Judge Rejects Lawsuit Challenging California Nuclear Plant's Operations

A California judge rejected a lawsuit from an environmental group seeking to keep Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) from extending the operating life of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

The judge on August 24 said a move by California lawmakers last year to extend the plant’s lifespan as part of the state’s regulatory oversight was valid. Friends of the Earth, a group that was part of a 2016 deal to close the nuclear plant by 2025, had filed a lawsuit trying to stop the 2022 measure that called for the state’s last operating nuclear plant to continue running for at least another five years.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state legislature, citing concerns about blackouts and the need to increase the state’s power supply, said it was important to keep Diablo Canyon and its 2,200 MW of generation capacity operating while the state builds more clean energy generation facilities. The nuclear plant, located just north of Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County, produces about 9% of the state’s total power, and 17% of California’s zero-carbon energy.

Original Closure Dates

Diablo Canyon originally was expected to stop operating its two Westinghouse-designed four-loop pressurized-water nuclear reactors in 2024 and 2025. PG&E in the 2016 agreement between the utility and labor and environmental groups had pledged to work to replace the nuclear plant’s output with clean and renewable sources of energy.

PG&E spokesperson Suzanne Hosn in a statement said the utility is following California energy policy “and our actions toward relicensing Diablo Canyon Power Plant are consistent with the direction of the state.”

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman in this week’s ruling said the environmental group in its lawsuit was asking the court to “impermissibly hinder or interfere” with state officials’ regulatory oversight of the nuclear plant.

Environmental Groups Opposed to Plant

Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environment California, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, the Coalition of California Utility Employees, and the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility were all signatories to the 2016 contract with PG&E. The groups at the time were suing the utility over its then-current operating license renewal application for Diablo Canyon, citing safety and environmental concerns. The groups agreed to drop the lawsuits when the contract was signed.

“We are deeply disappointed in today’s outcome,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director for Friends of the Earth, in a statement after Schulman’s ruling. “Diablo Canyon’s operations are extremely dangerous, environmentally harmful and put all of California at risk of a devastating accident.”

The California state legislature in September of last year passed Senate Bill 846, which allocated $1.4 billion to PG&E to finance the nuclear power plant’s license renewal costs for staying open through 2030.

PG&E also received a $1.1 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to support Diablo Canyon’s operation as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March of this year told PG&E it can run Diablo Canyon past its original closure dates without a current license, provided the utility submits a valid license renewal application for the two reactors by the end of this year. PG&E has said it will file a license renewal application by year-end.

Judge: CPUC Has Jurisdiction

Schulman in his ruling said the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), not the courts, has jurisdiction over Diablo Canyon’s operation. “The bottom line is this: FOE’s [Friends of the Earth’s] action, if allowed to proceed, poses the risk that this court will be asked to issue orders inconsistent with those that the CPUC has already issued or may issue in the pending rulemaking proceeding,” Schulman wrote in his ruling. The judge said the CPUC’s ongoing proceeding is expected to address “the very issues FOE raises, including the duration of any license extension, PG&E’s preparation for shutdown of the nuclear power plant and the energy resources that will be necessary to replace it.”

Templeton said FOE may file an appeal to Schulman’s ruling. “We continue to strongly believe in our case and are considering appealing the unwarranted dismissal,” Templeton said. “One thing is clear: the fight to shutter Diablo Canyon is not over, and this is not our only iron in the fire.”

The California Energy Commission has recommended the nuclear plant stay open through 2030. The commission has said Diablo Canyon provides a reliable source of power as California combats climate change and faces a growing demand for clean energy resources.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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