For more than 3 million people in California, one energy source powers their phones, computers and lights in their homes: The Diablo Canyon Power Plant. It’s also the last nuclear power plant in the state of California.
Twenty miles from Cal Poly’s campus, Diablo Canyon sits close to Avila Beach and powers about 9% of California’s energy. In 2018, the state of California decided to decommission and close the power plant by 2025, but last year the California Congress voted to extend the life of Diablo Canyon.
“Right now, because the future is still a little bit uncertain, PG&E is doing both things. They’re planning for decommissioning, which will happen eventually anyways, and also planning for a five year extension,” Diablo Canyon Decommissioning Engagement Panel member Kara Woodruff said.
This decision was made in order to continue to support the millions of residents in California who need power. Without Diablo Canyon, the state won’t have enough energy to support the people who live here.
“During the summer when we had those heat waves and in 2020 and you got the flex alerts, ‘it’s don’t plug in your vehicles from 4 to 9, don’t do laundry for nine,’ because solar is coming off and there’s not enough reliable resources on the grid,” Vice President of Business and Technical Services at Diablo Canyon Maureen Zawalick said.
Before closing Diablo Canyon, the state plans to develop more sources of clean, reliable energy in order to prevent the rolling blackouts that take place during extreme weather conditions. The goal was to have those energy sources ready by 2025, but the state needs more time.
“There is an expectation that by 2024 or 2025, we would have these alternative energies ready to go,” Woodruff said. “Now that we get a little bit closer to that time, we’ve made great strides, but maybe they haven’t been fast enough.”
In addition to supporting a good chunk of California’s energy, the power plant significantly affects the San Luis Obispo community.
“Diablo currently employs about 1,300 workers, so that’s quite an economic stimulus to this local community,” Zawalick said. “We own homes here. You know, we go out to dinner here and so forth. We’re the second largest employer in San Luis Obispo County.”
Not only does it help San Luis Obispo’s economy, but nuclear energy is also cleaner energy than burning fossil fuels.
“It’s absolutely true that we’re facing a climate crisis and it has so many ramifications that are hitting California as hard as they are in most parts of the world,” Woodruff said. “I mean, we’ve seen increased — and much more deadly — wildfires, we’ve seen flooding, we have rising sea level problems and we have extended droughts.”
Many people in California and in San Luis Obispo support using nuclear energy over other types of energy because it is better for the climate crisis.
“It’s probably a growing number of people who have embraced nuclear power because it’s seen as a cleaner source of energy than the burning of fossil fuels, which we know has led to a climate change crisis,” Woodruff said.
But not everyone is convinced nuclear energy is the best source of energy and there are many people who support the power plant’s decommissioning.
“There are people who believe that the power plant is aged. It sits on or near some earthquake faults, and for those and other reasons they would like to see the plant closed,” Woodruff said.
Some people believe that Diablo Canyon poses a safety risk to the community and that nuclear energy is dangerous.
“We still don’t have a solution for how to store the spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive and highly toxic and has to be managed oh so carefully,” Woodruff said.
Right now, the spent nuclear fuel is stored behind the plant on the Diablo Canyon property. Zawalick said the fuel is cooled by thermal energy in pools and then the waste is then put into large canisters with steel vents and concrete surrounding them. These canisters are then stored on a concrete pad.
“The plant has an excellent safe operating record. It’s one of the top performing plants in the United States that’s recognized by our federal safety regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Zawalick said. “We’re just always focused on safely and reliably operating the plant.”
Diablo Canyon won’t start its decommissioning process until 2030, giving the state time to develop more sources of energy that California residents need to power their lives.