Sammy Roth: Shutting Down Diablo Canyon

We are on the brink of the hottest months of the year. For those of us in California this means getting ready for the nuisance of rolling blackouts, as the power grid gets stretched beyond its capacity. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times about the ongoing challenge to transform electricity in the nation’s most populous state. First, we learn about California’s last nuclear plant, the soon-to-be shuttered Diablo Canyon, and examine the pros and cons of shutting down a plant that produces almost 10% of the state’s energy portfolio. Then we take a look at how NIMBYism, the local backlash against proposed development, plays a role in the switch to renewable power sources.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Sammy Roth (SR)  0:18  It does look like the administration is at least open to you know figuring out other ways to support existing nukes to keep them open. But what that looks like in practice and how controversial it gets politically is you have to be soon.

Narrator  0:31  We are on the brink of the hottest months of the year. For those of us in California. This means getting ready for the nuisance of rolling blackouts as the power grid gets stretched beyond its capacity. This week on seachange radio, we speak to Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times about the ongoing challenge to transform electricity in the nation’s most populous state. First, we learn about California’s last nuclear plan the soon to be shuttered Diablo Canyon and examine the pros and cons of shutting down a plant that produces almost 10% of the state’s energy portfolio. Then we take a look at how NIMBYism the local backlash against proposed development plays a role in the switch to renewable power sources.

Alex Wise (AW)  1:31  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Sammy Roth. Sammy is an energy reporter for The Los Angeles Times and also writes its weekly boiling point newsletter. Sammy, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Sammy Roth (SR) Hey Alex – happy to be here.

AW So you have a couple of new pieces in the Los Angeles Times that I wanted to talk to you about. One is about the story of replacing California’s last nuclear power plant Diablo Canyon. I spoke to then lieutenant governor Gavin Newsome about this a few years ago, and he was adamant that nuclear did not have a role in California’s future. But the rollout to kind of replace Diablo Canyon with clean fuel has not been as smooth as planned. Why don’t you explain the conundrum that policymakers are facing in the state?

SR  2:24  Yeah, it’s a really tricky issue. So I mean, nuclear has been, as you sort of alluded to pretty hated by a lot of people in California for a long time. I mean, even when this plant got built in the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was a huge amount of activism against it because of, you know, perceived and potentially very real earthquake risk. And, you know, Jerry Brown, who was governor at the time, the first time was sort of, you know, one of the leaders of this anti Diablo movement, but it got built. And finally, a couple of years ago, pg&e and all the environmental groups got together and sort of hammered out an agreement to shut the thing down. The issue is, so it’s a big, big power plant. It’s it’s 2300 megawatts. You know, for context, California has about 80,000 megawatts of installed capacity. So this is like, you know, a not insignificant percentage of that just all on its own. And it’s going to the first, the first of the two reactors is supposed to shut down in 2024, and the second one in 2025. So the question becomes, what do we do to replace this thing, because not only is it a big power source, and not only are we having issues on the power grid in California, as we saw last summer with keeping the lights on sometime, but, but it’s also carbon free. I mean, this is zero carbon, climate friendly electricity that this plant is generating. So for, I mean, for going back to 2016, when PG&E and these other parties made this agreement to shut the thing down the result of this discussion of you know, we’re gonna be ready Come 2024 2025 to replace it with, you know, other sources of zero carbon power. And in fact, the state legislature passed a law mandating that emissions shall not go up as a result of Diablo’s closure. The controversy has been around whether we’re actually doing that you’ve had a number of environmental groups that are really concerned that what’s going to happen when this thing shuts down, which is what happened when you know what happens when other nuclear plants have shut down in other parts of the country, and even here in California is that we’re just going to end up burning more natural gas, these natural gas plants are going to fire up more and emissions are going to rise in the years after the thing closes. Union of Concerned Scientists put out a report a couple of months ago sort of quantifying that and putting numbers to here’s what we know here’s how much we expect emissions to go up. So there’s been there’s been quite a lot of criticism of the the Public Utilities Commission in particular that they haven’t sort of done their job properly of making sure that some combination of other zero carbon power sources is going to be ready to go when when Diablo shuts down. I should say that after I published my story, I think the few days later, maybe the next Week The, the Public Utilities Commission made a new proposal which hasn’t been finalized yet where they’re proposing that, you know, lots and lots of new power come online around the middle of the decade, which is their way of, you know, addressing Diablo and addressing the closure of gas plants here in Southern California that are also supposed to shut down. Frankly, I haven’t had time to review all of the details of that plan and it’s not been finalized yet. But it seems like it might be, you know, somewhat more robust than than what they had in place before in terms of turning new stuff on when Diablo goes away.

