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Hail Mary: Gov. Gavin Newsom pushes legislation to save Diablo Canyon from closure with help from $1.4 billion loan

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The future of Diablo Canyon Power Plant—and nuclear power in California—hung in the balance this week as state lawmakers debated a last-minute legislative deal that aims to extend the plant's life to 2030, scrapping a prior decommissioning plan, amid fears of looming power shortages.

The legislation, which came at the request of Gov. Gavin Newsom, lays out a complex roadmap to help PG&E try to relicense Diablo Canyon—including by loaning the utility up to $1.4 billion—while simultaneously investing in new renewable energy resources.

SAVING GRACE? Legislation introduced by Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-SLO) would keep Diablo Canyon open through 2030 with the help of a federal loan. - COVER FILE PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Cover File Photo By Christopher Gardner
  • SAVING GRACE? Legislation introduced by Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-SLO) would keep Diablo Canyon open through 2030 with the help of a federal loan.

"California's electricity grid is on a knife's edge," Central Coast Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) said about Senate Bill 846, which he co-sponsored and introduced on Aug. 28. "We need to extend Diablo as a transition to future projects like offshore wind in order to maintain grid reliability, and to protect ratepayers from massive cost spikes."

Cunningham's Diablo deal resembles the framework initiated by Newsom's office in recent weeks. It provides PG&E with state funds to help it clear regulatory hurdles to keeping Diablo running, like relicensing with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. PG&E's current federal licenses for the plant expire in 2024 and 2025.

But according to state Sen. Jon Laird (D-Santa Cruz), the legislation includes other provisions that he said make it more appealing than the governor's initial draft.

Laird, an early skeptic of the proposal, said the new bill stipulates a five-year extension—not an open-ended or 10-year extension—and invests $1.1 billion in a statewide "Marshall Plan" for developing renewable energy.

"From the beginning, I have laid out a set of issues that have to be addressed for this to even be considered. And the [Newsom] administration has met most of those issues," Laird told New Times by phone from the state Capitol on Aug. 31.

Other aspects of the bill that Laird said he supported: It protects the $80-plus million in economic mitigation funds already dispersed to SLO County agencies after the 2016 decommissioning decision; continues providing retention bonuses to Diablo workers; includes a process for acquiring the 12,000 acres of Diablo lands after it's shut down; doesn't interfere with offshore wind development near Morro Bay; requires "extensive work on seismic retrofit and deferred maintenance" at Diablo; and does not "override" the authority of the Coastal Commission, Laird said.

He added that the bill also requires the $1.4 billion state loan to be repaid. Per the bill, PG&E would receive the loan in conditional increments, which would theoretically be repaid by federal nuclear subsidies that PG&E would promise to apply for in September.

The late-hour push to save Diablo drew a range of reactions from citizens and advocacy groups locally and beyond. SLO Mothers for Peace, a local opponent of Diablo since its inception more than 40 years ago, held a press conference on Aug. 30 to sound the alarm about the bill.

"Our chief concerns are safety and the environment, and this bill just devastates both," Mothers for Peace spokesperson Linda Seeley said during the event.

NUCLEAR DEAL? Last-minute state legislation introduced on Aug. 28 would loan PG&E the funds to keep Diablo Canyon Power Plant operating an additional five years. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY
  • File Photo Courtesy Of SLO County
  • NUCLEAR DEAL? Last-minute state legislation introduced on Aug. 28 would loan PG&E the funds to keep Diablo Canyon Power Plant operating an additional five years.

Various speakers at the press conference pointed out that Diablo Canyon sits near multiple earthquake faults, has years of deferred maintenance, and will continue to pose a threat to the Central Coast. Seeley added that she's skeptical the state would hold to a 2030 closure date.

"If you believe what they say, then you've definitely drunk the Kool-Aid," she said.

Cathy Iwane, representing the Coalition for Nuclear Safety, argued that Diablo Canyon is not as reliable a power source as some say: She asserted that over the past four years, at least one of Diablo's reactors was offline about 40 percent of the time. She blasted the state for poor planning and its rushed process.

"Newsom knows that battery storage of our renewable energy is the answer in sunny California, and it's a travesty that Newsom hasn't prepared adequately enough for the severe weather events and climate change that we're experiencing," Iwane said.

As of New Times' press time, Senate Bill 846 was awaiting final votes in the Senate and Assembly. If it passes both, it will then go to Newsom for a final signature next month. Δ

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