Nuclear power divides California’s environmentalists

Is the closure of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant good or bad for the climate?


A girl holds a sign at a muti-day pro-nuke march in San Luis Obispo, California.
Eric Meyer

At the end of June, nearly 100 environmentalists marched through the streets of Oakland, California, stopping to picket an unlikely foe: the Sierra Club. While most of their comrades waved signs outside the concrete building’s expansive front windows, a small group took the elevators upstairs to the main office and began chanting: “We’re on a mission to stop all emissions!”

“We love you, and we’re behind you,” declared Eric Meyer, organizer of the march. “But you’re wrong about one thing: nuclear power.”

The protest followed Pacific Gas & Electric’s announcement that it would close the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in 2025. PG&E executives said it would be too expensive to install the new cooling towers and seismic upgrades needed to keep it open. Both the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council pushed for the closure because they say that there’s no long-term disposal method for nuclear waste, and the plants consume too much water.

But environmentalists like Meyer argue that Diablo Canyon is currently California’s single largest producer of carbon-free power, and closing it will derail the state’s ambitious efforts to phase out fossil fuels. California already leads the nation in renewable energy, with 22 percent of its electricity coming from geothermal, wind and solar. By 2030, it hopes to more than double that figure.

Diablo’s closure won’t impede progress toward that goal if PG&E can replace the plant’s massive energy load entirely with renewables. The utility’s executives say that’s their plan. The question is whether it’s actually feasible.

Spent nuclear fuel is stored in steel cylinders called dry casks at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. There’s still no long-term disposal method for the waste.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Michael Shellenberger, president of the Berkeley-based organization Environmental Progress, is one of the louder pro-nuke voices. He argues that California owes its progress in cutting emissions to its nuclear plant. Diablo Canyon, the state’s largest generation facility, provides what’s known as “base load” power. Unlike wind and solar, it can pump out electricity whenever it’s needed, day or night. The cheapest, easiest replacement for base-load nuclear power is natural gas, Shellenberger says. But going that route would make it harder for the state to meet its climate goals.

If the past is any indication, he’s right that losing Diablo could force California to depend more on natural gas. In 2013, the San Onofre nuclear plant south of Los Angeles shut down abruptly after an equipment failure. Natural gas, abundant and inexpensive, filled the hole that closure left in the electricity supply. “Wind and solar are intermittent and need to be backed up,” Shellenberger says. “There is not enough power when people need it.”

PG&E’s plan is still under review, but its executives and some environmental groups believe that renewables can do the job. PG&E and its partners plan to lean heavily on homeowners and businesses installing rooftop solar arrays, but they have yet to specify just how they would deal with the sun’s intermittent nature. Still, Peter Miller, senior scientist with the NRDC, which helped craft the proposal, says new battery technology to store excess wind and solar energy is on the horizon and would allow that power to be deployed on demand. Nuclear power, he adds, is a crutch that inhibits investments that could speed such advancements along. And solar power in California already costs less per kilowatt-hour than energy from Diablo. “Nuclear is making less and less sense in California,” he says.

California’s progressive politics have nurtured a renewable energy market that could be robust enough to fill the gap left by Diablo, says Alex Gilbert, an independent energy policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. Unlike San Onofre, PG&E will have nearly a decade to prepare for closure. “Over time, it’s reasonable that renewables could take the place of nuclear,” Gilbert says. And if PG&E can pull it off, the state could set a new standard for shifting away from large base-load power plants. “California is always about five to 10 years ahead of the rest of the country in its energy policy.”

The American West has never been particularly fertile ground for nuclear energy. During the nation’s nuclear boom, most plants were built in the East, near population centers and the large water sources needed to cool reactor cores and control waste. Today, there are only three nuclear plants in the West, including Diablo Canyon. If it closes, Arizona’s Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station and Washington’s Columbia Generating Station will be the last remaining. A new plant has been proposed near Green River, Utah, and in July, it received the necessary water rights. But it still lacks enough investors to begin construction.

If California can meet its climate goals without nuclear, it will be an example to the nation. But Gilbert says the larger energy economy is not yet prepared to follow its lead on renewables. “If staving off climate change is the goal,” he says, “getting rid of all nuclear power in this country would be irresponsible.”

Paige Blankenbuehler is an HCN editorial fellow.  

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