California enviros sue to close last nuclear plant providing 9% of state's power

The state’s shift towards renewable energy has led to energy prices double the national average.
Nuclear energy

(The Center Square) - California environmentalists are suing to shut down the state’s last operating nuclear power plant, which provides up to 9% of the state’s power. Legislators, meanwhile, are calling for feasibility studies for the next generation of nuclear reactors to more reliably power the state as it seeks to reduce greenhouse emissions.

In January, President Biden and the Department of Energy provided $1.1 billion to keep Diablo Canyon open after California Governor Gavin Newsom said the plant, which was set to close in 2025, must stay open to avoid blackouts.

“As we experienced during the record heat wave last September, climate change-driven extreme events are causing unprecedented stress on our power grid – the Diablo Canyon Power Plant is important to support energy reliability as we accelerate progress towards achieving our clean energy and climate goals,” said Newsom in a 2023 statement.

Pacific Gas and Electric, which operates the plant, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees nuclear power plant safety in the United States, say the plant is safe. The lawsuit against the plant, filed by Friends of the Earth, alleges procedural violations by the Department of Energy by failing to solicit public comment and use of “outdated” analyses.

The number of operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. has declined from 112 in 1990 to just 54 today. Construction of nuclear power plants in the U.S. fell off sharply after the 1979 Three Mile Island plant’s partial meltdown. Post-Three Mile Island, significant measures were taken to increase nuclear safety.

In late 2023, the Department of Energy approved the first next-generation small modular reactors that leverage “natural processes, such as convection and gravity, to passively cool the reactor without additional water, power, or even operator action.” This lack of complexity, along with the decreased amount of nuclear material used, make this type of reactor not only cheaper to build and operate, but safer.

California legislators are largely aligned in their efforts to enable the construction of SMRs in the state, citing cost, footprint, and safety benefits. In March, the Assembly Utilities & Energy Committee unanimously approved a bill to order the California Public Utilities Commission to study the benefits of SMRs.

“SMRs, specifically, provide a number of benefits compared to traditional reactors, including smaller physical footprint, greater deployment flexibility, improved scalability, reduced capital investment requirements, and enhanced safety designs,” said bill author Assemblymember Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, in a statement. “It’s time for politicians & the public to stop comparing advanced nuclear energy to that of the Chernobyl disaster. This is like saying the Pinto was a bad car so we should stop producing any more cars.”

The state’s shift towards renewable energy has led to energy prices double the national average. The CPUC says energy could soon become so expensive that it could be cheaper to fill up a car with gas than an electric vehicle with electrons.