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Department of Energy announces $1.1 billion in conditional funding to keep Diablo Canyon operating

Randol White/KCBX

The U.S. Department of Energy announced about $1.1 billion in funding today for Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near Avila Beach.

The announcement comes after the California legislature voted in late August to give operator PG&E a forgivable $1.4 billion loan in order to extend the plant's life past its previously-scheduled 2025 end date.

The federal government's conditional $1.1 billion award, if approved, would cover most of that forgivable loan from the state. The money comes from the federal Civil Nuclear Credit (CNC) program, of which Diablo Canyon is now the first recipient.

Central Coast Congressman Salud Carbajal said in a statement, “In the face of record heat waves and a deepening climate crisis, there is too much at stake for us to move backward in the fight to fully transition California away from polluting fossil fuels."

Local opponents of Diablo Canyon's extension say this is another step in the wrong direction.

Linda Seeley is with Mothers for Peace, an anti-nuclear group who has been vocal about their belief that the plant is not safe, reliable, or cost-effective.

Seeley said the Department of Energy award to PG&E is more evidence that local, state and federal governments are willing to keep extending the life of the power plant, despite the fact that the extension is currently limited to 5 years.

"This could turn into a 20-year extension on a nuclear power plant built on fault lines, millions of pounds of nuclear waste and all this deferred maintenance," Seeley said. "We could be getting ourselves way deeper into this than the public has been led to believe."

Nuclear free advocates rallying to recognize Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings
Gabriela Fernandez
Nuclear free advocates rallying to recognize Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings

PG&E and many nuclear advocates have repeatedly said the plant is safe and subject to thorough oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

However, the bill authorizing the loan to PG&E has a clear end date of 2030, and PG&E maintains the plant is safe and reliable.

Steve Nesbit is with the American Nuclear Society, a pro-nuclear group which has lobbied for Diablo Canyon’s continued operation.

On the safety question, Nesbit said PG&E will only secure a new license for the plant if the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission determines it’s safe enough to keep operating.

“Personally, knowing what I know about the plant, I feel confident that will be the case. But I also know that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission isn't going to make such a finding unless they have thoroughly evaluated continued operation and are convinced that it can be done safely," Nesbit said.

Nesbit said he feels the plant is essential to helping California keep its energy grid stable and achieve its ambitious decarbonization goals.

“I think that Diablo Canyon is a key part of meeting those goals and having a secure grid, and I expect people will see that when the time comes," he said.

Diablo Canyon is perched on the Pecho Coast near Avila Beach, which is the ancestral homeland of SLO County’s YTT Northern Chumash tribe.

The tribe does not have an official position on whether the plant keeps operating or not.

But Scott Lathrop, CEO of the YTT’s nonprofit, said he personally supports Diablo Canyon for its clean energy production, and welcomes Monday’s announcement.

“That's right in line with my thinking, and that is the plant needs to go forward," he said.

But Lathrop also believes that decisions about how Diablo Canyon’s lands are used should be left to the YTT, which would be a step towards what he calls “decolonization.”

“It's the idea of returning the land to the rightful owners, and that's of course the YTT Northern Chumash tribe," Lathrop said.

Attendees of the American Nuclear Society's 2022 conference hold up signs supporting Diablo Canyon's continued usage.
Benjamin Purper
Attendees of the American Nuclear Society's 2022 conference hold up signs supporting Diablo Canyon's continued usage.

So, while he thinks the new federal money going towards the plant’s continued operation is a good thing, Lathrop said he's still calling for tribal ownership of the land.

“I would look at that as a very positive outcome. I just think that what needs to also be included in the state process is the fact that those lands need to be returned to the tribal group.”

David Weisman is with the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a nonprofit watchdog group advocating for what they call a safe, permanent solution to storing radioactive waste.

Weisman said he has a litany of concerns ranging from the plant's deferred maintenance to the leftover money from the state that PG&E will still likely utilize, to the possibility that the plant's life could be extended past its end date once again.

"None of this is written in stone. So, any promise that's made for a fixed deadline for this plant is absolutely flexible and amendable at their doing," he said.

Weisman also criticized the lack of transparency into the federal money given to PG&E, especially for a project as important, complicated and expensive as extending the life of an aging nuclear power plant.

"What is in [PG&E's federal grant] application, and the Department of Energy loan package that we aren't seeing? This is our taxpayer money one way or another, right? It's our taxpayer money at a federal level, the grant from DOE is our federal tax money. and the $1.4 billion loan forgivable loan is our state tax money," Weisman said.

"And then you have PG&E, the company that's declared bankruptcy twice in the last two decades, that is a felony convicted arsonist."

PG&E maintains that it is able to operate the plant responsibly, despite the utility's history of its equipment starting destructive California wildfires. As for the $1.1 billion award, PG&E representatives said in a press release today that the final amount may change, but that the money is a step in the right direction.

“This is another very positive step forward to extend the operating life of Diablo Canyon Power Plant to ensure electrical reliability for all Californians,” said PG&E CEO Patti Poppe.

Governor Newsom also praised the announcement, citing climate change and extreme weather as pressing reasons to keep the plant operating.

“This investment creates a path forward for a limited-term extension of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant to support reliability statewide and provide an onramp for more clean energy projects to come online," Newsom said.

Diablo Canyon produces about 9% of the state's electricity, according to PG&E.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.