The nuclear option can keep the lights on in California


A funny thing has happened on the way to California closing all of its nuclear power plants. Biden administration official Jennifer Granholm says the state should rethink its commitment to scrapping atomic energy.

In an interview that will be released at an energy conference this week, the U.S. energy secretary said nuclear power “may be something that” California decides “to take a look at, given that I think there is a change underfoot about the opinion that people may have about nuclear.”

“This is clean dispatchable base load power,” she added. “I know the decision has been made already to close” the Diablo Canyon plant, the only remaining nuclear plant operating in California, but “perhaps it’s something that they might reconsider.”

The 2,160-megawatt Diablo Canyon facility in San Luis Obispo County provides 9% of California’s electricity, and a fifth of its carbon-free power. It’s scheduled to go offline in 2025.

Whether they admit it or not, California officials have to be aware that their plans to go to a fully renewable electricity portfolio by 2045 are not going smoothly. After three natural gas plants were retired in 2018, taking more than 2,000 megawatts of power offline, and with three more scheduled for closure before the decade is out, regulators extended the life of the AES generating station in Redondo Beach earlier this fall. It was the second extension for the plant, which had originally been slated to close at the end of 2020. Three other gas plants on the coast have also been granted extensions after the California Independent Grid Operator warned that the summer of 2021 was going to strain the system.

The power that will eventually be lost when those sites close has to be replaced, and wind and solar, both unreliable and expensive, aren’t currently up to the task. Nuclear energy, however, is both green, emitting no carbon, which should appeal to all Californians, and continuous.

A recent report from a group of Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers also suggests that the state is being hasty in closing the books on nuclear power.

“Delaying the retirement of Diablo Canyon to 2035 would reduce California power sector carbon emissions by more than 10% from 2017 levels and reduce reliance on gas, save $2.6 billion in power system costs, and bolster system reliability to mitigate brownouts,” they say.

And, “if operated to 2045 and beyond,” the generation plant “could save up to $21 billion in power system costs and spare 90,000 acres of land from use for energy production, while meeting coastal protection requirements.”

Unlike wind and sun, Diablo Canyon “is a firm resource,” meaning that it’s able to “supply power to the grid at a steady, sustained rate over long periods, regardless of atmospheric or solar conditions.”

“As a result, Diablo Canyon offers the ability to provide reliable electricity output, while also contributing to further cost-effective decarbonization.”

In addition, the plant’s water-side location makes it ideal for operating as “a polygeneration facility,” pumping out electricity, hydrogen for fuel, and desalinated water, producing “volumes equal to or substantially exceeding those of the proposed Delta Conveyance Project – but at significantly lower investment cost.”

Though nuclear power is a staple overseas – nearly three-fourths of France’s electricity is generated by fission, and more reactors are coming – Americans have been conditioned to fear nuclear power. High-profile incidents such as the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster caused by a poorly designed, Soviet-made reactor, and the Fukushima accident in 2011 that was set off by an earthquake have colored our thoughts. But not one U.S. civilian has been killed by radiation emitted by a commercial nuclear power accident.

This isn’t to say there are no risks with nuclear power. But when compared to conventional energy sources, it is safer and cleaner. Its safety profile is similar to those of solar and wind, and it has the advantage of being far more reliable than both.

A revival of nuclear energy in California isn’t as improbable as it might seem. In their 2020 platform, Democrats endorsed “existing and advanced nuclear” power, ending decades of opposition. If California, where the Democratic Party makes the legislative and executive agendas, truly wants to be the leader in green energy, it should be as focused on promoting nuclear energy as it is solar and wind.

Reevaluating the future of Diablo Canyon is the obvious place to start.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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