California Embraces Worrisome Nuclear Power Plant Amid Blackout Fears

California's only nuclear power plant, which sits near fault lines, will remain open after it was initially slated for closure as the state continues to battle scorching temperatures and an uncertain electrical grid.

On Thursday, the California Legislature, by a 69-3 vote in the Assembly and a 31-1 vote in the Senate, approved an additional five-year plan to keep Diablo Canyon, the state's single largest source of electricity, open and continuing to operate. Monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the plant was originally licensed to operate until 2025 but will now remain open into 2030.

The group Save Clean Energy, which has fought to keep Diablo Canyon open, is cheering the Legislature's decision.

"Maintaining operations at Diablo Canyon will keep our power on while preventing millions of tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere," Isabelle Boemeke of Save Clean Energy told NPR. "This is a true win-win for the people of California and our planet."

NPR reported in 2016, though, that foes of the plant have cited its location near fault lines as a safety concern.

In 2018, the state pledged to be completely reliant on clean energy sources by 2045. Nuclear is a zero-emission clean energy source, but creating a system capable of handling the energy demands of Californians may be a difficult task. Recently, California has been hit with sweltering temperatures that Governor Gavin Newsom said put "significant demand" on the state's energy grid.

On Wednesday, he proclaimed a state of emergency due to temperatures expected to exceed 100 degrees throughout Labor Day weekend. State officials have also called for residents to avoid charging their electric vehicles, one week after voting on a plan to ban new gas car sales by 2035.

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power California
An aerial photograph of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, previously slated to shut down in 2025, was taken on December 1, 2021, near Avila Beach, California. State lawmakers have approved a plan to extend the lifespan of Diablo Canyon, California's only nuclear power plant. George Rose/Getty Images

Newsom's spokesperson, Alex Stack, told Newsweek that voting to keep Diablo open longer was a "difficult decision" for many legislators. However, Stack added that California's grid reliability challenges would be far greater if it closed.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), an electrical corporation in the county of San Luis Obispo, operates the plant's two nuclear units that have been in place since 1985. Diablo Canyon's website says that the two units "produce 18,000 gigawatt-hours of clean and reliable electricity annually," enough to serve almost 10 percent of the state's energy portfolio.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Diablo Canyon generated 6 percent of California's electricity in 2021. The bill passed on Thursday includes a $1.4 billion forgivable loan to PG&E for the continued operation of the plant, which PG&E had agreed to close in part due to earthquake-related safety concerns.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California pushed for state lawmakers to keep the plant open in cohesion with the development of renewable energy sources, saying in a tweet that the state's energy system "depends on the extended operation of Diablo Canyon."

"In August 2020, extreme heat led to electricity shortages and the first rolling blackouts in the state since the 2001 energy crisis," Feinstein wrote in an August 30 letter to state lawmakers. "The consequences would have been even more severe without the electricity from Diablo Canyon. State regulators have projected similar shortfalls and outages during periods of peak demand in the coming years, and retiring a major electricity generation source without adequate preparation will only leave the grid more vulnerable."

Newsweek reached out to PG&E for comment.

Update 9/1/22, 2:08 p.m. ET: This story was updated with comment from Newsom's spokesperson.