SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — After 40 years, Rochelle Becker’s fight is coming to an end.
Becker listened intently to public speakers at the San Luis Obispo botanical gardens in October, where the community weighed in on a plan California regulators are considering to close the Diablo Canyon power plant, the state’s last nuclear generating station.
Under an agreement reached in June by Becker; labor and environmental groups; and California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the plant will close in 2025.
It’s a big win for Becker and coastal advocacy groups long transfixed on the goal of convincing state officials that closing Diablo Canyon is the only way to deal with alarming safety concerns.
Earthquake fault lines, including the nearby San Andreas, stretch out along the coast between Los Angeles and Monterey, where Diablo Canyon’s reactors churn out 2,240 megawatts of electricity and serve nearly 3 million people.
With the air and oceans warming, the activists add climate change to the reasons the state should act fast to sign off on the plant closure.
The nuclear reactors represent 7 percent of the state’s emissions-free electricity, which today helps keep California from feeding its voracious energy appetite with dirtier fuels. But to Becker, Diablo Canyon’s outsized role in California’s energy portfolio stands in the way of a state goal to get most of its power from wind, solar, energy efficiency and energy storage technology developed in Silicon Valley.
Non-nuclear clean energy: That’s the future, Becker says.
Diablo Canyon, she says, "is the only thing that holds it back."
‘They all need to be retired’
One of the main architects of the agreement with PG&E, a 90-year-old former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority and general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, boasts that the Diablo Canyon deal is a model for other states looking to ease nuclear out of their energy picture.
"What we did is a pattern for every coal-fired, gas-fired or nuclear-fired plant in America," said David Freeman, who now works for Friends of the Earth. "They all need to be retired sooner or later."
Yet California’s story is increasingly becoming the exception in states where nuclear power plants are facing financial headwinds and looking for public bailouts.
Illinois lawmakers and a Republican governor at the start of this month agreed to subsidize Midwest reactors operated by Chicago-based Exelon Corp., the nation’s largest nuclear operator. The legislative fix in the Land of Lincoln built on a 12-year, $8 billion nuclear subsidy program agreed to by regulators in New York last summer with the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). Part of the rationale was to keep upstate nuclear generators operating instead of turning to natural gas for electricity, which would increase greenhouse gas emissions.
The decision by PG&E to pull the plug on its nuclear plant is, in some ways, the end result of decades of environmental activism targeting Diablo Canyon. The plant secured a federal permit in 1967 and was complete in 1973. Nuclear power was booming, but safety concerns loomed large for the plant from its inception.
Decades of calculated maneuvers by anti-nuclear activists to keep the pressure on state officials chipped away at public support. But in recent years, the plant fell victim to the combination of declining electricity demand and California’s singular focus on transforming its electric grid.
From PG&E CEO Tony Earley’s vantage point, two things doomed the plant: economics and California climate policies.
Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill last year that raised California’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to 50 percent by 2030, up from 33 percent by 2020. PG&E unsuccessfully lobbied to make it a clean energy standard, which would have included nuclear power.
"We fought to make it a 50 percent greenhouse-gas-free requirement, in which case Diablo would not have shut down," Earley said at a conference of utility regulators in November.
"It pained me. It was a very difficult decision," he said. "We just couldn’t justify it."
Diablo is competing against rising amounts of large-scale solar power, which is so plentiful in California that some goes unused in the spring. Independently owned rooftop solar panels, and declining demand from cities and counties opting to buy their own power, are also squeezing PG&E.
If it stays open, Diablo Canyon could spend billions of dollars refurbishing its water intake system to comply with U.S. EPA rules for power plants that use ocean water for cooling.
As a result of all these factors, PG&E concluded it would be cheaper to shut Diablo down than to keep it running for fewer and fewer hours each year. By 2025, the company projects it will run so infrequently that it will need to bill customers 19 cents per kilowatt-hour to cover all its costs, compared with 5-6 cents per kWh currently. By 2030, it could cost 21.4 cents per kWh.
"As California continues to move closer to a cleaner energy future, a large non-dispatchable unit such as Diablo Canyon no longer ‘fits’ the needed generation profile of the changing energy landscape," the company told the California Public Utilities Commission.
A ‘slow drip’
Becker joined the anti-nuclear movement in 1976 as a volunteer with the Abalone Alliance.
"I got Jackson Browne his guitar and the mothers their toothbrushes," she said. She joined the Mothers for Peace, an anti-Vietnam War group that shifted its focus to Diablo Canyon in the early 1970s. They argued against the hazards posed by nuclear waste and the development of nuclear weapons.
"Our righteous indignation might have felt good, but it didn’t get us anywhere," Becker reflected.
In 2005, she split off from Mothers for Peace and started the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility with John Geesman, a former appointee at the California Energy Commission. The two began what Becker describes as a "slow drip" of monitoring agency proceedings, nudging policymakers and events on the ground. They focused on state-level agencies, rather than the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and they decided to focus on economics rather than safety, despite their concern about earthquakes.
"I don’t think it’s worth wasting half a breath on the NRC," Becker said. "They didn’t look for an earthquake fault at Diablo Canyon, and that ended up costing us $4.5 billion." While the plant was still under construction in the late 1970s, the U.S. Geological Survey discovered the Hosgri Fault less than 3 miles away; seismic retrofits took until 1985 to complete.
