Another Step Forward for Historic Diablo Canyon Proposal

The historic joint proposal to retire and replace Diablo Canyon—California’s last nuclear power plant—has taken another important step forward now that a California court has dismissed the only pending legal challenge to one of its key elements.

Judge Mary Strobel of the Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles recently upheld in all respects the June 2016 decision by the California State Lands Commission to extend the plant’s cooling water leases through 2025. That decision provided necessary time for an orderly closure of the plant’s two reactors under the joint proposal announced a week earlier.

The Lands Commission had unanimously approved the extension of the subtidal leases—the permits that allow Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to draw in billions of gallons of ocean water daily to keep the plant’s two reactors cool—to cover the time between their scheduled expiration in 2018 and 2019 and the beginning of the decommissioning process when the reactors’ Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses expire in 2024 and 2025, respectively. Although the decision was widely supported as a way to ensure Diablo’s orderly retirement and replacement, one party (the World Business Academy) filed suit to block the extension.

As Judge Strobel’s mid-July decision recognizes, the joint proposal was a major factor in the Lands Commission’s decision, providing reassurance that PG&E would not seek permission from federal regulators to operate the plant through 2045, as the utility had originally proposed. By committing to close the Diablo Canyon facility completely, PG&E will ultimately end the plant’s harm to the ocean environment—and remove other environmental impacts associated with the plant, as well.  

Under the joint proposal announced on June 21, 2016, by PG&E, NRDC, Friends of the Earth, labor, and other environmental groups, the power generated by Diablo Canyon would be replaced by cheaper, zero-emissions options: energy efficiency, renewable energy like wind and solar, demand response (compensating customers for their energy use at specific times), and energy storage

Diablo Canyon, located near San Luis Obispo, accounts for about 9 percent of California’s in-state power generation, 6 percent of the state’s total electricity mix, and about 20 percent of the electricity in the service territory of PG&E—one of the nation’s largest combination natural gas and electric utilities, serving 16 million people in northern and central California. 

NRDC and Friends of the Earth expressed support for the Lands Commission in a brief submitted to the court back in April, arguing that the joint proposal embodied the public interest in environmental protection and stewardship of natural resources, and that the lease extension represented “the minimum amount of time required for a safe and orderly shutdown of the plant and to procure replacement greenhouse-gas free resources.”

An appeal is possible, but the court’s thoughtful and extensive (although unpublished) 19-page analysis should be persuasive to appellate judges.

Moreover, as my colleague Peter Miller recently described, NRDC and the other parties to the joint proposal in August 2016 formally launched proceedings at California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to open public review of the proposal and request approval of its key elements. Although the proposal led some to contend that California’s use of polluting natural gas would inevitably surge as a result of the retirement of the two reactors, the groundbreaking replacement plan remains committed to filling the gap with clean energy technologies.

As the next voice on deciding whether to replace Diablo Canyon—and if so, how—the CPUC holds a vital key to ensuring that California’s last nuclear power plant is replaced without adverse effects on air and water quality. A final CPUC decision is expected this fall. 

About the Authors

Ralph Cavanagh

Codirector, Energy program

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