Is nuclear power a renewable energy source?

Sep 3, 2019

Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County is California's last remaining operating nuclear power plant. It’s slated to shut down in about five years. But a new proposal, which involves amending California’s state constitution, is aimed at trying to keep the facility open. Central Coast state Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham put the idea in front of the legislature last week.

Cunningham’s proposal would reclassify nuclear energy as renewable. The idea is supported by some pro-nuclear advocates, like Environmental Progress and Californians for Green Nuclear Power. But it’s also been a head scratcher for some because nuclear reactions, the process that creates nuclear energy, leaves behind radioactive byproducts.

“While nuclear does have the storage issue with the waste, it’s a carbon free resource,” Cunningham said.

Speaking to KCBX News by phone from his car Friday, Cunningham said that all energy methods produce waste.

“Every type of energy production has certain drawbacks,” Cunningham said. “Solar panels have to be disposed of when their useful life is over; the batteries have to be disposed of.”

Cunningham said Diablo produces almost 10% of the state’s power. Considering California’s energy goals of being 60% renewable by 2035, he said solar is great, but when the sun goes down, California make up the shortfall by buying natural gas from out of state.

“That’s with the Diablo Canyon Power Plant operational,” Cunningham said. ”When it goes offline in 2025, if it does as planned, we’re going to see a giant spike in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Diablo Canyon’s owner, the energy company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), continues to insist it is still closing the plant. So with Diablo Canyon’s end seeming so certain, why this new push?

PG&E is in chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy trustee and the court and in some sense have jurisdiction over PG&E’s assets for right now so the bankruptcy issue reopens this whole conversation,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham’s proposal to reclassify Diablo Canyon’s energy output as renewable is a long shot: it needs a two-thirds majority vote from both the state assembly and the state senate, then it would need the governor’s signature and then it would have to go before voters. If it passes all that, someone would still need to try and buy Diablo Canyon, which currently has an estimated price tag of $3.5 billion.

“I think a long shot is putting it mildly.” Kara Woodruff told KCBX News. Woodruff sits on an advisory panel involved in Diablo Canyon’s decommissioning process, specifically the methods for decommissioning process that will be used and what should be done with the Diablo Canyon lands and facilities after it shutters. Woodruff and other groups invested in the closure of Diablo Canyon, like the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, have come out against Cunningham’s idea.

“While Assemblyman Cunningham may hope for it to stay open, certainly a lot of people do, it’s just not realistic,” Woodruff said. “I think it’s confusing and it causes division in this community.”

Woodruff said Diablo Canyon’s fate is sealed.

“We should really focus our efforts on making sure the plant is closed in an efficient, and safe and really effective way for this community,” Woodruff said.

In response to dissent against his plan, Cunningham responded with a question to his naysayers.

“Climate change is an existential threat,” Cunningham said. “If we need to be devoting all the resources we can to slowing the effects of climate change, that entails decarbonizing our energy production. What is their plan to do that without nuclear energy as part of the portfolio?”

That’s a really good question we should be asking right now,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff suggested incentives to create more solar energy in the state, in addition to repurposing the Diablo Canyon site.

“There’s also been a lot of talk about wind energy,” Woodruff said. “One of the proposals is putting offshore windmills outside of the Diablo Canyon site, then use the site to bring the transmission back onto the California grid.”

Offshore wind development is a plan that also comes with complications. The U.S. Department of Defense is still determining if it will even allow offshore leases because it says the Navy uses the huge expanse of ocean off California’s coast for training purposes. That and other hurdles to offshore wind development will be discussed at the next meeting of the Diablo Canyon community advisory panel, as well as what to do with the site.

“It would be really wonderful if [Assemblyman Cunningham] could attend the meeting and participate,” Woodruff said.

The next meeting of the Diablo Canyon community advisory panel is is October 17. In the meantime, Cunningham said he has other plans to attempt to keep Diablo open, even this effort doesn’t pan out.