AW  5:34  And what is the timeline for Diablo? And is that going to be met?

SR  5:39  Yeah, in terms of shutting the plant down?

AW Yes.

SR Yeah, that’s definitely going to be made. I mean, the first reactors supposed to go offline in 2024, the second one in 2025. It doesn’t really seem like there’s any likelihood of that, of that changing. I mean, they pg&e suspended its license renewal process with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission several years ago. So that process has been stalled out and would need to be restarted very, very quickly and might not go so fast. If someone wanted to try to keep the thing open. There was a bill in the legislature last year that would have from from the local assembly person Durden Cunningham was up in the San Luis Obispo area, and you’re near the plant that, you know, would have tried to incentivize keeping the thing open longer, and that that didn’t go anywhere near that the things the things going to shut down on schedule in the middle of the decade?

AW  6:29  And what will that mean, for California in terms of meeting its its climate goals during that period of it shutting down?

SR  6:37  Yeah, that’s the big question. I mean, so there’s one, as I mentioned, there’s this debate over, you know, are emissions going to go up or not? And if they do, is it a, you know, temporary phenomenon that ultimately won’t matter that much? Or is it are, you know, is it a really serious issue, and, you know, the PUC doesn’t seem to think it’s that big of a problem, and you have a whole lot of, you know, climate advocacy groups that think it is, you know, it’s certainly going to, you know, create an additional challenge to meeting the climate goals. I mean, California has a target of reducing emissions 40%, below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80%, below by 2050. And, you know, we’re supposed to be 60%, renewable by 2030 and 100%, by by, you know, carbon free by 2045. And so, I mean, that what the debate is going on about right now is how do we replace Diablo Canyon? You know, how do we, you know, bring online some combination of, you know, solar with batteries, or offshore wind power, geothermal, or other stuff that can kind of fill the gap that’s going to be created, but it? I think it kind of is without question that if the plant were to stay on, and they were to, you know, add all of those additional resources that they would add to replace the thing. I mean, that would, you know, certainly get us closer to the climate goals faster. But, you know, whether that, you know, would be the best case scenario or not really depends on what your view is of nuclear power.

AW  7:57  Yes. And I wanted to go through your piece a little bit and pull out some of the people you got on record on both sides of the issue. You quote Mark Spect, I believe that’s the pronunciation and energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists who was talking about the Newsome administration’s efforts to meet its emissions goals. He says, quote, Diablos retirement is going to increase greenhouse gas emissions and they’re planning is not doing anything to prevent that we should have figured this out by now. So what specifically do you think Mark Spect, if he had been in charge of the public utilities commission would have done differently assuming that they’re going to retire Diablo?

SR  8:41  Well, I think what he would have done differently based on our conversation, as he would have, you know, had had plans in place to build a really significant amount of, you know, other zero carbon power sources that would be ready to you know, flip the switch on, you know, as Diablo shuts down.

AW  8:55  And that hasn’t been done in a lot of European countries and in Japan, where they’ve taken nuclear plants offline, but we’ve seen coal and other fossil fuel sources replacing nuclear at least for the time being – correct?

