- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized Pacific Gas & Electric to continue operating the 2,240 MW Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California as it considers the power plant’s expected license renewal application, the agency said Thursday.
- The license for Unit 1 is due to expire next year and Unit 2 is set to shut in 2025. With the NRC decision, the existing licenses will remain in effect if PG&E submits a renewal application by Dec. 31. If its license is renewed, Diablo Canyon may continue to operate for up to 20 years beyond the current licenses.
- The NRC staff determined an exemption is authorized by law and will not present undue risk to public health and safety. It also cited “serious challenges to the reliability of California’s electricity grid.”
NRC regulations allow a reactor’s operating license to remain in effect beyond its expiration date if the applicant submits a sufficient license renewal application at least five years before its expiration.
PG&E needs the exemption because it did not meet the five-year requirement, the NRC said. PG&E applied to renew the licenses in November 2009, but withdrew the application in 2018 and announced plans to cease operations and decommission the reactors when the licenses expire.
In August, the California legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, stepped in, enacting Senate Bill 846 which invalidated a 2018 decision by the state Public Utilities Commission approving PG&E’s proposal to retire the units. The law requires the PUC to set new retirement dates for Diablo Canyon, conditioned on the NRC extending the operating licenses.
In November, the plants received conditional approval of $1.1 billion from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Civil Nuclear Credit program intended to support decarbonization goals.
PG&E said Thursday in a statement it intends to submit a license renewal application by the end of the year.
"We are pleased the NRC approved our exemption request,” said Paula Gerfen, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer. “Aligned with Senate Bill 846, PG&E will continue on the path to extend our operations beyond 2025 to improve statewide electric system reliability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as additional renewable energy and carbon-free resources come online.”
Environmental groups criticized the NRC’s decision, calling it unprecedented.
The Environmental Working Group said the federal agency has never approved an exemption for a license renewal applicant to operate a nuclear reactor past its 40-year legal limit without a comprehensive safety and environmental review.
“But the NRC, in its bow to PG&E, completely ignored its own rules, with far-reaching implications for all its safety standards,” EWG said.
“Public safety concerns were blatantly ignored by the NRC over this politically motivated and reckless decision to bend the law for PG&E,” said Ken Cook, president of EWG.
However, the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research organization, said the NRC “did the right thing -- and did so promptly and flexibly.”
“It was put in this situation by California, which last year had an about-face on the Diablo Canyon reactors. The state was first bent on forcing the plant to retire, and then realized that its electric system would not be able to get by without the facility’s output,” it said.
Gene Nelson, president of Californians for Green Nuclear Power, said the nuclear plants provide “emission-free power” and praised the NRC for its decision.
“Today is definitely a day for celebration,” he said in an interview Thursday. “It’s not a surprise, but it’s welcome news that Diablo Canyon gets an exemption from the five-year rule.”
Newsom said Diablo Canyon supports energy reliability, and he cited last September’s heat wave and other weather patterns due to climate change that are “causing unprecedented stress on our power grid.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the NRC’s decision “will allow Diablo Canyon to serve as a bridge to a clean-energy future, maintaining a reliable source of carbon-free power as we continue to invest in renewable energy.”
She reversed herself last year after supporting plans in 2016 to shut Diablo Canyon.
“I remain concerned about the lack of long-term storage for spent nuclear fuel and am working to develop better solutions,” she said in June 2022. “But at this point, keeping Diablo Canyon open and producing carbon-free energy is more important.”
The nuclear power plant supplies about 17% of California’s zero-carbon electricity and 9% of its total electricity, according to the California Energy Commission. On Tuesday it approved a resolution that “the state’s electricity forecasts for the calendar years 2024 to 2030, inclusive, show potential for reliability deficiencies if the Diablo Canyon power plant operation is not extended beyond 2025.”
Extending its operations to at least 2030 is prudent to ensure reliability, the CEC said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with comments from the Breakthrough Institute.