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    Nuke or no nuke? California officials ponder nuclear future


    August 12, 2022 - Michael R. Blood, The Associated Press

     

      LOS ANGELES (AP) — The California Legislature has less than three weeks to determine if it will take an extraordinary step and attempt to extend the life of California's last operating nuclear plant, a decision that would be made amid looming questions over the cost and who would pay and earthquake safety risks.

      The legislative session shuts down Aug. 31 — when all business is suspended — and only a rare special session called by Gov. Gavin Newsom could provide a longer period to consider the move. The Democratic governor seen as a possible future White House candidate has urged operator Pacific Gas & Electric to pursue a longer run beyond a scheduled closing by 2025, warning that the plant's power is needed to maintain reliable service as the state transitions to solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy.

      The administration is expected to outline its argument Friday during a three-hour California Energy Commission hearing focused on the state's power needs in the climate change era, and what role the decades-old nuclear plant might have in maintaining reliable electricity in the nation's most populous state.

      Those raising questions with Newsom include state Sen. John Laird, a Santa Cruz Democrat whose district includes the seaside plant located midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

      With an extended run, “Who pays, and is there fairness in who pays?” Laird asked in an interview. “There have been additional earthquake faults discovered near the plant, and seismic upgrades were never totally completed. Will they address that?”

      Laird outlined other issues that include who would pay for maintenance that has been put off because the plant is scheduled to close by 2025; whether there is time for PG&E to order and receive additional radioactive fuel — and casks to store spent fuel — to keep operating; and would electricity from the reactors get in the way of transmission for wind power that is expected to come on line in coming years.

      Potentially, billions of dollars in costs could be in play.

      “I’m really waiting to see whether ... and how they address all the issues that are associated with a possible extension before I decide what I’m going to,” Laird said, referring to a possible vote.

      “We are under a tight timeframe,” Laird added. “That begs the question of could they do everything it needs to be extended by 2025?”

      For Diablo Canyon, the issue is whether the Newsom administration, in concert with investor-owned PG&E, can find a way to unspool a 2016 agreement among environmentalists, plant worker unions and the utility to close the plant by 2025. The joint decision to close the plant also was endorsed by California utility regulators, the Legislature and then-Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

      PG&E CEO Patricia “Patti” Poppe told investors in a call last month that state legislation would have to be enacted by September to open the way for PG&E to reverse course.

      PG&E, which has long said the plant is seismically safe, hasn’t said much about whether it will push to extend operations beyond 2025. It is assessing that possibility while continuing to plan for closing and dismantling the plant “unless those actions are superseded by new state policies,” PG&E spokesperson Suzanne Hosn said in a statement.

      Another major question is whether Newsom and the Legislature might try to sidestep regulatory agencies that have oversight of the plant, including the powerful California Coastal Commission. The plant's massive cooling system relies on submerged ocean water intake and discharge structures.

      PG&E also would have to obtain a new operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to run beyond 2025.

      With so many pending issues and little time, “it is rushed. It does not make sense,” said David Weisman, legislative director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, an advocacy group.

      “The plant can't run a day longer than the NRC license,” which expires in August 2025, Weisman added.

      Newsom's push for a longer run for the reactors doesn't square easily with his assessment in 2016, when as lieutenant governor he supported the closure agreement as part of the State Lands Commission.

      Seismic issues at the plant “are not insignificant concerns,” he said at the time. “This is not the preeminent site if you’re ... concerned about seismic safety.”

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