Disputes over safety, cost swirl a year after California OK’d plan to keep last nuke plant running

Nov 9, 2023, 10:08 PM

FILE - The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Avila Beach, Calif. The pow...

FILE - The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Avila Beach, Calif. The power plant was scheduled to close by 2025. But the Legislature changed course in September 2022 and opened a path for the reactors to keep running. On Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, operator Pacific Gas & Electric asked federal regulators to extend the plant's operation while, supporters and critics clashed at a state hearing on Diablo Canyon's future. (Laura Dickinson/The Tribune via AP, File)

(Laura Dickinson/The Tribune via AP, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — More than a year after California endorsed a proposal to extend the lifespan of its last nuclear power plant, disputes continue to swirl about the safety of its decades-old reactors, whether more than $1 billion in public financing for the extension could be in jeopardy and even if the electricity is needed in the dawning age of renewables.

Late last month, a state judge tentatively approved the blueprint to keep the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant operating for an additional five years, until 2030. The proposal, which could get finalized later this month, imposed several conditions, including that federal nuclear safety regulators greenlight the longer run and that a state loan supporting the extension is not canceled.

The twin reactors, located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, began operating in the mid-1980s. They supply up to 9% of the state’s electricity on any given day.

Environmentalists argue California has adequate power without the reactors and that their continued operation could hinder development of new sources of clean energy. They also warn that long-delayed testing on one of the reactors poses a safety risk that could result in an accident, a claim disputed by operator Pacific Gas & Electric.

Public Utilities Commission Administrative Law Judge Ehren D. Seybert’s proposed ruling did not directly address yet another question: Whether a past felony conviction against PG&E might pose an obstacle to the government financing for the extension.

California is the birthplace of the modern environmental movement and for decades has had a fraught relationship with nuclear power. In 2016, PG&E, environmental groups and plant worker unions reached an agreement to close Diablo Canyon by 2025. But the Legislature voided the deal last year at the urging of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said the power is needed to ward off blackouts as climate change stresses the energy system.

PG&E says it wants to keep the plant open to “ensure statewide electrical reliability and combat climate change” at the direction of the state. But the plant has to clear a series of state and federal regulatory hurdles, and it remains in dispute how much ratepayers will ultimately have to pay to keep it open.

On Tuesday, the same day that PG&E submitted its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to keep the reactors running, supporters and critics clashed in a state utilities commission hearing over whether the plan is a sound investment or a financially reckless gamble. The utility is seeking a 20-year extension, typical in the industry, but emphasized the state would control how long the plant runs.

Matthew Freedman, an attorney with the advocacy group The Utility Reform Network, told regulators that PG&E was looking for a “blank check” from ratepayers.

The fight is playing out as the long-struggling nuclear industry sees a potential rebirth in the era of global warming. Nuclear power doesn’t produce carbon pollution like fossil fuels, but it leaves behind waste that can remain dangerously radioactive for centuries.

In September, environmental and anti-nuclear groups called on federal regulators to shut down one of Diablo Canyon’s reactors. Friends of the Earth and Mothers for Peace said in a petition filed with the NRC that tests and inspections have been delayed for nearly 20 years on a pressure vessel in the Unit 1 reactor. They also argued that the steel wall in Unit 1 might be deteriorating from sustained exposure to radiation and is becoming susceptible to cracking, a condition technically known as embrittlement.

The pressure vessels took no action on the request and instead asked agency staff to review it.

PG&E has maintained the plant is safe, an assessment endorsed by the NRC.

PG&E was expected to begin embrittlement testing on the vessel last month, with the plant shut down for refueling. But it told legislators that workers couldn’t remove samples inside the vessel because they did not have the correct equipment to access them.

PG&E has said workers would try again during the next refueling period, which could be as much as two years away. Once removed, evaluating the material can take another year. Under that scenario, it’s possible that information might not be available until after state reviews are completed and the NRC has considered the utility’s request for extended licenses.

State Sen. Robert Laird and Assemblymember Dawn Addis, both Democrats, urged PG&E to determine if alternative testing can be used. In a letter to the utility, they lamented the lost opportunity to answer “allegations that the vessel is dangerously embrittled.”

