Pacific Gas and Electric announced last month an agreement in which they plan to close Diablo Canyon by 2025. Basically, Diablo Canyon’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses finish in 2024 and 2025 (two-unit plant), so PG&E would have to make a decision, fairly soon, on whether to attempt to renew the licenses. PG&E decided not to file for renewed licenses. In other words, if this agreement holds, California’s only nuclear plant will close in about eight years.
Closing Diablo Canyon before it needs to be closed would be a disaster for the environment, the grid, the ratepayers, and the people who live and work near the plant.
The announcement raises a lot of questions. It is not quite what it seems to be.
So, the first question might be: why is the announcement coming now? Does it take eight years to get an NRC license renewal? Well, maybe. NRC license renewals for controversial plants can take many years. For example, Duane Arnold and Vermont Yankee are sister plants. Duane Arnold’s license review took two years. Vermont Yankee, beset with protesters and near large anti-nuclear groups based in Massachusetts, received its license renewal only after five years.
Meanwhile, Indian Point applied for license renewal in April 2007, five years before its license expiration date of September 2013 and 2015 (two units). The licenses are still under consideration by the NRC, but because the owners submitted the license applications in a timely fashion and the NRC review process can be slow, the NRC has extended the original licenses for plant operation. From the point of view of getting an NRC license extension, Diablo Canyon didn’t even have to apply to the NRC until 2019. So why this announcement now for Diablo Canyon? Why not wait a few years?
This announcement came now because Diablo Canyon also needed an extension of its lease on waterfront land (for its cooling water intake and so forth) by 2018. This month, the California Lands Commission held hearings on granting the extension. Also this month, because of those hearings, five pro-nuclear groups in California held a March for Environmental Hope. This march started in San Francisco and ended in Sacramento, in the hearing room about the lease extension. In other words, the state of California Lands Commission was on the spot to say “yes” or “no” to Diablo Canyon.
I rarely feel sorry for bureaucrats, but I almost do in this case. Many California politicians are anti-nuclear, which would have meant that the Lands Commission would try to oblige them and shut down Diablo Canyon. Yet, there was no scientific basis for such a decision, and any decision against the power plant could easily be challenged in court. Plus, the pro-nuclear marchers were showing up at the hearing. What to do?
The answer was: kick the can down the road. Endorse the agreement. But to understand that answer, we have to understand who made the agreement, and what the agreement was.
Now, as a usual thing, an agreement about operating a plant is made between a state and a plant owner. Such agreements are enacted by Public Service Boards or Public Utilities Commissions (quasi-judicial bodies). This agreement, on the other hand, is an agreement between PG&E and several other entities: they agreed on a joint proposal they presented to the California Public Utilities Commission. Who are these entities? Rod Adams describes the agreement in his post at Forbes: NRDC Announces PG&E Has Agreed to Kill Diablo Canyon.
Yes, you read that right. NRDC: Natural Resources Defense Council. The majority of signers were anti-nuclear groups: Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Environment California and Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. Two more groups were unions of utility employees (IBEW and Coalition of California Utility Employees), and then there was PG&E. The joint proposal these groups recommended is that the Lands Commission continue to lease land and allow Diablo Canyon to operate past the 2018 date of their California land license. In return, PG&E will not seek a renewed NRC license for 2025.
The can has been kicked down the road.
The crowing and the consequences
PG&E’s press release about Diablo Canyon Includes the statement that “California’s new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for Diablo Canyon’s electricity output.”
Meanwhile, others said closing Diablo will make it easier to bring more wind onto the grid (given that nuclear is just so reliable at supplying electricity, which used to be the point, it can’t ramp down quickly enough to accommodate the fluctuations of weather-dependent wind).
About here, no doubt, people would expect me to discuss the millions of difficulties with integrating wind to the grid, and the tons of carbon dioxide that will go into the atmosphere as consequence of shutting down this plant. For example, when the much-smaller Vermont Yankee plant closed, the natural gas and greenhouse gas emissions on the New England grid went up 7%, according to Utility Dive.
Yes, closing nuclear means increasing carbon emissions. Closing nuclear means increasing natural gas, pretty much everywhere. The trouble is that a carbon increase is so obvious that it almost doesn’t bear repeating. I want to look at some other things instead.
The fine print
PG&E isn’t actually going to replace Diablo Canyon’s power with low-carbon power. This isn’t really the fine print. It’s in pretty big letters in the Joint Proposal about Diablo Canyon (link above).
In words and in press releases, PG&E talks about replacing Diablo Canyon power with low-carbon power. Meanwhile, in the actual Joint Proposal, PG&E promises to replace the 17,600 gigawatt-hours of low carbon electricity with 2,000 gigawatt hours per year of “reduced energy consumption,” and another 2,000 gigawatt hours of “GHG-free energy resources or energy efficiency.” There seems to be no acknowledgment of the separation between 4,000 gigawatt hours (we will do this by 2025, says PG&E) and 17,600 gigawatt hours (nuclear provides this at Diablo Canyon.) Michael Shellenberger’s article “How Do We Know? We Read the Fine Print” has the details.
Meanwhile, the actual grid situation in Southern California is pretty bad, even with Diablo Canyon on-line. As the San Diego Union-Tribune reported: Heat wave raises worries about power outages. A summary of that article: rotating outages are being planned…but so far….”the system is holding up.”
In a way, reading various articles about rotating outage planning in Southern California is a little like “reading the fine print.” Nobody seems to be mentioning these rolling black-out plans in the same breath as they mention the plan to close Diablo Canyon. And California is still a long-way from its goal of 50 percent renewables. In Washington state, for instance, the renewable portfolio standard is 15 percent by 2020. But it is aimed principally at diversifying, not de-carbonizing, the state’s already abundantly clean energy supply. As such, eligible renewables integrate, rather than compete with, clean hydro and nuclear. All are critical for meeting a state’s clean power goals.
In summary, the low-carbon power from Diablo Canyon cannot be replaced by more wind turbines. PG&E doesn’t even claim it will do this. The nuclear power will almost certainly be replaced by gas-fired power. However, if you read the rotating-outage articles, you will note that Southern California is currently having a hard time getting enough gas.
I fear that the overly-Utopian dream of a purely-renewable-power-supply may soon turn into a nightmare for Southern California. However, I hope that in eight years, pro-nuclear advocates can turn this around and keep Diablo Canyon open. (My post at my own blog: Diablo Canyon and What To Do About It).
With nuclear power, I hope we can change this potential nightmare back into a low-carbon reality.
(Post by Meredith Angwin)