Diablo Canyon

Jearl Strickland, director of technical services at the Diablo Canyon plant, has worked on it since before it opened. (Photo: Nancy Pastor, for The SF Chronicle)

By David R. Baker
November 14, 2015
Updated: November 14, 2015 –  7:22pm

AVILA BEACH, San Luis Obispo County — California’s largest power plant churns out enough electricity for 1.7 million homes, yet pumps no greenhouse gases into the sky. Unlike the wind farms and solar plants spreading across the state, its output doesn’t vary hour by hour, day or night. It needs little land and less fuel.

But the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., is the last of its kind in the state. And in less than 10 years, it could close, ending nuclear power’s long history in California at the very moment that the state — determined to stop climate change — needs carbon-free electricity more than ever.

The first of its two operating licenses from the federal government expires in 2024, the second a year later. Federal regulators are weighing whether to renew those licenses and keep Diablo humming through 2045. PG&E, however, appears to be having second thoughts.

Once eager to extend Diablo’s licenses, company executives now say they aren’t sure. Since the deadly 2010 explosion of a PG&E natural gas pipeline beneath San Bruno, their focus has been on reforming the company and repairing its image, not relicensing Diablo.

And any extension will involve a fight. The plant sits within a maze of earthquake faults, all of them discovered after construction began in 1968. Seismic safety fears have dogged the nuclear industry in California for more than 50 years, forcing PG&E to abandon plans for one of its first reactors.

“We’ve got a lot on our plates, and we just don’t need to take on another big public issue right now,” said Tony Earley, PG&E Corp.’s CEO.

If Diablo closes, no nuclear plant will take its place. California law forbids building more until federal officials come up with a permanent way to deal with the waste. Thirty-nine years after the law passed, that still hasn’t happened. The state’s only other commercial reactors, at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station north of San Diego, closed for good in 2012 after a small leak of radioactive steam revealed defective equipment.

Many environmentalists have long dreamed of a nuclear-free California. Global warming hasn’t changed their minds. They don’t trust PG&E’s claim that Diablo can withstand the worst quake likely to strike the area in 10,000 years and call the plant an American Fukushima waiting to happen.

“It should be illegal,” said Linda Seeley, 71, a retired midwife who in the 1980s was arrested twice during mass demonstrations at Diablo’s gates. “They’re playing with fire, and the people who will get burned are the people who live here.”

Not long ago, nuclear power appeared poised for a renaissance, as utilities concerned about climate change planned new reactors across the country. The nuclear spring never came. Deterred by high costs, long construction schedules and public resistance, most power companies built gas-burning plants, wind farms and solar facilities instead.

Diablo represents nuclear power’s last stand in California. But the plant’s fate may not be decided by climate change, or seismology.

It may depend on dead fish.

In October of 1957, a small reactor near Pleasanton plugged into the grid and started feeding electricity to PG&E.

It was a first. Never before had private American companies funded and built a nuclear plant for civilian use. The Vallecitos Boiling Water Reactor couldn’t generate much power — just 5 megawatts, compared with Diablo’s 2,240. But its launch heralded big things, particularly for PG&E.

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