Federal regulators Thursday granted an exemption that will allow the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant to stay operating while it pursues permission to keep operating past 2025.
The decision by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission means Diablo Canyon can keep running under its current license as Pacific Gas & Electric seeks full approval to extend its lifespan. PG&E has until Dec. 31 to submit its renewal application, which must outline issues related to safety and integrity of the aging reactors.
PG&E said it will seek permission to keep the plant, now slated for shutdown in 2025, operating for up to 20 additional years — the full extent that is customary for a nuclear power plant application.
But state officials have not indicated that they intend to allow Diablo Canyon to stay open past 2030. Under a law passed last summer, SB 846, Unit 1 can keep running through Oct. 31, 2029, and Unit 2 until Oct. 31, 2030.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators say allowing Diablo Canyon to provide electricity until 2030 is critical to ensure the reliability of the grid as California transitions to renewable energy and weans itself off fossil fuels.
“We are pleased the NRC approved our exemption request,” said Paula Gerfen, PG&E’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer. “Aligned with Senate Bill 846, PG&E will continue on the path to extend our operations beyond 2025 to improve statewide electric system reliability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as additional renewable energy and carbon-free resources come online.”
Environmental justice groups and anti-nuclear advocates lambasted today’s decision, citing long-held concerns over disposal of spent nuclear waste and safety issues related to the plant’s proximity to seismic fault lines.
Diablo Canyon is California’s last nuclear power plant. Located near Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County, the 2,240-megawatt plant began operating in 1985.
The exemption is the first step toward a full extension of the plant past 2025. As part of the license renewal process, the federal agency said PG&E needs to provide detailed information on the condition of the reactors. The agency’s review of an application typically takes about two years.
In a news release, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the exemption would “not present undue risk to the public health and safety, and is consistent with the common defense and security.”
Newsom says the plant, which provides 10% of the state’s electricity, should stay open until 2030 to help the state meet its clean energy targets and avoid power outages.
During an intense heat wave that prompted a state of emergency, state legislators and Newsom approved a $1.4 billion loan for PG&E to maintain operations at the plant until 2030.
In 2016 PG&E announced plans to close Diablo Canyon, citing the cost of operations. The California Public Utilities Commission approved the closure in 2018, after the utility reached a settlement agreement with advocacy groups and environmentalists. Under that agreement, one reactor was set to shut down in 2024 and the second in 2025.
Diane Curran, lead attorney for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, said the federal agency “in its bow to PG&E, completely ignored its own rules, with far-reaching implications for all its safety standards.”
Hallie Templeton, legal director of Friends of the Earth, called the decision “an ominous warning sign for how independent the NRC will be in evaluating the earthquake risk and the overall operational integrity of the Diablo Canyon reactors.”
“We will consider all available means to ensure that they are held to the letter of the law on this and future decisions and do not put people and the environment at risk,” she added.
Some energy advocates praised the move, saying the ruling allows the plant to continue providing carbon-free electricity to millions of residents across the state. They stress that PG&E must prove the plant is viable and safe to be granted the full extension.
Dan Richard, president of Carbon Free California, said the decision allows for the safe, continued operation of the plant while the agency conducts a comprehensive review of PG&E’s application.
“This means the plant will receive a full safety review without time pressure,” he said. “Diablo Canyon is providing vital carbon free energy at a stable price and can do so for many years to come.”
Newsom visited the plant on Wednesday. “As we experienced during the record heat wave last September, climate change-driven extreme events are causing unprecedented stress on our power grid — the Diablo Canyon Power Plant is important to support energy reliability as we accelerate progress towards achieving our clean energy and climate goals,” he said.