The Electrical Worker online
January 2023

California Rescues Diablo Canyon
Nuclear Power Station From Planned Closure
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California's last nuclear power plant was rescued from closing its doors Sept. 1 when the California Legislature approved a $1.4 billion plan to keep the plant alive.

The rescue came as part of a $40 billion package that will fund extensive improvements to the state's power grid and accelerate its move toward the electrification of nearly everything in the state.

Passage of the bill came after months of lobbying from the IBEW in California, spearheaded by the home of most of the 1,500 men and women who work at Diablo Canyon, Vacaville Local 1245.

"This is an enormous deal. It cannot be overstated how big a deal for our state for our energy portfolio," said Local 1245 Business Manager Bob Dean.

The plan will fund the cost of recommissioning the plant after a half decade and hundreds of millions of dollars spent to decommission it. If the utility is unable to secure the necessary state and federal permits, the loan will be forgiven.

On Nov. 21, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would back the recommissioning plan with an additional $1.1 billion from the Civil Nuclear Credit program created by President Joe Biden's 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Law.

It was dramatic turnaround from just six years ago when PG&E announced its plans to shutter the 2.3 gigawatt plant. Coming only three years after the closure of the state's only other nuclear plant in San Onofre, the announcement was met with horror from the IBEW and cheers from most of the state's politicians and environmentalists.

What followed was a brutal half-decade of record heat waves that turned California, Oregon and even Washington state glowing red on weather maps for weeks at a time. The heat wilted power lines, sparked calamitous wildfires and stressed the Western Power Pool to the breaking point.

Year after year, California teetered on the brink of blackouts, and at times and in some places, tipped over into darkness. There simply wasn't enough power on the grid to meet the load and there was no more power that could be carried or found.

There was a solar building bonanza after San Onofre closed and the decommissioning at Diablo Canyon began. Thousands of IBEW members deployed from the Mojave Desert-based local halls, but it was not even enough to replace what would have been lost from nuclear, let alone enough to meet the increasing demand. Transmission projects to bring generation from the wind-rich central spine of the U.S. and solar from the vast deserts of Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, were little more than mirages that never seemed to get closer.

As summer 2022 burned and the state's struggles to match limited generation to increasing load worsened, reality set in for lawmakers, Dean said.

A year's long, slow-burning and low-profile lobbying campaign came out from the corridors of power and erupted into a sea of purple across the state capitol campus.

For years, Dean and Assistant Business Manager Hunter Stern had whipped votes quietly.

"This wasn't just an issue for our members. We had heatwaves from the Mexican border to Canada and rolling blackouts," he said. "Me and my staff reached out to the governor's office, to legislators and mayors and said 'You can't run the state without Diablo. Are you willing to open negotiations to go from decommissioning to relicensing?' Eventually we started getting political support because, this is the 21st century. Lights have to go on."

The challenge was the decommissioning was six years underway. Licenses with the state land commission and the famously independent-minded Coastal Commission would have to get approval, as well as licenses from NERC and FERC, federal regulatory agencies with timelines that don't simply bend because there is an emergency.

"Once the governor came on board, and decided it was a good idea, we started working overtime," Stern said. "We took the lead because it was our members at stake, sure, but we are a California local. We are not Big Coal; we are the stewards of the grid, citizens in all corners of this state and we want clean, safe and reliable power."

Despite the power emergency, there was still a significant opposition to the rescue plan. After a series of mishaps and disasters, PG&E was possibly the most unpopular company in California since Enron. Opponents tried to frame saving Diablo Canyon as a handout to the most infamous name in the state that would hurt poor communities who would have to foot the bill.

In the past, this plus nuclear fearmongering, might have carried the day. But the normal rules don't apply when life isn't normal.

"We went to progressives and said if there are blackouts it won't be the rich people who suffer. When [the wealthy community] of Montecito faced wildfires, they paid for private firefighters. They saved the town. When our members build microgrids with back-up generators, we build them in the wealthiest neighborhoods where every house has back-up batteries," Dean said. "There is a huge environmental and social justice argument to save Diablo Canyon, and it changed minds. Even legislators who spoke out against this bill voted for it in the end."

On the day the bill came up for a vote, the time for quiet pressure was over traditional Local 1245 organizing was put into effect. Legislative offices surround the Capitol in Sacramento, and most lawmakers walk across the grounds to vote. Purple-shirted Local 1245 members lined the walkways, greeting and high-fiving the ones who were on side, and cajoling whoever wasn't.

"We lined the entire path," Dean said.

As the vote neared, the volunteers filed into the gallery above the State Senate floor. The votes were not even close.

"Once we got to the tipping point, the opposition melted away," Dean said. "There was a trigger this time: you will be in the dark."

The rest of the legislative package may turn out to be just as important, Stern said. There are billions of dollars for undergrounding of transmission and distribution, electrification of the existing building stock, electric vehicle infrastructure and more.

"It is the electrify everything act. It is a decade and half of work for us," Dean said. "We will even get transmission built for the first time in a decade. I didn't think it was possible, but I am convinced."



Members of Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 flooded Sacramento to save Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant, the last baseload carbon-free powerhouse in the state. Legislation supporting Diablo Canyon will also upgrade the grid, prevent wildfires and turbocharge the plan to electrify the state's economy.

Credit: John Storey