US Approves Aid to Extend Life of California Nuclear Plant

California’s last nuclear power plant received a $1.1 billion federal grant on Monday as the state seeks to extend the plant’s operations — currently set to end in 2025 — to meet electricity demand at a time of intensifying climate events.

The Department of Energy awarded the funding for the Diablo Canyon Power plant to Pacific Gas & Electric, which owns the nuclear facility, to help cover the cost of continued power production. The federal money follows a $1.4 billion loan from the state last month that included the potential of being forgiven, though PG&E was expected to seek funds to repay it.

PG&E has yet to clear all of the needed regulatory requirements and licensing to keep the plant running, but Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and the Biden administration have consistently argued in support of Diablo Canyon’s operation and for nuclear power in general as a way to help decarbonize the electric grid.

The federal money is part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which provided $6 billion for civil nuclear support at $1.2 billion per year for fiscal years 2022 to 2026.

“This is a critical step toward ensuring that our domestic nuclear fleet will continue providing reliable and affordable power to Americans as the nation’s largest source of clean electricity,” Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement. “Nuclear energy will help us meet President Biden’s climate goals, and with these historic investments in clean energy, we can protect these facilities and the communities they serve.”

The United States maintains 92 reactors, though a dozen have closed over the last decade — including, a month ago, the Palisades Nuclear Generating Station in Michigan, about 55 miles southwest of Grand Rapids.

Diablo Canyon, on the coast roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, provides about 9 percent of the state’s electricity and has been viewed as a critical source for providing power to homes and businesses during extreme weather events driven by climate change. This summer, sweltering temperatures formed a heat dome over the West that threatened to overload California’s electric and force rolling blackouts for the second time in two years.

Mr. Newsom ordered the unusual step of sending text messages to millions of Californians to reduce their electricity use to prevent the blackouts. And state regulators continue to push the state’s utilities to add more resources like batteries to aid the electric grid during periods of high demand.

But with the move to electrify appliances, heating and cooling systems and automobiles, which will lead to an increased need for power, the state wants to keep Diablo Canyon running, at least for an additional five to 10 years.

Critics of extending Diablo Canyon’s operations argue that there is not enough information on which to evaluate the need and potential expense. For example, the $1.1 billion would not cover the total state loan. Regulators continue to evaluate California’s electricity needs for future years. And Diablo could require extensive upgrades to ensure safety.

In the end, the critics argue, the money spent on the nuclear plant could fund other clean energy projects, like batteries, and solar and wind power.

“We believe it’s costly and unnecessary,” said David Weisman, legislative director for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility Legal Fund, a nonprofit that focuses on the dangers related to nuclear power plants. “Whether we really need Diablo Canyon or not, we won’t get to that until a year from now.”

The federal and state support from Democratic leaders for Diablo Canyon’s continued electricity production has been a surprising reversal. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had supported retiring the plant, wrote an opinion essay in The Sacramento Bee this year about why she changed her mind.

On Monday, Ms. Feinstein, a Democrat from California, again backed Diablo Canyon’s operations, disputing Mr. Weisman’s argument that the facility is not needed.

“This short-term extension is necessary if California is going to meet its ambitious clean-energy goals while continuing to deliver reliable power,” Ms. Feinstein said. “This is especially critical as California’s electric grid has faced increasing challenges from climate-fueled extreme weather events.”

PG&E said it was continuing to work toward closing the plant by the end of 2025 — even as it pursued extending the facility’s operations — until final determinations were clear. But funding support has been crucial.

Based on current forecasts, PG&E said the funding it had received from the state and federal governments would cover the cost of extending the license and operations of the plant. And the utility said the federal money would help repay the state.

“This is another very positive step forward to extend the operating life of Diablo Canyon Power Plant to ensure electrical reliability for all Californians,” said Patricia K. Poppe, chief executive of PG&E Corporation. “While there are key federal and state approvals remaining before us in this multiyear process, we remain focused on continuing to provide reliable, low-cost, carbon-free energy to the people of California, while safely operating one of the top performing plants in the country.”


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