The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has denied a request from California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to renew a review of an operating license application for the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. The move at least temporarily puts on hold plans to extend the operation of two reactors at Diablo Canyon, the last operating nuclear power facility in the state.
PG&E in October 2022 had asked the NRC to resume consideration of an application—first submitted in 2009—to keep Diablo Canyon in operation. The NRC on Jan. 24, though, said it would not resume consideration of the previous license-extension plan. NRC staff said “it would not be effective or efficient” to start the licensing review without updated information on the plant’s condition.
PG&E had withdrawn that 2009 application after the utility in 2016 said it planned to close the nuclear plant when its current licenses expire in 2025. California Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers in September of last year, though, canceled the utility’s 2016 deal to close the facility due to the state’s energy crisis that has resulted in rolling blackouts in some areas in the past few years.
The debate about the future of Diablo Canyon was the subject of a Point-Counterpoint in POWER’s August 2022 issue. Read the argument for keeping the nuclear plant open, and also check out the reasons some say the plant should be closed.
Newsom said the plant should continue to operate beyond the scheduled 2025 closure date to provide more time for the state to build additional, primarily renewable energy power generation facilities. That prompted PG&E to ask federal regulators to support keeping Diablo Canyon, which supplies about 9% of the state’s electricity, online.
New Application Forthcoming
The NRC staff on Tuesday rejected the idea of going back in time to resume consideration of the previous license-extension plan, saying “resuming this review would not be consistent with … the Principles of Good Regulation” for the agency. Paula Gerfen, senior vice president for generation and chief nuclear officer for PG&E, was notified of the rejection in a letter from Lauren Gibson, chief of the NRC’s License Renewal Projects Branch.
After the rejection, PG&E said it will submit a new application to renew the nuclear plant’s license for 20 years, the typical length of an operating extension, by the end of this year.
The U.S. Department of Energy in November of last year said it would allocate $1.1 billion to support PG&E’s efforts to keep the nuclear plant in operation.
Long-Running Battle Over Plant’s Operation
The battle over the fate of Diablo Canyon has been ongoing for years. The plant’s two reactors came online in 1985 and 1986, respectively, and the facility has been California’s only operating nuclear power plant since the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was closed in 2013.
Environmentalists and anti-nuclear advocates decried last year’s decision by Newsom and state lawmakers to keep Diablo Canyon running. Newsom at one time had supported closing the plant, in part due to safety concerns over its location near earthquake faults between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
PG&E has continued to say the plant is safe, as has the NRC. The utility, though, has deferred maintenance at the site in anticipation of its 2025 closure. There have not been any publicly disclosed estimates of the cost to keep the reactors running beyond that date.
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).