Financing questions also have emerged.

In 2016, a federal jury found PG&E guilty of multiple felonies for failing to properly inspect gas pipelines before a 2010 blast that incinerated a neighborhood in San Bruno, south of San Francisco, killing eight people. Federal rules generally prohibit the government from entering into a contract with any corporation with a federal felony conviction, though exceptions can be made.

The Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, an anti-nuclear group, has alleged that PG&E failed to disclose its conviction before it received conditional approval from the U.S. Department of Energy last year for $1.1 billion in funding for the extension.

Both the Energy Department and PG&E declined to answer directly when asked by The Associated Press if the conviction was disclosed to the department. DOE spokesman Chad Smith said in an email that “DOE is in active discussions” with the utility, without providing further specifics. PG&E said it is eligible for the money because it already received conditional approval last year.

The Biden administration gave preliminary approval for the Energy Department funding in November. The financing came through the administration’s civil nuclear credit program, which is intended to bail out financially distressed owners or operators of nuclear power reactors as part of the administration’s effort to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, compared with 2005 levels.

The alliance said that if a failure to disclose the conviction is confirmed, PG&E could see its hopes for a longer run at Diablo Canyon extinguished — and possibly expose the company to penalties. Also at risk could be a $1.4 billion, forgivable state loan authorized by the Legislature, the alliance said, which is expected to be paid back with the federal funds.

United States News

Associated Press

Montana miner backs off expansion plans, lays off 100 due to lower palladium prices

The owner of two precious metals mines in south-central Montana is stopping work on an expansion project and laying off about 100 workers because the price of palladium fell sharply in the past year, mine representatives said Thursday. Sibanye-Stillwater announced the layoffs Wednesday at the only platinum and palladium mines in the United States, near […]

1 hour ago

Facebook's Meta logo sign is seen at the company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., on, Oct. 28, 2...

Associated Press

Meta shuts down thousands of fake Facebook accounts that were primed to polarize voters ahead of 2024

Meta said it removed 4789 Facebook accounts in China that targeted the United States before next year’s election.

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Federal judge blocks Montana’s first-in-the-nation ban on TikTok, says it’s unconstitutional

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge ruled Thursday that Montana can’t enforce a first-in-the-nation law banning the video sharing app TikTok in the state while a legal challenge to the law moves through the courts. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said the ban “oversteps state power and infringes on the Constitutional right of users […]

1 hour ago


KTAR Video

Video: How MCSO extradited Lori Vallow Daybell to Phoenix

KTAR News reporter Colton Krolak breaks down Sheriff Paul Penzone’s presser regarding how Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office extradited ‘Doomsday Mom’ Lori Vallow Daybell to Phoenix.

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Indiana man suspected in teen girl’s disappearance charged with murder after remains found

ARLINGTON, Ind. (AP) — A 59-year-old man suspected in the June disappearance of a 17-year-old neighbor has been charged with murder after human remains were found buried in a pit on his central Indiana property. Patrick Scott of Arlington appeared Thursday in Rush County Circuit Court for an initial hearing. Scott also is charged with […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Publishing industry heavy-hitters sue Iowa over state’s new school book-banning law

The nation’s largest publisher and several bestselling authors, including novelists John Green and Jodi Picoult, are part of a lawsuit filed Thursday challenging Iowa’s new law that bans public school libraries and classrooms from having practically any book that depicts sexual activity. The lawsuit is the second in the past week to challenge the law, […]

2 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Follow @KTAR923...

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

Follow @KTAR923...

The best ways to honor our heroes on Veterans Day and give back to the community

Veterans Day is fast approaching and there's no better way to support our veterans than to donate to the Military Assistance Mission.


Desert Institute for Spine Care

Desert Institute for Spine Care (DISC) wants to help Valley residents address back, neck issues through awake spine surgery

As the weather begins to change, those with back issues can no longer rely on the dry heat to aid their backs. That's where DISC comes in.

Disputes over safety, cost swirl a year after California OK’d plan to keep last nuke plant running