The push to make nuclear power a key tool to fight climate change is getting a boost from one of the most unlikely places on Earth: California.
The state, birthplace of the US anti-nuclear movement, is reconsidering plans to close its only remaining set of reactors as California struggles to run its power grid with fewer fossil-fuel plants. It’s a stunning reversal, coming after a decades-long drive to shutter PG&E Corp.’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant over fears it’s one earthquake away from catastrophe.
While the facility’s fate remains uncertain, the fact that solar- and wind-loving California is even talking about extending its life marks a turning point in the global debate over nuclear power. It comes as the state has moved aggressively to shutter natural-gas facilities, leaving it in danger of blackouts during heat waves. The U-turn on Diablo Canyon reflects the realization that the threat of outages and the urgency to fight global warming is overshadowing concerns about a potential radioactive disaster.
“It’s historic,” said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s climate and energy policy program. “There has been a real shift because of the fact that climate change is no longer something that happens over there and in the future.”
California’s push to keep Diablo Canyon open gained momentum this week as the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, asked the Biden administration to modify a federal bailout program to ensure the plant would qualify for funds that would help it remain in service. The move is part of a growing global trend as reactors, long bogeymen to environmentalists, gain newfound support thanks to their ability to generate around-the-clock power without emitting carbon dioxide.
Belgium is negotiating with Engie SA to keep two reactors open to help curb dependence on fossil fuel. South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol plans to make nuclear energy central to the nation’s climate goals. Even in Japan, site of the Fukushima disaster, recent polls show a narrow majority of people now support restarting idled reactors for the first time since the 2011 meltdown.
“If we’re going to treat the goal of global decarbonization seriously, we need to find a way for nuclear to play a role,” said Joseph Majkut, director of the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
A full-on nuclear renaissance, however, remains a long way from reality. While China, Russia and a handful of other nations are still building large reactors, they’ve become dinosaurs in much of the world. Efforts to develop reactors in places like the US and UK have been dogged by scandals, cost overruns and scheduling delays. Many existing ones in the US are no longer profitable and some are shutting down, including Entergy Corp.’s Palisades plant in Michigan, which closed May 20 — nine years before its license was set to expire.
Diablo Canyon, California’s largest single power plant, is currently scheduled to close in mid-2025 under an agreement between the state, environmentalists and PG&E. But last month, Newsom said the utility should consider keeping it open. His suggestion came days before state energy officials warned California is at risk of blackouts for the next three summers because of power-supply shortages.
PG&E is now in talks with state officials about options for the plant, and is waiting to see if the reactors qualify for funding from the US Energy Department.
“We’re willing to consider all options, consistent with state policy, to ensure continued safe, reliable and clean energy delivery to all Californians,” PG&E spokeswoman Suzanne Hosn said in a statement. “We are open to applying for DOE funding given the potential savings it could represent for our customers as the state considers various options to support reliability in California.”
While a handful of US states including New York, Illinois and New Jersey are subsidizing reactors as part of their clean-energy plans, California’s shift over Diablo Canyon stands out. The state gave rise to the US anti-nuclear movement, starting in the early 1960s with the fight over a proposed PG&E atomic plant in Bodega Bay, northwest of San Francisco.r
Diablo Canyon, about 200 miles (322 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, has long been cast by critics as the poster child for why nuclear power is too risky. The two reactors, perched atop an ocean cliff and ringed by earthquake faults, drew fierce protests even before the first unit went into service in 1985. It became an early rallying point for the movement to end atomic power and, in the wake of Fukushima, environmentalists finally succeeded in pushing for a deal to close it.
Since that 2016 agreement, California’s energy landscape has dramatically shifted. The state has aggressively closed gas-fired power plants, leaving it to rely increasingly on wind and solar. That’s occasionally left it perilously low on electricity, especially during heat waves as solar production fades after sunset.
Keeping it open won’t be easy. The plant will need a slew of state regulatory approvals and may require an expensive new cooling system to comply with regulations. Extending its license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may take years. Many environmentalists, meanwhile, remain staunchly opposed to the plant, citing risks of meltdowns and the challenge of finding permanent storage for radioactive waste.
“There are many ways we can and will replace that capacity without needing to rely on a nuclear plant,” said Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that reached an agreement with PG&E to close the plant.
Still, pressure has been building to keep it open. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has voiced support for it. A Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology study released last year showed that extending Diablo Canyon’s life to 2035 would significantly help California cut emissions and save $2.6 billion in power system costs. And a recent poll by the University of California at Berkeley found 39% of California voters opposed closing Diablo Canyon, while 33% favored the shutdown and 28% were undecided.
“In light of climate change and all the extreme weather we are having, many voters are now reassessing their previous opposition to nuclear power,” said Mark DiCamillo of University of California Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.