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The future of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant

Steven Weissman, associate director, Center for Law, Energy and the Environment | February 2, 2016

The role that nuclear power could or should play in helping to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions is worthy of serious debate, but the latest nuclear-related front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle is a head-scratcher. Above the fold, the headline reads “Nuclear plant’s surprise backers,” followed by the following subheading: “Environmentalists push for Diablo Canyon to stay open.”

The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, in San Luis Obispo County, Calif. (Marya via Wikimedia Commons)

The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, in San Luis Obispo County, Calif. (Marya via Wikimedia Commons)

The accompanying article reports on a letter sent by a new coalition identifying itself as “Save Diablo Canyon,” calling on regulators to relicense the plant. The stated concern is that a closed nuclear plant would make it harder to meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. Constructed on a cliff along the central California coast, Diablo is the last remaining commercial reactor in the state and it soon must either receive a new license, or cease operation.

The mystery about the article is that it only mentions three of those who signed the letter, and each of those three has been on the public record for years as favoring nuclear power. So, where is the surprise? Where is the news item?

Examination of the letter itself reveals the names of 27 people identified as “scientists” and 30 who are categorized as “conservationists and philanthropists.” No doubt, these are credible, thoughtful people and their support for continued operation should carry weight, but this is packaged for the press as a stunning reversal of direction by “environmentalists”, who are often thought of as opposing anything nuclear. Yet, not a single signatory is identified as having any active involvement with a major environmental organization. No information is provided as to whether any one of them has recently changed his or her mind about the subject.

This coalition is led by Michael Shellenberger, who has made a career of being an “environmentalist” who speaks hard truth to other environmentalists. Most famously, he was the co-author of an article entitled “The Death of Environmentalism.” He has proven to be very adept at gaining public attention in controversial ways.

Diablo Canyon construction, circa 1973

Construction of PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear-generating facility, circa 1973. (U.S. Dept. of Energy photo)

This latest poof of excitement re-introduces the question of what it means to be an environmentalist. Is it enough to simply award oneself that label? Is there some set of credentials or experience that allows one to enter the club?

Whatever it is, it probably means more than having an advanced degree, or a Nobel Prize, or a business card that says “environmentalist.” It is the ambiguity of the term that makes it hard to give it much potency in a situation such as this.

Here is the thing about Diablo Canyon: If we were to build a nuclear plant in California today, it wouldn’t be at Diablo Canyon. And, if we were going to select the best nuclear plant to continue operating for an additional 30 years, it wouldn’t be this one.

Diablo is perched on a relatively shallow cliff amidst a series of seismic fault lines. It is near a popular small city. It has no doubt led to the destruction of millions of sea creatures due to its massive cold water intake system, and hot water reinjection. It was designed incorrectly at first, then retrofitted with beams and shock absorbers that make it a challenge to walk from one end of the facility to another, then discovered to have been erroneously redesigned so it had to be retrofit again.

There have been reported incidents of faulty operation, such as the failure to notice that a pipe feeding a critical backup cooling system had been stuck in the closed position for over a year. In the wake of the earthquake and tsunami-induced Fukushima disaster, important questions were raised about the wisdom of continuing to operate a facility of this type in a coastal, earthquake-prone area. But there it stands, and if the state were to pursue a replacement nuclear plant, it would likely take a decade to get there.

So, there are really two critical questions here: Nuclear — yes or no? This nuclear plant — yes or no? It has got to be the facts that help us decide. The green stripes of those who express opinions don’t get us any closer to the answers.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “The future of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant

  1. Steven, how can we trust California utilities and regulators after the 2010 PG&E gas explosion deaths, the long-term SCE San Onofre nuclear radiation threats to people in Orange and San Diego counties, the SoCalGas gas leaks that are seriously injuring people in Porter Ranch today, and no one is being held accountable?

  2. Steve:

    Your last two paragraphs include an oft repeated summary of issues associated with Diablo Canyon during the past 45 years. What it overlooks is the fact that the plant has operated safely since the mid 1980s, providing about 14 billion kilowatt hours of electricity every year. That is a big number; replacing that quantity of electricity would require burning about 4-8 million tons of coal, depending on the supply source. It would also release about 80,000 tons of CO2 every day that both DCNPP unit 1 and unit 2 are operating.

    The location is a good one; the cold water improves plant efficiency and does not waste fresh water resources in a state where fresh water supplies can be limited. The site elevation provides protection against the largest tsunami that the ocean can produce. Back when the plant was being planned, the Sierra Club participated in the process and agreed it was a place where the environmental impact was minimized.

    The seismic controversy began when two Shell Oil geologists began publicizing a “fault” that they had discovered in 1971, but didn’t promote until the plant was getting close to completion. I’m a suspicious man who has been the victim of dirty tricks from competitors; it surprises me that few observers have noticed that oil company geologists MIGHT have had a motive for slowing the construction of a competitor.

    For Paul Anderson – scientists and engineers were getting excited about the vast potential of nuclear energy LONG before the “energy crisis.” I presume you are referring to the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 and its resulting gas lines/price increases. For what it’s worth, one of the most famous scientists of the post WWI period, Sir Arthur Eddington told the World Energy Council at its 1930 meeting that humanity would eventually find a way to use “subatomic” energy instead of the “delicacies” of coal and oil. That prediction probably caused some of the oil and coal producers in the audience to begin worrying about this new threat to their business.

    Certainly by the time that the USS Nautilus began operating in 1955, the oil industry had noticed that many of their more lucrative markets were facing a formidable and technically capable competitor.

  3. Hansen, the most well-known climate change name, was mentioned in the article as a supporter of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, and he also supports use of small-module reactors. Schellenberger’s “Death of Environmentalism” paper is Stockmanesque, vague, generalizing, linguistically solipsistic and logically weak, and could have been written by a Chamber of Commerce intern.

    If Lakoff is responsible for the definitional cul de sac with which Schellenberger “frames” (in the crappy detective drama sense) his opponents, well, try something less dependent on trend. (Shellenberger’s paper also has trendy Asian language allusions loved by Asia-bound traveling salesman.) S’s fratricidal approach, born of frustration, should have a lot better fundamental proposals than greenwashing, and, finally, “liking” Van Jones.

    Vis DVNPP, no transparency as to why this is an especially bad time to do a good thing, so I agree that DVNPP should not be relicensed. Domestic nuclear power was a dumb, tech-heavy response to “the energy crisis” and a bizarre fear that Saudi Arabia didn’t want to sell oil. No relicense.

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