In pointed language, federal regulators on Tuesday rejected a request from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. that could have paved their way to securing longer operational life for the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
The decision marks the latest skirmish in a long-running battle over the operations and security of the decades-old Diablo Canyon facility, which Gov. Gavin Newsom said should continue beyond a planned closure in 2025 to stave off potential power outages as the state transitions to solar power and other renewable sources.
In October, Pacific Gas & Electric asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reopen consideration of a plant life extension application originally filed in 2009, which was later withdrawn after PG&E announced plans to shut down the plant in 2016. Diablo Canyon is the last operating nuclear power plant in California.
According to the existing rules, the operating licenses for the sister reactors expire in 2024 and 2025, after which they would have to be closed.
The turnaround came in September after the Democratic governor and legislature nullified the 2016 agreement to close the plant, paving the way for PG&E to petition federal regulators for an extended period of operation.
The NRC staff bluntly rejected the idea of going back in time to resume review of the previous license extension plan, saying that “resuming that review would not be consistent with … the principles of good regulation,” citing its guiding values, including independence and openness.
“It would not be effective or efficient for NRC personnel to begin the review” without updated information on the status and condition of the facility, the agency wrote.
In response, PG&E said it would submit a new application to extend the plant’s life by two decades — the typical lifespan — by the end of 2023, and had planned that possibility.
Diane Curran, an attorney for the anti-nuclear advocacy group Mothers for Peace, said the utility was trying to “put an end to a fairly well-established set of rules and guidelines.”
“What PG&E is asking for is clearly at odds with NRC regulations,” added Curran.
Another separate dispute looms over PG&E’s request to keep the facility running beyond its current authorized lifespan while the federal agency reviews license renewals. The agency did not rule on this request.
Newsom’s decision last year to support prolonged operation of Diablo Canyon shocked environmentalists and anti-nuclear advocates, as he was once a leading voice for the closure of the power plant, which sits on a coastal cliff halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco is located.
His turn also restarted a long-standing debate about seismic safety at the site.
Construction of Diablo Canyon began in the 1960s. Critics say potential tremors from nearby earthquake faults, which weren’t recognized when the design was first approved — a nearby fault wasn’t discovered until 2008 — could damage equipment and release radiation. PG&E has long said the plant is safe, a view the NRC supports.
Also unknown is how much it will cost to upgrade the facility for a longer run.
If the facility is relicensed, “new maintenance activities will be undertaken to support expanded operations,” the company said in a statement.
Critics have portrayed the plan as a huge financial giveaway for PG&E while warning it would undermine government environmental protection measures.
The Newsom government is pushing for clean energy expansion as the state aims to cut emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Nuclear power does not cause carbon pollution like fossil fuels, but leaves behind waste that can remain dangerously radioactive for centuries.
Diablo Canyon produces 9% of the state’s electricity.