The push to make nuclear power a key tool in fighting climate change is being spurred by one of the most unlikely places on earth: California.
The state, home of America’s anti-nuclear movement, is reconsidering plans to shut down its only remaining set of reactors as California struggles to run its power grid on fewer fossil-fuel plants. It’s a stunning reversal, coming after decades of driving to shut down PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant amid fears it’s one earthquake away from disaster.
While the fate of the facility remains uncertain, the fact that solar- and wind-loving California is even talking about extending its lifespan marks a turning point in the global nuclear power debate. It comes as the state has moved aggressively to shut down natural gas facilities, leaving it at risk of power outages during heatwaves. The U-turn on Diablo Canyon reflects the realization that the threat of blackouts and the urgency to tackle global warming overshadow concerns about a possible radioactive disaster.
“This is historic,” said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s climate and energy policy program. “There has been a real change because climate change is no longer something that is happening there and in the future.”
California’s efforts to keep Diablo Canyon open gained momentum this week as state Governor Gavin Newsom asked the Biden administration to modify a federal bailout package to ensure the plant would be eligible for funds that would help keep it in service. The move is part of a growing global trend as reactors, long bogeymen of environmentalists, gain new support thanks to their ability to generate electricity around the clock without emitting carbon dioxide.
Belgium is negotiating with Engie SA to keep two reactors open to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol plans to put nuclear power at the heart of the country’s climate goals. Even in Japan, site of the Fukushima disaster, recent polls show a slim majority of people now support restarting idle reactors for the first time since the 2011 meltdown.
“If we’re going to seriously address the goal of global decarbonization, we need to find a way for nuclear to play a role,” said Joseph Majkut, director of the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and Environmental Studies. international. .
A full nuclear renaissance, however, remains far from reality. While China, Russia and a handful of other countries are still building large reactors, they have become dinosaurs in much of the world. Efforts to develop reactors in places like the United States and the United Kingdom have been hampered by scandals, cost overruns and planning delays. Many existing factories in the United States are no longer profitable and some are closing, including Entergy’s Palisades factory in Michigan, which closed on May 20, nine years before its license expired.
Diablo Canyon, California’s largest power plant, is currently scheduled to close in mid-2025 under an agreement between the state, environmentalists and PG&E. But last month, Newsom said the utility should consider keeping it open. His suggestion came days before state energy officials warned that California is at risk of blackouts for the next three summers due to power shortages.
PG&E is currently in talks with state officials about options for the plant and is waiting to see if the reactors are eligible for funding from the US Department of Energy.
“We are prepared to explore all options, consistent with state policy, to ensure a continued supply of safe, reliable, and clean energy to all Californians,” PG&E spokeswoman Suzanne Hosn said. in a press release. “We are willing to seek funding from the DOE given the potential savings this could represent for our customers as the state considers various options to support reliability in California.”
While a handful of US states, including New York, Illinois and New Jersey, are subsidizing reactors as part of their clean energy plans, California’s shift from Diablo Canyon brand. The state gave birth to America’s anti-nuclear movement, which began in the early 1960s with the fight over a proposed PG&E atomic power plant at Bodega Bay, northwest of San Francisco.
Diablo Canyon, about 200 miles northwest of Los Angeles, has long been touted by critics as the poster child for why nuclear power is too risky. The two reactors, perched on top of an ocean cliff and surrounded by seismic faults, sparked strong protests even before the first unit was commissioned in 1985. It became one of the first rallying points for the movement to end to atomic energy and, in the wake of Fukushima, environmentalists were finally successful in pushing for a deal to get it done.
Since this 2016 agreement, California’s energy landscape has changed dramatically. The state has aggressively shut down gas-fired power plants, leaving it increasingly reliant on wind and solar. This leaves her dangerously low on power at times, especially during heat waves, as solar generation fades after the sun goes down.
Keeping it open won’t be easy. The plant will need a slew of state regulatory approvals and may require an expensive new cooling system to comply with regulations. Extending its license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can take years. Many environmentalists, meanwhile, remain staunchly opposed to the plant, citing meltdown risks and the challenge of finding permanent storage for radioactive waste.
“There are many ways to replace and replace this capability without needing to resort to a nuclear plant,” said Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that struck a deal with PG&E to shut down the plant. .
Still, the pressure is mounting to keep it open. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm expressed support. A Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology study released last year showed that extending Diablo Canyon’s life to 2035 would significantly help California reduce emissions and save $2.6 billion. dollars on electrical system costs. And a recent University of California, Berkeley poll found that 39% of California voters opposed closing Diablo Canyon, while 33% favored closing and 28% were undecided.
“In light of climate change and all the extreme weather we’re experiencing, many voters are now reevaluating their previous opposition to nuclear power,” said Mark DiCamillo of the University of California at the Institute for Berkeley government.