The controversial nuclear power plant in California can continue to operate, the federal regulators decide

California’s largest utility will be able to keep a disputed nuclear plant running while it seeks official approval to expand the facility’s operations, a federal regulatory agency ruled Thursday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted an exemption Thursday to Pacific Gas & Electricity, allowing the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant to continue operating under its current licenses while the agency considers the renewal application.

While both Governor Gavin Newsom (D) and state lawmakers have advocated for the renewal as a reliable source of energy to support California’s clean energy transition, environmental groups remain vocal in their opposition to the plans.

Located about 25 miles southwest of San Luis Obispo along California’s central coast, Diablo Canyon was first opened in 1985.

PG&E announced plans in 2016 to decommission the facility and decommission the reactors when the licenses expire. But after California enacted legislation this fall to continue operations, the utility proceeded to apply for a license renewal.

The licenses for Diablo’s two reactors expire in November 2024 and August 2025, respectively.

The NRC exemption allows those permits to remain in effect while the regulator reviews the renewal application, assuming PG&E files its request before the end of the year, the regulator said.

“The exemption is permitted by law, does not pose an unnecessary risk to public health and safety, and is consistent with common defense and security,” said a statement from the NRC.

“The continued operation of Diablo Canyon is in the public interest because of serious challenges to the reliability of the California power grid,” the regulator added.

During the renewal process, the NRC said it would monitor “to ensure safe operation”. If the license is renewed, the regulator said it would allow continued operation of the facility for up to 20 years.

“PG&E will continue on the path of expanding our business beyond 2025,” Paula Gerfen, PG&E’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, said in a statement.

That path, Gerfen continued, would aim to “improve statewide electrical system reliability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“We are committed to the clean energy future of California,” she added.

The Diablo Canyon power plant — whose continued operations have drawn fierce opposition from environmental groups — got a lifeline when lawmakers passed the related legislation, SB 846, in late August.

The bill granted regulatory approval for each unit’s operation through the end of October 2029 and 2030, respectively, pending license renewal by the NRC.

Earlier that month, Governor Gavin Newsom (D) had proposed extending the plant’s shelf life, with the goal of maintaining a carbon-free, reliable power supply as the state transitions to renewables.

During a visit to the Diablo Canyon plant on Wednesday, Newsom stressed the importance of the facility to California’s clean energy transition.

“As we experienced during the record heat wave last September, climate change-induced extreme events are putting unprecedented stress on our power grid,” Newsom said in a statement.

“The Diablo Canyon Power Plant is important to support energy reliability as we accelerate progress toward our clean energy and climate goals,” the governor added.

The NRC’s decision to grant the exemption on Thursday follows a decision by the California Energy Commission earlier this week that the state must keep the plant running until 2030 to support grid reliability.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) expressed her support for the NRC’s decision, stressing that “the next few years will be critical to California’s energy transition.”

Feinstein, in particular, had changed course over the summer, explaining that “California is leading the way in renewables, but we’re not there yet.”

“This decision enables Diablo Canyon to serve as a bridge to a clean energy future, maintaining a reliable source of carbon-free energy while continuing to invest in renewable energy,” the senator said Thursday.

However, environmentalists called the NRC’s move “unprecedented” in a collective statement.

The NRC has never approved an exemption for a license renewal that would allow a nuclear reactor to exceed the legal threshold of 40 years without a comprehensive review, the groups said.

“The NRC is calling the waiver a purely ‘administrative’ decision, as if it were about choosing paperclip sizes,” said Diane Curran, lead attorney for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace.

“There is nothing ‘administrative’ about running this aging reactor duo for days, months or years, when every day it works carries the risk of an accident that could devastate the entire state and beyond,” Curran added.

Ken Cook, chairman of the Environmental Working Group, said that “public safety concerns were blatantly ignored by the NRC” because of what he described as a “reckless decision to bend the law for PG&E.”

“A federal agency responsible for protecting public safety now simply acts as a nuclear industry consigliere,” Cook added.


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