SR  9:13  Yeah, and it I mean, it’s happened here too. It happened in the state of New York recently, when the the first reactor the Indian Point nuclear plant near New York City went down I mean, gas gas plants started firing up more after that, and emissions, I think went up by about four percentage points. And frankly, we saw the same thing here in Southern California when San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego County also on the coast like Diablo I mean that had a you know, it had a malfunction. Nine or 10 years ago at this point and then ultimately shut down for good and same thing happened gas plants, you know, fired up more and more gas was burned and emissions ticked up, at least temporarily. So that’s, that’s certainly the fear that that’s you know, going to happen again when Diablo shuts down

AW  9:59  And then you have The pronuclear groups we’ve had Stewart Brand. I don’t think I’ve spoken to Michael Shellenberger for this show. But I’ve spoken to some of his colleagues at the breakthrough Institute and that’s a very pro nuclear organization. Obviously, they want Diablo to stay in operation that’s not going to happen. But what is their beef with Newsom? I’m sure they’re not delighted either.

SR  10:27  Basically, the I mean, the argument here is they, you know, they look, they look around nationally and say, okay, nuclear powers is 20% of electricity in the US.

AW  10:35  Yeah, I read that in your piece. And that’s a stunning number 93 nuclear reactors across 28 states generates 1/5 of the country’s electricity. Sorry, go on.

SR  10:45  Yeah, no, for sure. And that’s, I mean, it is a stunning number in that as much as all other zero carbon power sources put together in terms of the the amount of generation. So they’re, they’re looking at that and saying, gee, if we shut these things down, it’s going to be just way, way harder to, you know, build all of the clean stuff that we need to meet our climate goals, because in addition to, you know, replacing all of the coal and gas and oil, we’re going to have to replace all of the nuclear as well, and that’s just going to, you know, take up a lot more land and, you know, create more costs, and, you know, emissions will go up in the meantime, as these plants shut down, they’re, they’re, you know, concerned about that, so that they’re looking at that nationally. You know, they, the folks who were, you know, advocating very strongly for nuclear, they also have some pretty strong disagreements about, you know, what are the, you know, the risks or health impacts of this, you know, it’s a really hard one to evaluate as a reporter. And I mean, maybe if I spent, you know, many years digging into it, I’d come to some firmer conclusions, but you have, you know, you have folks on one side who say, you know, this radiation, even when it doesn’t kill you right away, it’s, you know, super, super dangerous in the event of any leaks or spills, and, you know, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and Fukushima. And, you know, we’ve underestimated all of the consequences of this. And the folks on the other side, who say, No, no, no, you know, this has been way overblown. The, you know, the science on this is not solid at all really, really nuclear is, is, you know, the safest energy source or one of the safest and certainly less, less deadly than, you know, what we know that emissions from coal and oil and gas are doing to people. And that’s, you know, that’s pretty well established that millions of people are dying every year, you know, at least partially as a result of reading those fumes. There are folks who will tell you that it’s wildly dangerous that Diablo is, you know, near earthquake fault lines, and then there are folks including PG&E, that will tell you no, no, we’ve built the plant in an incredibly safe and robust way. And, you know, even in a major earthquake, nothing, nothing bad would happen to people surrounding. There’s just sort of totally diametric, opposite ways of looking at this question. And I know she’d say the Biden administration, the Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm appeared before Congress last month and made the comment that we’re not going to be able to achieve our climate goals if our nuclear plants shut down. That’s a direct quote. So it, it does look like the administration is at least open to you know, figuring out are there ways to support existing nukes to keep them open. But what that looks like in practice and how controversial that gets politically is yet to be soon

13:18 (Music Break)

AW  14:27  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Los Angeles Times energy reporter, Sammy Roth. When a journalist writes about nuclear power, and we talk about it, we can refer to it as climate friendly. It is a climate friendly power source. That’s kind of indisputable, but the environmentally friendly element of it is another thing what has happened on the nuclear waste front in the last decade or two?

