Controversial California nuclear power plant can continue to operate, federal regulators decide

California’s largest utility will be able to keep a disputed nuclear plant operating while seeking official permission to expand the facility’s operations, a federal regulation ruled Thursday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Thursday granted an exemption to Pacific Gas & Electricity that will allow the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant to continue operating under its current licenses while the agency considers its application for renewal.

While Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and state lawmakers have advocated for the extension as a reliable power source to support California’s clean energy transition, environmental groups remain vocal in their opposition to the plans.

Located about 25 miles southwest of San Luis Obispo along California’s central coast, Diablo Canyon began operating in 1985.

PG&E announced plans in 2016 to retire the facility and decommission the reactors when the licenses expire. But after California enacted legislation this fall to continue operations, the utility decided to seek a license renewal.

Diablo’s two reactor licenses are due to expire in November 2024 and August 2025 respectively.

The NRC exemption allows those licenses to remain in effect while the regulator reviews the application for renewal, assuming PG&E submits its application by the end of the year, according to the regulator.

“The exemption is authorized by law, will not pose an undue risk to public health and safety, and is consistent with common defense and security,” an NRC statement said.

“The continuation of Diablo Canyon operations is in the public interest because of the serious challenges to the reliability of the California power grid,” the regulator added.

Throughout the renewal process, the NRC said it would maintain oversight “to ensure the continued safety of operations”. If the license renewal is granted, the regulator said it would allow the facility to continue operating for up to 20 years.

“PG&E will continue on the path of expanding our operations beyond 2025,” Paula Gerfen, PG&E’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, said in a statement.

This path, Gerfen continued, would aim β€œto improve the reliability of the statewide electrical system and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“We are committed to California’s clean energy future,” she added.

The Diablo Canyon power plant β€” whose continued operations have drawn vehement opposition from environmental groups β€” gained a lifeline when lawmakers passed related legislation, SB 846, in late August.

The bill granted legislative approval for the operation of each unit until the end of October 2029 and 2030, respectively, pending license renewal by the NRC.

Earlier that month, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) proposed extending the life of the plant, in an effort to maintain a reliable, carbon-free power supply as the state transitions to renewable energy.

During a visit to the Diablo Canyon plant on Wednesday, Newsom highlighted the facility’s importance to California’s clean energy transition.

“As we experienced during last September’s record heat wave, extreme events related to climate change are causing unprecedented strain on our power grid,” Newsom said in a statement.

“The Diablo Canyon Generating Station is important in supporting energy reliability as we accelerate progress toward our clean energy and climate goals,” the governor added.

The NRC’s decision to grant the exemption Thursday follows a decision by the California Energy Commission earlier this week that the state should keep the plant running through 2030 to support grid reliability.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) voiced her support for the NRC’s decision, noting that “the next few years are going to be critical for California’s energy transition.”

Notably, Feinstein had changed course on the subject last summer, explaining that “while California is leading the way on renewable energy, we’re not there yet.”

“This move will allow Diablo Canyon to serve as a bridge to a clean energy future, maintaining a reliable source of carbon-free energy as we continue to invest in renewable energy,” the senator said Thursday.

Environmental activists, however, called the NRC’s decision “unprecedented” in a collective statement.

The NRC has never approved an exemption for a license renewal that would allow a nuclear reactor to exceed its 40-year legal threshold without a full review, the groups said.

“The NRC calls the exemption a simple ‘administrative’ decision, like choosing the size of paperclips,” said Diane Curran, senior attorney for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace.

“There is nothing ‘administrative’ about allowing this aging reactor duo to continue operating for days, months or years, when each day of operation poses the risk of an accident that could devastate across the state and beyond,” Curran added.

Ken Cook, chairman of the environmental task force, said “public safety concerns were blatantly ignored by the NRC” over what he described as a “reckless decision to circumvent the law for PG&E “.

“A federal agency charged with protecting public safety now serves simply as a consigliere for the nuclear industry,” Cook added.

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