In 2007, Becker helped enact a state law that required the California Energy Commission to fund new seismic studies, but the studies were to be used to underpin a cost-benefit analysis, not a safety analysis. Then, in 2009, when PG&E filed to renew its license with the NRC, Becker was able to argue that the cost of relicensing would be far more than the $85 million that PG&E had estimated. "You can’t pretend it’s just the paperwork," she said. "What does safety cost?"
The CPUC ruled that the relicensing was within the scope of its own jurisdiction because of the costs associated with relicensing. It gave Becker and Geesman a toehold to argue against relicensing in front of state officials instead of at the NRC.
"We’ve got a new administration, but thank God California doesn’t have to depend on anything at the federal government level in order to do this," Becker said. "It’s all state now, and it’s so important for me."
Another few drips came in 2008, when the Shoreline Fault was discovered less than a mile from the plant, and in 2011, when an earthquake shut down Japan’s largest nuclear plant. That led to ballooning cost estimates for relicensing and greater awareness about the prospect for a long, expensive shutdown if a major earthquake shook Diablo Canyon.
Becker, Geesman and Friends of the Earth also pursued lines of argument at the State Lands Commission, which needed to authorize an extension of PG&E’s lease on the coastal property, and at the State Water Resources Control Board, which is in charge of implementing rules under the Clean Water Act for power plants that use ocean water to cool the steam that runs their turbines.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, which plays an active role in California energy policy debates, projects that electricity consumers will save more than $1 billion over time if PG&E replaces nuclear power with energy efficiency programs and renewable resources. Making those replacements, said Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of NRDC’s energy program, will show "a growing incompatibility between them and the giant baseload plants."
"What you expose at that point is the cost of inflexibility in part," Cavanagh said. "The other thing you expose as these plants age is the cost of refurbishing them."
It’s not cheap
Shutting down Diablo Canyon will be expensive. On top of decommissioning costs, which PG&E estimates at $3.8 billion, the agreement includes $350 million in retention bonuses to entice employees to stay through 2025. PG&E, which is San Luis Obispo County’s largest private taxpayer, also plans to give local agencies $49 million to compensate for the loss of the plant.
The state’s next-to-last nuclear plant, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, shut down in 2013 because of malfunctioning steam generators. It forced a shift to gas-fired plants, which caused emissions to increase and cost ratepayers an estimated $3.3 billion.
"We cured a nuclear terror problem with increased greenhouse gases," said Freeman, the former TVA chairman and manager of the LA Department of Water and Power. "That wasn’t any good."
In 2013, Friends of the Earth commissioned an analysis from the Sacramento-based Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies to explore the feasibility of replacing Diablo’s power with a mix of energy efficiency measures and renewable power.
They presented it to PG&E’s chief sustainability officer, Melissa Lavinson.
Freeman said the first meeting with PG&E reached no agreement, but the company agreed to negotiate. The one thing everyone agreed on: PG&E wouldn’t replace the nuclear power with natural gas turbines. It had to be "greenhouse-gas-free," Freeman said.
But that’s not the same thing as California’s RPS, which includes primarily wind and solar power. Under any agreement with PG&E, carbon-free could also include large hydropower dams. PG&E envisions buying three "tranches" of power, starting with energy efficiency, then emissions-free power, and then RPS-eligible renewables in volumes large enough to meet a 55 percent renewable target starting in 2031.
The first installment of replacement power is expected to cost $1.3 billion through 2024. That, plus the worker-retention bonuses, has prompted PG&E to request a 1.6 percent rate increase. PG&E maintains that continuing to operate the plant would be more expensive in the long run, at up to $1.7 billion per year through 2030.
PG&E’s decision to close Diablo nine years from now poses different challenges from the closure of San Onofre. Critics of the plan cite the possibility that running the plant with a known shutdown date so far in the future will lead to PG&E cutting costs up until the closure, with an increasing risk of accidents.
"I wouldn’t want our name on any document that says nine more years of running that damn thing with all those risks is just fine with us," said Jane Swanson, a member of Mothers for Peace.
"If you believe you’re going to have the same quality staff you have today, you’re smoking something," Robert Budnitz, a member of the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Committee, told PG&E executives at an Oct. 20 meeting. "That’s the tragedy of the nine-year plan. A plant that closed in two months, they didn’t have this problem."
Budnitz also raised another safety issue: "The sort of decisions that you will sensibly make can’t produce as much safety in the last six months as if the plant was going to run to the end. You’re not, with three months to go, going to spend $180 million, are you?"
The agreement’s most vocal opponent is Michael Shellenberger, the vehemently pro-nuclear president of the group Environmental Progress. He has objected to the plan on the grounds that nuclear is climate-friendly, that the risks of an accident are overblown, that the replacement power will not all be emissions-free and that PG&E is overestimating the cost to keep Diablo open.
He said he’s considering challenging California’s jurisdiction over the agreement.
"If efficiency had worked to replace nuclear, they would have done it before," Shellenberger said. "What’s happened to Diablo here is where other places could go, too, if they don’t take measures to include nuclear in their RPS."
Freeman dismissed Shellenberger.
"He’s kind of about as accurate as Donald Trump," he said. "Just because a person is a climatologist does not mean he knows a damn thing about the dangers of nuclear power. There are the carbon-only environmentalists, and they’re a threat to mankind.
"We’ve got to replace every damn fossil fuel plant in the country over the next 30 years, and here is a green yardstick for doing it," Freeman said. "I would think that if we’re serious about not all moving to the North Pole, every damn coal plant and nuclear plant in the country should be given this treatment."