SR  14:54  Yeah, that’s a good question. The answer is not much. There was a I mean, there was a proposal which probably A lot of your listeners are familiar with to build this underground nuclear waste repository and Yucca Mountain in Nevada that was supposed to store waste through, you know, 10s of 1000s of years in a permanent way. And that faced a ton of political opposition in Nevada, and especially when, when Harry Reid was in charge of the Senate. You know, they they felt like we don’t want to be singled out as the dumping grounds for dangerous nuclear waste. So so that proposal, you know, Obama ended up killing that, and then Trump killed it again, after, at least briefly, I think attempting to bring it back. And so I mean, at the moment spent nuclear fuel is just being stored, you know, at the sites of these power plants operating and shut down all over the country, and including San Onofre here in Southern California and including Diablo on the Central Coast. And I mean, there’s there’s been, you know, there, there’s, I think, a temporary waste storage facility that’s been, you know, proposed in New Mexico that may or may not move forward, because, of course, there’s opposition there. And there’s been discussion, I want to say in West Texas also, at the moment, there’s just not a solution to that question. It’s, it’s very much open ended. And, and one of the arguments against, you know, building more nuclear plants are continuing to rely on that source, because we’re continuing to generate this, this, this waste without anywhere to put it. Although, of course, the pronuclear people I’m sure would argue that really this waste is, is not that dangerous, and we’re too worried about it.

AW  16:26  I remember talking to Stewart Brand about it, before Yucca Mountain kind of fell apart. And he was said, I visited Yucca Mountain, this is going to be the greatest place, we can just lay it’s going to be totally safe. And he looked at it through a glass half full lens. And then you could take somebody who’s like, what are we doing here, this stuff is gonna never it’s half life is 10s of 1000s of years, and we still don’t know what to do with it. But I could see it being a real headache for policymakers to try to please all sides on this.

SR  16:56  It’s such a complex issue. And I mean, like I said, I, you know, I spent, you know, several, several weeks or, you know, working on this piece on Diablo Canyon. And I really think that, to seriously evaluate these these arguments for and against and cast judgment on them would would take, you know, years of sustained effort, which is hard to make time for his as a journalist. You know, I don’t mean that as a cop out, like, you know, don’t look at me for answers. But I, you know, I think that in the sort of the best you can do sometimes is to present the best arguments on both sides. And, you know, let people who want to get into it and make their own judgments do that.

AW  17:33  Well, I think you do an excellent job of that, especially in this piece. And thanks. We will link to it on Sea Change Radio, and hopefully, our listeners can learn from it and pick and choose who makes the best case. But one of the things about nuclear that we haven’t really discussed is NIMBYism. nobody really wants a big unsightly power plant blocking their their ocean view that could be said for renewables as well. So one of your editions of the boiling point newsletter asked, Are solar and wind farms, ugly or beautiful? And you asked your colleagues about this? And why don’t you kind of summarize some of their answers? Because I think it was illustrative of laying out the pros and cons of these big solar and wind farms.

