MIT Study Underscores Importance of Diablo Canyon

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The closed San Onofre Nuclear station located between San Diego and Los Angeles.

We’ve written many times about California’s Diablo Canyon, the state’s last nuclear facility, whose closure might have disastrous effects on the state’s fragile power grid. Now, an MIT study underscores Energy Fairness’ position that closing the plants is a mistake for both California’s clean energy goals and energy consumers. But will these new findings change anything? 

In 2018, California committed itself to generating all of its electricity from zero-carbon sources and achieving climate neutrality by 2045. The California Public Utilities Commission followed suit, approving a plan to shut the Diablo Canyon reactors by 2025, a move that coincided with the expiration of the federal license on its Unit 2. Closing Diablo Canyon makes little sense because it provides 14% of the Golden State’s carbon-free power. As both Japan and Germany can attest, closing nuclear plants usually means increased carbon dioxide emissions. 

However, California’s energy landscape has changed somewhat in the past three years. Last summer, a record-breaking heat wave exposed the instability of the state’s power grid. A combination of insufficient hydropower levels, a lack of solar energy storage, and the closure of several “peaker” plants caused blackouts that plunged much of the state into darkness. So what will California’s reliability situation look like when both carbon-free units of Diablo are off-line?

The answer argues strongly for keeping Diablo alive. MIT found that not only will keeping the plant online help ensure reliability, it also makes sense from a financial and environmental standpoint. According to the study, Californians could save up to $21 billion in power system costs and 90,000 acres of land that would otherwise be used for energy production if the Diablo Canyon plant operates through 2045.

Additionally, the study determined that connecting Diablo Canyon to a hydrogen facility could produce green hydrogen at half the cost of hydrogen produced by wind or solar facilities. The plant could also be used as a power source for desalination, providing the state with more freshwater supplies. While there may be obstacles to achieving these goals, providing more clean power and sorely needed freshwater to the Golden State seems more than worth it. 

Is the study enough to convince regulators to keep Diablo Canyon operating? While we hope so for the sake of energy consumers, a statement from PG&E spokesperson Suzanne Hosn does not sound optimistic. 

“The state has made clear its position on nuclear energy, and the plan to retire Diablo Canyon Power Plant has been approved by the California Public Utilities Commission and the state legislature,” says Hosn.

It remains to be seen whether MIT’s study will affect the future of Diablo Canyon, but we hope California’s energy regulators consider it. Cleaner, reliable electricity, lower carbon emissions, and the potential for more sorely needed freshwater seem to make this decision a no-brainer.