals by the California State Lands Commission, which leases the site to PG&E, the State Water Resources Control Board, the California Coastal Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission.

And there’s a settlement agreement that has been a guide for closing the plant.

“It’s a very time-sensitive act,” said Siva Gunda, a member of the California Energy Commission. “We kind of need to go through an expedited process.”

Gunda presented during a public conversation this month about the prospect of continuing the operations at Diablo, which produces about 9 percent of the state’s electricity.

The concern, Gunda and other energy officials argue, is that Diablo is needed to ensure the electric grid remains reliable as climate change contributes to extreme weather events and disasters. A potential shortage of electricity could happen between 2025 and 2030 after Diablo is scheduled to close, under the current model used to determine supply and demand for electricity. But critics say that model does not reflect the real impact of distributed resources like rooftop solar and home batteries, as well as current trends in consumption.

“If everything goes well, I think we will be OK,” Gunda said about plans for meeting future electricity demand. “This is a really big if. What we’re really doing is being cautious.”

Nelson and supporters of Diablo say it’s a good bet, though Newsom’s office promises that the extension would be for a limited time. “From our perspective, any extension has to be as short as possible,” Ana Matosantos, a member of Newsom’s cabinet and his point person on energy matters, said during the recent workshop. “It needs to be safe.”

But the hurried pace of the snowball hurtling toward extension has raised questions about overriding the settlement agreement and safety.

“In 2016, by deciding to retire the two Diablo Canyon units at their license expiration dates, PG&E resolved the extremely significant earthquake and environmental risks that would have been posed by continued operation of the reactors,” said Diane Curran, a lawyer for Mothers for Peace, which was a party to the settlement agreement to close the facility.

Even authors of a Stanford University and M.I.T. report supporting the extension of Diablo Canyon noted that one of the two units had to be taken offline in 2020, the last time California experienced rolling blackouts. That has prompted some to urge caution.

“I was a little bit heartbroken by the governor’s proposal,” said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California who has inspected many nuclear plants throughout the world. “The word safety is only mentioned once in passing. They really need to bend over backward and go the extra mile to ensure the safety and reliability issues.”

Ivan Penn is a Times business reporter covering alternative energy. He is based in Los Angeles.

For $1.5 million: an Arts and Crafts bungalow in Pasadena, a 1978 ranch house in Solvang and a 1903 Edwardian home in Berkeley.

Today’s tip comes from Bruce Buzalski, who recommends a Bay Area national monument:

“My very favorite place in California is Muir Woods. The trees are so majestic, and the gentle humid breeze that touches each one on its trip through the forest whispers to you with a soft and soothing voice. The aroma of the deep woods is heavenly.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

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“Sneakers” isn’t the most cinematic or hilarious movie in San Francisco film history. But with a cast that includes Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford and River Phoenix, the caper film is an exceptionally good hang. And it keeps getting better with age.

The 1992 movie about a ragtag group of hackers celebrates its 30th anniversary on Sept. 9. But even now it doesn’t feel dated, The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

“It has a plot driven by outdated technology, and was released in theaters at a time when everything except grunge music and Michael Jordan’s dunks had aged poorly. But with the exception of a couple of short, feathered female haircuts, every performance, wardrobe decision and grooming choice is timeless.”

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