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CA Lawmakers Vote to Keep Nuclear Plant Open Past 2025

The measure would loan California's electricity supplier Pacific Gas & Electric up to $1.4 billion to keep the Diablo Canyon plant open until 2030. It also makes $1 billion available to support clean energy projects.

(TNS) — California legislators approved a proposal early Thursday morning to keep Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant operating past its previously-scheduled shut down date in 2025.

Gov. Gavin Newsom had urged lawmakers to extend the life of the 32-year-old plant to bolster the state’s power grid as climate change continues to stress the system and boost demand. Located in San Luis Obispo County just north of Avila Beach, Diablo Canyon is California’s last operating nuclear plant and accounts for 8.5 percent of all power generated by the state.

Pacific Gas & Electric announced six years ago that it would retire the plant’s two nuclear reactors by 2025. But Newsom’s administration said the state will likely not have enough renewable energy to meet demand that year without Diablo Canyon.

The measure would loan PG&E up to $1.4 billion to keep the plant open until 2030. It also makes $1 billion available to support projects “that accelerate the deployment of clean energy resources, support demand response, assist ratepayers, and increase energy reliability.”

The bill passed the Assembly by an overwhelming majority of 67-3. In the Senate, it passed 31-1 around 1:30 a.m. The measure was the legislature’s final act before it adjourned. And it came on the last day of the year it could approve bills.

Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham, R- San Luis Obispo, told colleagues: “We have a historic opportunity today to do something to solve a major problem, protect our ratepayers, protect grid resilience, reduce our carbon emissions and invest again in hardening our grid.”

The vote came just hours after the state issued an alert asking residents to voluntarily conserve electricity while a heatwave stressed available energy supplies. And it followed approval of several other environmental initiatives promoted by Newsom. These included bills to set his 2045 carbon neutrality goal into law, add carbon capture rules and ban new oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of communities.

Those measures frustrated Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, who said they created targets but lawmakers had no plan to meet them. He also criticized his colleagues for bringing the matter in the middle of the night.

“Do the right thing,” said Dahle, Newsom’s Republican re-election opponent this fall. “Let’s put this off.”

Debate on the bill came down to the session’s final hours because it was introduced on Sunday evening, requiring lawmakers to wait the mandated 72 hours before voting. Because the measure included an urgency provision, making it effective immediately upon Newsom’s signature, it needed two-thirds support in the House and Senate and allowed lawmakers to vote on it after midnight.

Lawmakers were told they needed to act with dispatch. PG&E faces a Sept. 6 deadline to apply for federal funding. But the company indicated it would not ask for the money unless the legislature gave it direction on the future of the plant. If federal regulators determine Diablo Canyon was not qualified for the U.S. Department of Energy funding, the loan could be suspended.

“This bill is necessary,” said Sen. Bill Dodd, D- Napa, who co-authored it with Cunningham.

Environmental Opposition

Some lawmakers made clear that they prefer for Diablo Canyon to close as scheduled — and instead have enough clean, renewable energy to comfortably supply residents in 2025. But the possibility of not meeting demand prompted them to act.

“We have no choice,” said Assemblymember Jim Patterson, R- Fresno, before the vote. “I’m going to warn you: Californians are listening; Californians are watching. And if we do not keep their lights on, all of us, including this Governor, is going to be held accountable for ultimate failure.”

Mustering support was not easy. It initially sparked the outrage of solar advocates who said it would lead to a tax on energy generated by rooftop solar panels on homes and business. Those concerns were later smoothed over.

Environmental organizations said the money would be better spent on requiring more renewable and clean energy sources. Opponents also worried that PG&E’s compliance with state water quality laws would be pushed down the road another five years to allow the plant to keep running.

The California State Water Resources Control Board has said Diablo Canyon’s cooling system harms native, cold-water marine life and has allowed non-native, warm-water life to grow. An alternative to the system has long been deemed unaffordable and unfeasible by the utility.

While the bill allows the plant to keep running until 2030, it does not set an end-date. Should the state determine Diablo Canyon is no longer needed to fill gaps in the electricity grid after 2025, the loan could be terminated.

That meant the bill was just a stop-gap measure, said Sen. Henry Stern, a Los Angeles Democrat, in a speech to colleagues. If enough new energy comes on line, the extension may not be needed, he added.

The bill also addressed another concern from opponents. It required PG&E to conduct an updated seismic assessment of the power plant to receive the loan. Diablo Canyon, located near four local faults, has been found to have no “seismic hazard vulnerabilities,” according to a 2018 PG&E report.

It also gave the the legislature the ability to award money to support access to the power plant lands. The future of the 12,000 acres around it has been a top issue for San Luis Obispo County residents.

But the deal did not appease all of its detractors. Sen. Brian Jones warned that it would raise energy prices, a claim that Dodd, the co-author, disputed.

And Mother’s for Peace, a nonprofit organization, said in a statement it would continue to fight to keep Diablo Canyon on track to close. Voting in support of the bill had put in jeopardy years of “deliberate and careful planning” to retire the plant.

©2022 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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