15 May 2019

On the surface, Pacific Gas & Electric’s recent decision not to seek to renew its U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission operating licenses that expire in 2024 and 2025 — for two nuclear reactors at the Diablo Canyon power plant in San Luis Obispo County — makes sense for a variety of reasons. The fracking revolution in energy production has unleashed such a glut of cheap natural gas that nuclear power can’t compete on a cost basis, prompting plans to close aging plants around the nation in recent years. State laws require that utilities must rely much more on renewable energy going forward, and the declining cost of solar power makes that switch easier. The State Lands Commission, at the behest of a commission member, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, appeared intent on making it difficult for the Diablo plant to renew leases expiring in 2018 and 2019 on state tidelands where intake and outflow chutes for the plant’s cooling system are located. The State Water Resources Control Board is also concerned about the plant’s effect on nearby marine life. Many politically influential California environmentalists have for years demanded Diablo Canyon’s immediate closure, citing its vulnerability to earthquakes and raising concerns about the earthquake-driven disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011.

But despite all these issues, in the big picture, the closing of California’s last nuclear power plant is hard to square with the state’s determination to be a leader in the fight against global warming. Nuclear energy is a huge source of clean power that doesn’t release the greenhouse gases that are changing the climate. And unlike the San Onofre plant in San Diego County that closed in 2012 because of severe problems with steam generators and more, the Diablo Canyon plant appeared to be functioning well. Diablo Canyon supplies 9 percent of the state’s electricity with a reliability that renewable energy has yet come close to approaching. Barring technological breakthroughs, in the short and medium term, the closing of Diablo Canyon means the state’s power grid is likely to have to rely more on natural gas, which contributes to global warming. Without such breakthroughs, renewable energy mandates will make the power grid more susceptible to disruptive, costly shortages.

These factors are why many energy experts — and some environmentalists — are stunned that nuclear power has pariah status in many parts of the world. International agencies such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say nuclear power is the only energy source that can in coming decades be counted on to help nations drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The California Council on Science and Technology agrees. Dr. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, has for years said that significant problems with the disposal of nuclear waste are far surpassed by the environmental benefits of nuclear power. These arguments have proven persuasive in Northern Europe, at least. Both Sweden and Finland have made recent commitments to nuclear power. But Germany and Switzerland are going in the opposite direction — and even France, long the world leader in reliance on nuclear power, is having second thoughts. If global warming is an existential threat to humankind, this hostility to a huge, promising source of clean energy is inexplicable. As the Union of Concerned Scientists says, “Effectively addressing global warming requires a rapid transformation of the ways in which we produce and consume energy.” That transformation will be far more difficult without nuclear power.


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