Last month, California made the surprising decision to extend the life of the state’s last nuclear power plant – Diablo Canyon nuclear plant near Avila Beach. Plant operator Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) had previously announced its intention to the shutter the plant as early as 2025, having come to an agreement with labor and environmental groups. However, in August Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a plan to save the beleaguered plant, following public warnings that the state was in danger of inadequate power generation and rolling blackouts. State lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly in favor of that plan, which will extend the life of Diablo Canyon by five years.
While California’s plan to rescue Diablo Canyon is last-minute, it’s still a step in the right direction for a state that has routinely placed the interests of climate activists ahead of consumers. The 2,250-megawatt nuclear plant is responsible for producing 8.5% of all state electricity and roughly 15% of all clean energy. That share is greater than the individual contributions of both hydro and wind power. The plant also requires far less land to operate and produces a more reliable source of energy than do other intermittent forms of energy like solar, which are by their nature dependent on weather conditions.
Lawmakers have determined that it would be nearly impossible for the state to meet its ambitious plan to achieve 100% carbon neutrality by 2045 without the substantial generating capacity of Diablo Canyon. Indeed, as noted in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce study Progress Denied, nuclear plants in general have a much higher operating capacity than do wind, solar and hydro plants. Nuclear plants, much like geothermal and coal plants, are continually fed and therefore operate close to peak capacity, “often at or above 90%.”
While the Golden State does continue to add energy capacity with the construction of new solar and wind farms, the process is slow and the rewards are limited, especially when the state is also busy transitioning away from fossil fuels. The closure of coal and biomass burning facilities, combined with a variety of other new environmental commitments such as banning the sale of gas-powered vehicles after 2035, make eliminating the state’s last nuclear plant problematic.
The decision by California lawmakers to vote in favor of the five-year plant extension represents a positive step forward. It buys the state time to add generating capacity to the grid and insulates consumers from the danger of electricity shortages during the hot summer months. Californians already pay a high price for electricity; they shouldn’t have to pay more.
The new legislation only provides a temporary fix to a much larger problem. Nuclear power is slowly being phased out across the state despite the technology’s enormous generating potential. While Diablo Canyon will be allowed to operate another five years, no current plans exist to construct new nuclear plants elsewhere in the state. This is the case despite significantly better technology available today than in 1968, when construction first began on Unit 1 of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant.
In addition to improved safety features, new nuclear plants have the potential to generate and store significantly more energy than was true of older designs. New technology has also emerged for the construction of microreactors, with some projects already in development in states like Wyoming. Yet, until recently, state leaders had demonstrated little appetite for taking advantage of these improvements.
A similar story is playing out on the national stage. While the U.S. continues to set new objectives for reducing carbon emissions, nuclear power is declining as a share of total U.S. energy production. At the present, nuclear power accounts for roughly 19% of the nation’s energy supply – more than the combined amount of energy produced by solar and wind. That may not be true for much longer. According to the Congressional Research Service, 12 different nuclear plants have been decommissioned since 2012 alone, including, most recently, Indian Point in New York and Palisades Power Plant in Michigan. More plant closures are almost certainly on the way if something doesn’t change soon. The nation’s remaining fleet of 93 nuclear reactors is quickly aging, leading to new issues of upkeep and profitability.
Recognizing the severity of the situation, President Biden recently pledged $6 billion in grants for nuclear plant operators across the country. California has similarly promised to provide PG&E a $1.4 billion forgivable loan in exchange for continuing to operate Diablo Canyon. However, handouts to the nuclear energy sector don’t have to be the answer. Federal and state lawmakers should remove unnecessary regulatory barriers to nuclear profitability and prioritize laying the groundwork for the next generation of nuclear reactors.
Nuclear technology has the potential to lead California, and the nation, into the next era of energy generation. It produces zero carbon emissions and is significantly safer than reactors of generations past. When done right, the technology is more reliable than more intermittent forms of energy like solar and wind, and can also lower costs for consumers who shouldn’t have to worry about whether the lights will stay on. California is right to keep the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant open, but the state still has plenty of work to do.