California Nuclear Plant Is Granted Exemption from Closing

Government regulators last week granted California’s largest nuclear power plant an exemption that could allow it to continue producing electricity after the expiration of its federal operating licenses.

The double-reactor Diablo Canyon plant was scheduled to close in 2025. But the federal exemption will allow it to continue while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reviews an expected application from the plant to extent its operating period for up to two decades.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s decision last year to support a longer operating run for Diablo Canyon shocked environmentalists and anti-nuclear advocates because he had once been a leading voice for closing the plant.

The plant is operated by Pacific Gas & Electricity (PG&E), and it produces 9 percent of the state’s electricity.

PG&E initially was part of a complex 2016 agreement with environmentalists and plant worker unions to close the plant by 2025. But the state changed direction last year, and Newsom and the state legislature voided the 2016 pact and opened the way for PG&E to seek a longer operating run.

PG&E senior vice president Paula Gerfen praised the decision as an important step for the company “to extend our operations beyond 2025 to improve statewide electric system reliability.”

The company has said it intends to submit an application to extend the plant’s life by the end of this year. However, the current operating licenses would likely expire before the NRC’s review could be completed, a process that can take two years or more.

Typically, if a nuclear plant files for a license extension at least five years before the expiration of the existing license, the existing license remains in effect until the NRC’s application review is complete, even if it technically passes the expiration date. But PG&E would not meet the usual five-year benchmark.

One reactor is scheduled to close in November 2024 and its twin in August 2025, and a state analysis predicted it would take federal regulators until late 2026 to act on the application. With the exemption now granted from the NRC staff, the reactors can keep running while the agency conducts the expected review.

In documents submitted to the NRC, the company said the exemption “will not present an undue risk to the public health and safety.”

Anti-nuclear activists and national environmental groups earlier urged the federal agency to reject the exemption, saying in a petition that it amounted to a dangerous shortcut that would expose the public to safety risks.

PG&E officials have said they are eager for certainty about the plant’s future because of the difficulty of reversing course on a plant that was headed for permanent retirement, but now needs to prepare for a potentially longer lifespan.

The proposal comes at a time when the nuclear power industry foresees future growth. The Biden administration said on Thursday it is offering $1.2 billion in aid to extend the life of distressed nuclear power plants which, for the first time, could offer funding to a plant that has recently closed.

The funding comes from the $6 billion Civil Nuclear Credit program, created by the 2021 infrastructure law, and will be distributed by the Department of Energy.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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