SR  18:21  Yeah, personally, I think that this, this is one of the most fascinating and really important issues when we think about the build out of renewable energy and transitioning off fossil fuels. I mean, in the past, so much focus was on, you know, people, is this going to be, you know, too expensive or not are, you know, do we have the technical feasibility to do it. And, you know, ultimately, in 2021, we’re at a point where, you know, solar and wind have gotten super cheap and batteries, and, you know, other sort of supporting technologies are getting cheaper, and there’s been more and more research showing that we, we already have a pretty good idea how to, you know, get almost all of the way to replacing fossil fuels on a technical basis. And so, I mean, to my mind, having, you know, covered sort of, you know, these these land use battles in the western US over the last seven years. I mean, I think that one of the really big obstacles to building more renewable energy is just going to be people not wanting to things near them, but both for, you know, visual reasons. And also, they’re, you know, there are all sorts of, you know, very serious issues and debates happening about sort of localized environmental impacts and, you know, produce populations in the desert and sage grouse and birds and all sorts of other things that are were worth discussing, but at the moment, yeah, I had a piece on this visual aspect. And, I mean, the reality is, I’ve seen this, you know, all over the place. I’ve seen this in the desert in California, and I’ve read pieces about it, you know, all over the western United States where you have people who move to these, you know, rural communities or grew up there who you know, have these open landscapes and these really beautiful, you know, pristine view sheds that have been undeveloped and, you know, that’s something that is really important. their lifestyle and their quality of life and, you know, to their minds, you know, having a, you know, 1000s of acres covered by solar panels or, you know, hundreds of feet, high wind turbines or, you know, a transmission line that’s sort of cutting through the landscape. That’s, you know, to them. That’s, that’s industrial energy development, and they don’t want to see that out there. And that’s super understandable. In a lot of cases. I think the, you know, the term NIMBYism, you know, has this, you know, strong negative connotation to it, which, you know, maybe it should, in some cases, but I, maybe it shouldn’t in others, but yeah, I mean, that’s essentially what this is going on here. You have a lot of folks who say, Yes, I support renewable energy, I think we should, you know, I think we should put it all on, on, you know, warehouses and rooftops and, you know, perhaps other places on the landscape, you know, retired farmland, for instance, but but you know, not in not in these big open ecosystems that, you know, that I look at every day. And not everyone feels that way. I mean, you have plenty of folks who have been very happy to rent, or lease their land out to wind developers in exchange for, you know, pretty nice payments. And you have, you know, folks who are getting the construction jobs that are working these plants that are very happy about it. And you have a lot of folks who are really conflicted. And as you mentioned, I asked some of my, my own colleagues at the LA Times about this folks who love to hike, like I do, and I have gotten tons and tons of reader responses to this piece. And, and you have a lot of people who are really conflicted, because yeah, they they don’t want, you know, these gorgeous landscapes to be interrupted or murdered by these renewable energy projects. But at the same time, they take climate change really seriously. And they know it’s an existential threat. And they realize that at least some of this is probably necessary to confront that. So it’s a really, it’s a really tricky topic. And one that I think, one that I think people who care about climate and care about the clean energy transition ought to take seriously and not be dismissive of.

AW  22:03  and you write that local opposition to renewable energy projects could be as significant a roadblock as any, and I don’t think that’s necessarily something that policymakers consider when they’re thinking of that, or they may consider it but they don’t realize how big a roadblock it ultimately could be.

SR  22:23  Yeah, I think it’s, it’s starting to get a lot more attention. Just because joe biden’s goals, I mean, 100%, clean energy by 2035 are so ambitious. And because just so many projects are getting proposed now. So I think more people are starting to take notice of an issue that’s been brewing for quite a while. And what you know, one other thing I should say about it is that another, you know, another aspect of this, and then this is, you know, a significant amount of the responses I’ve gotten to this piece are people who say, look, you know, we’re, you know, we’re at least a little sympathetic to these concerns in rural communities. But at the same time, what we’re trying to do is, you know, shut down all of these, these coal plants and gas plants and refineries that are polluting, you know, mostly low income communities of color in urban settings, and have, you know, created these these awful disproportionate health impacts. And, you know, ultimately, if, you know, largely white communities living in rural areas have to put up with a, you know, a view that’s not quite as good so that, you know, black and brown people in largely in cities, you know, don’t have to die decades really from you know, heart disease or lung, you know, ailments or, you know, kids getting asthma, that that’s a pretty worthy, you know, a pretty worthy trade off to have to make, I’m not endorsing that argument, necessarily. But that’s, you know, that’s something that’s really important to consider. And one of the, you know, one of the responses I’ve gotten to writing about this.

