Save the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant

Overblown fears about nuclear energy pushed policy makers away from game changing technology while companies were incentivized to divest themselves of nuclear assets.

Opinion by Isaac Dektor, Managing Editor

Nuclear energy has killed less people than fossil fuels and leaves a smaller footprint on the environment than renewables, all while having the potential to produce limitless clean energy with minimal waste. Nuclear energy is the way to a greener future.

Ten percent of California’s energy comes from the last remaining nuclear power plant in the state, located on the central coast in San Luis Obispo county. In less than three years, Diablo Canyon will close and fossil fuel will likely take its place.

As 2025 approaches, California gets closer to phasing out nuclear energy completely. Major power plants closed in Humboldt Bay in 1976, Rancho Seco in 1989 and San Onofre in 2013. The idea to close the state’s nuclear facilities was sold using an age-old fear of nuclear catastrophe, but the real reason for divestment was an economic one: PG&E, the company that owns and operates Diablo Canyon, decided not to upgrade the water filtration system and to instead decommission the power plant. California will inevitably compensate for the loss of nuclear energy with fossil fuel, moving the goalposts for the state’s decarbonization goals.

All energy technologies have downsides when they are deployed at a large scale. Coal and fossil fuels emit the most carbon by far, causing pollution that kills 7 million people each year, according to the World Health Organization. The fight against climate change is synonymous with the fight against carbon emissions, yet California deftly dismantles a clean and scalable alternative to natural gas.

Those in favor of decommissioning the duplicitously named nuclear facility hope that renewables like solar and wind energy will pick up the slack left behind once nuclear and fossil fuels are phased out, but those alternatives have a capacity problem. On a windless night, both solar panels and wind turbines are unable to produce energy, so power must be stored. Because battery capacity is such a monumental challenge — just ask anyone who has tried to drive a Tesla from Los Angeles to San Francisco — solar and wind require a lot of batteries that must be stored and disposed of.

Critics of Diablo Canyon hang their hats on a catastrophic outcome resulting from the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that knocked out nuclear reactors in Japan. Diablo Canyon is built near fault lines and is subject to seismic activity, so some may argue that what happened in Fukushima could happen in San Luis Obispo. However, the nuclear reactors in Fukushima actually survived the initial earthquake and did not melt down until the ensuing tsunami flooded the facility, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. The event is cited as the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, but over ten years later, there have not been any signs of severe radiation exposure in the local population.

There is a major blindspot in the green energy movement: the downsides of alternative sources of energy. Imagine a world filled with wind turbines, solar farms and hydroelectric dams. These terraformed sources of energy take away from natural ecosystems. California continues to bulldoze its deserts in order to make space for alternatives.

Renewables have been effective for diluting the amount of carbon people burn, but something else is needed to replace fossil fuels — something that can produce clean energy all of the time so that it can reliably back the grid. That something is obvious, but California decided to phase it out by 2025.

Governor Gavin Newsom has an opportunity to save Diablo Canyon using federal funds, but the deadline to apply is May 19. California must act quickly in order to salvage its cleanest and most reliable source of energy.