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California lawmakers move to keep the state's last nuclear plant open

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

California lawmakers today approved a big subsidy to keep the state's last nuclear power plant operating. The Diablo Canyon plant on the Central Coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles was scheduled to close by 2025.

Benjamin Purper of member station KCBX in San Luis Obispo is less than 20 miles from the plant and joins us now. Welcome.

BENJAMIN PURPER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. OK, so tell us more about what lawmakers in Sacramento approved today.

PURPER: Yeah. The state legislature approved a loan of up to $1.4 billion to the plant's operator, utility Pacific Gas and Electric, to keep the plant open another five years. That loan can be forgiven in the future, so this is likely more a subsidy than a loan. Governor Gavin Newsom proposed the extension, saying the plant's carbon-free energy supply is worth the cost. This loan will help PG&E make upgrades needed to keep the plant operating. The money could also go to things like licensing and maintenance.

The push here happened in part because California has ambitious climate change goals of reaching 100% carbon-free energy by 2045. Diablo Canyon accounts for about 9% of the state's electricity portfolio and a higher share of its carbon-free energy. Newsom, some environmental groups and nuclear advocates say closing the plant in the next few years is just way too soon if the state wants to reach that goal.

CHANG: OK, well, walk us through some of the history here, Benjamin, because nuclear power, it's controversial. And the trend in California as well as across the country is that these plants are shutting down, right?

PURPER: Yeah. Well, Diablo Canyon plant was controversial from the start. It was the focus of fierce opposition and protest during its construction. And that started in the late 1960s. PG&E struggled to show the plant was earthquake proof, especially after a new fault was discovered several miles offshore. Eventually, though, regulators approved it.

Still, on top of that, there are traditional concerns about nuclear power, like where to store spent fuel. The country still doesn't have a permanent storage facility built, so nuclear waste is in temporary storage near power plants around the country.

CHANG: Well, how are people who oppose relying on nuclear energy responding to the prospect of Diablo Canyon staying open for an extra five years?

PURPER: Well, they are still really concerned about safety and the potential for a major disaster here. The plant sits right by the ocean and near several towns. Edwin Lyman is director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He believes there is a real risk of a major accident from an earthquake, tsunami or even a terrorist attack.

EDWIN LYMAN: Although the industry has tried to downplay those concerns, a serious radiological release at Diablo Canyon could have wide-ranging public health and environmental impacts.

PURPER: PG&E, though, maintains that the plant has a long record of safe operation going back to its construction, and pro-Diablo groups point to what they call the strict oversight from the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And besides safety, renewable energy advocates argue that instead of propping up an old nuclear plant, the state should build more wind and solar power faster to reach that carbon-free energy goal.

CHANG: Well, what happens now that the legislature approved this money?

PURPER: Yeah, Governor Newsom is expected to sign off on the five-year extension, and then the state can grant PG&E the loan. It's forgivable, so the utility could return the money if federal funds to keep the plant open come through. The plant will have to go through the federal relicensing process, and there are some pretty major problems to figure out. But for now, it looks like the plant is going to keep running until 2030.

CHANG: That is Benjamin Purper of KCBX. Thank you, Benjamin.

PURPER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Benjamin Purper