Will California Keep Nuclear Energy Alive?

  • Date: 04/09/19
  • Michael Shellenberger, Forbes

Last week, a California state legislator introduced an amendment to the state’s constitution that would classify nuclear energy as “renewable.” 

If the amendment passes, it would likely result in the continued operation of the state’s last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, well past 2025, its current closure date.

Diablo generates 9% of California’s electricity and 20% of its clean, carbon-free electricity. 

It is also the most spectacular nuclear plant in the world, made famous by an employee’s photo of a humpback whale breaching in front of the plant.

“I’m not going to argue it’s not a long shot,” said the legislation’s sponsor, Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham.

“But we can’t make a serious dent in slowing the warming trend in the world without investment in nuclear power.”

If Governor Gavin Newsom decides to support the legislation it would likely become law and Diablo Canyon could continue operating to 2045 or even 2065. 

That’s because Newsom, who was elected last year with an astonishing 62% of the vote, exercises extraordinary power over the legislature, particularly on energy.

As his first major act as governor, Newsom worked hard to get the legislature to pass what critics call a “bail-out” of PG&E in July. 

The law raises electricity prices to pay for a $21-billion fund for electric utilities including PG&E to pay for the wildfire lawsuits and fire prevention.

Newsom could reduce by one-third how much California ratepayers must pay of the $10 billion they owe if nuclear were classified as renewable and Diablo Canyon remained open.

Polling shows just 28% of voters approve of the “bail-out” while 35% disapprove of it. Seventy-eight percent of Californians (correctly) fear higher electricity prices will result.

Between 2011 and 2018, electricity prices rose nearly six times more (28%) in California than in the rest of the country (5%).

Some of that increase was due to the closure of the state’s last nuclear plant, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Not only does Newsom’s Democratic party have a supermajority, most Republicans are already pro-nuclear.

Newsom could likely save Diablo Canyon without even passing a ballot initiative by simply ordering his Public Utility Commissioners to do so.

Most analysts believe this is unlikely because Newsom himself led the effort to prematurely close Diablo Canyon when he was lieutenant governor.

“I just don’t see that this plant is going to survive beyond 2024, 2025,” Newsom said in 2016. “And there is a compelling argument as to why it shouldn’t.”

But all of that was before wildfires ravaged California in 2017 and 2018, bankrupting PG&E earlier this year. 

The utility had to declare bankruptcy after courts awarded billions in awards and damages to victims of wildfires caused by PG&E’s electric wires.

And California’s anti-nuclear fervor, which dates back to the 1970s, has cooled. 

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