THE DIABLO CANNYONThe nuclear power plant is located about 200 miles north from Los Angeles, California’s central coast. Its twin reactors lie between the Pacific Ocean on the one side and the emerald mountains on the opposite. The Golden State’s only remaining nuclear plant provides nearly 9% of its electricity generation, and accounts for 15% of its clean-electricity production. Yet despite California’s aggressive climate goals and a national push to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, Diablo Canyon is set to close down by 2025. A new report by researchers from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyMIT) reveals just how detrimental that would be.
Diablo Canyon was established in 1985 and has been operational ever since. The plant is controversial. Diablo is located near several major faultlines, so locals have long feared an earthquake could cause a nuclear catastrophe. America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ordered utilities to evaluate their plants for flooding and seismic risk after the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plantJapan in 2011. Diablo Canyon was found safe.
Even so, in 2018 the California Public Utilities Commission approved a proposal put forward by Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility and the operator of Diablo Canyon, and environmental and labour groups to close the plant. PG&E argued that there was reduced demand for nuclear power because of the promise of renewables, such as wind and solar, and the growth of “community choice aggregators”, which allow local municipalities to decide where they get their power from.
Three things have changed between then and now. First, California passed SB100 in 2018, which means that the state must achieve 100% clean-power generation by 2045. Second, the southern-west is currently suffering from what paleoclimatologists consider to be its second-worst megadrought since 1,200 years. The region has many reservoirs. drying upThis is limiting the supply hydroelectric power. Just 11% of California’s in-state power generation came from hydro in 2020, a 44% drop from 2019 (see chart 1). Electricity from clean-energy sources (including nuclear) made up 51% of California’s power generation last year, down from 57% in 2019.
Third, the heatwave of August 2020 that led to rolling was a result blackoutsAll across the state, demand for electricity (to run air-conditioners) exceeded supply. California’s public utilities commission is scrambling to meet increased demand. To offset the imminent loss of Diablo, the regulator ordered utility companies to purchase renewable energy and battery storage.
These three trends led researchers to ponder how keeping the plant running might change California’s energy outlook. They found that the plant would need to be kept running until 2035, ten more years than its current operating licence. NRC, would cut emissions, bolster the grid’s reliability and save the state $2.6bn. The analysis shows that Diablo’s continued operation would reduce the carbon emissions from power generation by 11% each year from 2017 levels. And unlike wind power and solar power that are subject to weather changes, nuclear energy is a stable source for electricity.
The researchers also suggest that Diablo could be used to help California produce hydrogen, power a salt water desalination plant, and generate electricity. “You cannot afford to take technology solutions off the table” when pursuing net-zero goals, says Jacopo Buongiorno, one of the authors and a nuclear scientist at MIT. “All of the above is really the best strategy.”
It is one thing to prove Diablo’s value, and quite another to reverse its retirement. A law to protect marine ecosystems would force the plant’s water-intake system to be replaced with a system that reduces the intake flow rate 93%. It would also require PG&Eto reopen its 2018 settlement, relicense the plant (which can be a lengthy process), or to sell Diablo to another utility.
Is fission possible?
The recent rebranding in nuclear has been evident in the Diablo Canyon controversy. The American Nuclear Society’s president Steve Nesbit said that three things happened in the 2000s that put a halt to nuclear power in America. First, fracking took root, then the financial crisis of 2007-08 reduced demand for electricity, and finally, the Fukushima incident scared politicians. The commissioning of plants was delayed and cost over budget. However, evidence shows that polluting fossil fuels can make up the difference when nuclear reactors are shut down.
While plants are being shut off, nuclear power is gaining popularity. Because of the toxic waste it produces or its potential for nuclear weapons, environmental groups have been skeptical of nuclear power for a long time. Jessica Lovering, the founder of Good Energy Collective, which aims to build the “progressive case for nuclear energy”, says today’s climate activists are more pragmatic, and focused on nuclear’s lack of carbon emissions. She mentions Sunrise Movement as an example of a group that is not necessarily pro nuclear energy, but is against the closing down of existing plants.
Nuclear is responsible for nearly 20% of America’s power generation and about half of its clean energy. ecoAmerica conducted a survey and found that 56% supported nuclear power in 2020 (up from 37% in 2018). “Young people these days maybe don’t bring with them the baggage of their parents and grandparents, who were raised during the cold war, in their view of nuclear power,” says Mr Nesbit.
Slowly, policy is catching up. Pro-nuclear groups point to the use of “clean electricity” or “zero-carbon” language in state and federal climate targets as a way to leave the door open for nuclear, rather than requiring renewables. Jennifer Granholm, President Joe Biden’s energy secretary, told a crowd at COP26, the global climate conference in Glasgow, that nuclear energy is an “essential tool” in decarbonising the grid. Republicans and Democrats are both excited about the potential to convert coal plants into nuclear power station. Bill Gates founded TerraPower in 2003. announced that it would build a nuclear reactor at the site of a closing coal plant in Wyoming, Ms Granholm, the state’s Republican governor and its senior senator were in attendance. The federal government also funds the project in the amount of $80m.
However, nuclear power faces many challenges. Experts agree that the greatest obstacle to nuclear power is the prohibitive cost of building new plants. New designs, such as TerraPower’s, may help with this. California is just one state that has de facto banned new reactors from being built until radioactive waste can permanently be disposed of. For decades, the federal government attempted to build a repository for nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada, but met stiff resistance from local politicians who didn’t want the stuff buried in their backyard.
The first of Diablo’s reactors will lose its licence in 2024. The report’s authors hope the Golden State will come to its senses before then. “The circumstances have changed,” says Ejeong Baik of Stanford. “Diablo Canyon presents an opportunity,” she adds. California will take it? ■
This article was published in the United States section under the headline “Energy deficient”