Tuesday, December 29, 2015 by Greg White
California used to be a safe haven for nuclear energy. If California’s last nuclear power plant doesn’t comply with state environmental requirements, however, the dawn of nuclear energy may come to a premature end in the sunshine state.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. once saw the Diablo Canyon as a base for California’s green energy future. But a lot has changed in the nuclear industry since the company said it would seek an extended lifespan for its aging nuclear reactors six years ago.(1)
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is trying to decide whether the state environment requirements, which are necessary to obtain a renewed operating license, are worth the price. If they don’t meet those state requirements, it could be lights out for nuclear energy in California.
The fact that California’s nuclear energy may be eclipsed by environmental requirements is remarkable. It was once believed that California’s growing energy needs would demand a nuclear power plant every 50 miles along its coast. This prediction did not consider alternative forms of energy that are now budding in California, like solar panels and wind turbines.(1)
Nuclear energy no longer has a monopoly on the sunshine state’s power supply, notes former California Environmental Secretary, Terry Tamminen. “We are not talking about either go dark or go nuclear. There are clearly now so many alternatives,” she told the Associated Press.(1)
One environmental issue that is thwarting nuclear energy production in California is the stability of the Diablo Canyon, which sits near several earthquake faults. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not used the means and methods legally required to determine whether the Diablo Canyon reactors can withstand a major earthquake. If such an earthquake occurs, it could result in a nuclear catastrophe on par with the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe.(2)
The NRC’s shortcomings were brought to attention in 2008, after a new fault was discovered 2,000 feet from the reactors, and a mere 985 feet from the plant’s intake structure. When parallel worries first kindled at nuclear facilities in Maine, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the NRC prohibited the plants from operating until the agency determined they passed safety regulations.(2)
Despite previous restrictions in other states, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant continues to operate. People have worried about whether the power plant could withstand a major earthquake since the 1980s.
Another fault runs 650 yards from the reactors. The PG&E might be ordered by state regulators to spend billions of dollars to renovate or replace the plant’s cooling system, which takes in 2.5 billion gallons of ocean water everyday and has been charged with killing an onslaught of marine life.(1)
“We continue to evaluate feedback on the seismic research and steps needed to obtain state approvals,” PG&E spokesman Blair Jones told sources.(1)
When PG&E first announced their plan to keep its nuclear reactors running an additional 20 years, the company claimed it would help reduce greenhouse emissions and boost the state’s economy. Without a new operating license, however, the plant will cease operating by 2025. Although 2025 is a decade away, renewing a plant’s operational license takes time and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing.
Back in April, PG&E was charged with a whopping $1.6 billion penalty after a gas pipeline explosion in 2010 killed eight people and decimated dozens of homes. The explosion triggered a state and federal investigation into supposed back-channel dealings between PG&E executives and a high profile state regulator.(1)
Other nuclear power plants are dropping like flies in California. Southern California Edison’s San Onofre nuclear plant was shut down permanently in 2013 after a $670 million equipment exchange backfired. In addition, owners of older plants are questioning whether the money needed to keep their reactors operating is worth the price.(1)
The same year Southern California Edison’s San Onofre closed, Duke Energy announced it would shut down its Crystal River Nuclear Plant in Florida after a mismanaged repair job would require billions of dollars to fix; a hefty price tag the company could not afford.
Furthermore, the construction of new nuclear power plants in the south have experienced major delays, which have created heavy financial set backs.
Despite the many challenges facing the nuclear industry, PG&E claims it can withstand the largest potential earthquake to plague the region. The company will be subject to a new round of questions by the NRC, which is undergoing its part of the license review.