AW  23:43  It’s difficult for people to look beyond their own windows, in this case, literally, their own windows. But it’s so important to keep the bigger picture in mind. And some of your comments on this piece from Matthew Ballinger, a utility journalism editor with the time said that, “you know, it would be a real bummer to see Vistas in more remote places such as Joshua Tree National Park, covered by solar panels, but that said, I’d rather have that then for actual Joshua trees to go extinct or something because we can’t control our carbon output.” So there’s a calculus that we all have to make.

SR  24:21  There isn’t, you know, two things on that one, I just want to say that we had an excellent piece in The Times today by Steve Lopez, who said, You know, I kind of call him this tear, writing about the Joshua Tree issue and how rising temperatures or, you know, hurting the ability of Joshua trees and other desert plants and wildlife to reproduce and thrive, which is, which is so mean, that wasn’t, you know, a flippant quote from from Matt, that’s a very serious issue. But to you know, you say it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. And I think, you know, I think the key thing to remember there is that the big picture changes depending on you know, where you’re where you’re looking from, I mean, you have, you have activists, you know, out in the desert and you know, the deserts of California and Nevada, for instance, who were, you know, super, super concerned about, you know, solar farms displacing desert tortoise habitat, because that’s an endangered species. That’s been, you know, really decimated by development all over the landscape. And you have activists, you know, in Nevada who want to block the lithium mine proposed for Thacker Pass. Lithium is a metal that super important for you know, lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles and storing solar and wind power on the grid. But at the same time, there’s a you know, extremely rare flower teams buckwheat, which I apologize in advance if I mispronounced because I’m realizing now I don’t know that I’ve ever had to say it out loud before. But there’s this endangered, you know, endangered flower there that would be threatened by this lithium mine. And you know, so for the folks who are on the ground in these places, and who, you know, live out there on the landscape and have dedicated their their lives to protecting these places. And these species, you know, that is the big picture. The big picture is, yes, we have to solve climate change, but we can’t do that at the expense of, you know, threatened creatures and ecosystems. And, you know, then if you and if you, you know, live in a city, and that’s not been your experience, I’m not saying it’s just a city versus rural thing. There’s tons of overlap, and, you know, gray area here, but you just you could have a different perspective that says, you know, the big picture is that, you know, we don’t have enough shade trees, and the planets getting hotter and heat waves are, you know, deadlier than hurricanes and fires and other extreme weather events put together. And, yes, I’d like to protect the desert. But the more important thing is to get emissions down as fast as possible. And this is the easiest way to do that. This is why it’s so tricky, because there really are trade offs and different values involved.

AW  26:42  Yeah, I mean, you say that you think solar farms and wind turbines look pretty cool. But but that’s probably in part because you grew up with an understanding of them as a public good. So I think that’s, that’s the key is if we can all kind of look at these things as a public good. Irrespective of whether or not it’s what we’re used to seeing out of our windows.

SR  27:04  Yeah, I mean, the, there’s definitely an aspect of this of, you know, everyone, you know, ought to be able to internalize what, you know, what the purpose of this all is, but at the same time, I mean, that doesn’t solve all of the, you know, the, the ecosystem issues necessarily, and to some, you know, some folks I think, understandably, are just never going to be able to get around the idea of, you know, this was an undiscovered, undisturbed, you know, beautiful place to be before and, you know, now we’ve got these these towers or these these panels, or these wires here, and I don’t know an easy way around that there’s going to be a lot of conversation that needs to happen.

AW  27:39  Well, your work continues to always be informative and thought provoking. Sammy Roth, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

SR  27:47  Hey, Alex. Thanks very much. And if you don’t mind me doing a quick shout out if anyone would like to receive the boiling point newsletter who’s not getting it right now. I just go to La slash boiling point and you can enter your email and sign up to get it in your inbox for free.

AW Yes, do that.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Beastie Boys and war check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives they are to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability for Sea Change Radio and Alex Wise