What is Diablo Canyon?
Diablo Canyon is a nuclear power plant in central California that since 1985 has provided pollution-free power for three million Californians while protecting one of the most pristine coastal environments for nature. Under pressure from politicians, some of whom have been anti-nuclear since the 1970s, Pacific Gas & Electric may decide to prematurely close Diablo Canyon, rather than seek to relicense it, so it could produce power until 2045.
If Diablo is closed, carbon emissions will rise the equivalent of putting two million cars on the road.
What will happen if Diablo Canyon is closed?
If Diablo is closed:
- It will be replaced mostly by natural gas, according to PG&E.
- Carbon pollution will increase the equivalent of adding 2 million cars to the road.
- Californians will pay more in electricity when natural gas prices rise in the future.
- One billion dollars in ratepayer money that currently fuels California's economy will mostly be sent to natural gas producers out of state.
- California will become even more (from 61 to 70 percent) dependent on a single source of electricity.
- A major conservation opportunity to save roughly 2,000 of prime California coastland for nature will be lost.
Can't Diablo just be replaced by solar and wind?
No. Diablo Canyon — a single power plant — produces twice as much electricity as all of California's solar panels, 41 times more than its largest solar plant, 33 percent more electricity than all of California's solar, and 24 percent more electricity than all of its wind, all of which took decades to build up. Closing Diablo is the equivalent of taking down all of California's solar panels and two thirds of its wind.
How will keeping Diablo open protect more of California's coastline?
Land conservation may be one of the main ways that PG&E and the State of California agree to mitigate the impact of Diablo Canyon's cooling system. Diablo draws a large number of fish eggs and larvae into the plant. While there is no evidence that Diablo Canyon is impacting adult fish population or marine life, the State of California Regional Water Board for the Central Coast decided over a decade ago to require mitigation as a precaution. The most likely mitigation outcome — according to staff at the Board, their consultant, and PG&E's consultant — is that PG&E will have to spend tens of millions of dollars buying coastal land, as much as 2,000 acres along the coast, north of Diablo, for conservation. That will be a win-win-win for the climate, the coasts, and the people of California.
Diablo produces twice as much electricity as all of California's solar panels, 41 times as much power as its largest solar farm, Ivanpah, and 24 percent more power than all of its wind.
Is it true PG&E will be required to install cooling towers?
No, that is a very unlikely outcome. California Regional Water Board's staff, its consultant, and PG&E's consultant all will likely recommend in 2017 against cooling towers. Towers would be both expensive and environmentally destructive. Both parties will likely agree to mitigation steps including land conservation and/or the creation of an artificial reef.
But is it safe?
Nuclear is one of the safest forms of making energy — safer than natural gas, petroleum, coal and wood — and Diablo is considered one of the safest nuclear plants in the world. It has been repeatedly investigated, up-graded and certified safe by the independent federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "The safety of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant is not in question," NRC's Director of Regulation affirmed again in 2014.
What about Fukushima and Chernobyl?
Over 95 percent of the deaths from energy production are from pollution. A tiny number are from accidents, whether coal mine collapses, natural gas explosions, or nuclear meltdowns. As such, zero-carbon energy sources in general, from hydro to solar to wind to nuclear, result in very few deaths. According to the World Health Organization and independent scientists, the vast majority of the harm caused by the two worst accidents, Chernobyl and Fukushima, was caused by public fear and panic, not radiation exposure.
"The safety of Diablo Canyon is not in question."
What about the waste?
One of the great advantages of nuclear is that it produces very small amounts of highly manageable waste. Fossil fuels spew large quantities of uncontrolled waste as air and water pollution, while renewables require massive quantities of concrete, steel and, in the case of solar panels, heavy toxic metals. Nuclear waste is currently stored on-site, and is closely monitored. It is not a significant risk to anyone or anything. After bi-partisan legislation (currently in Congress) passes, it is likely that the waste will be stored in an existing underground waste repository, such as the military nuclear waste repository in New Mexico.
Why then are people so afraid of nuclear energy?
Most people aren't that afraid. Today, 51 percent of Americans support nuclear energy, while 43 oppose. The percentage of Americans in favor of nuclear has waxed and waned between 63 and 48 percent over the past 20 years.
There are a variety of theories about why some people are so afraid of nuclear. Some people have a grossly exaggerated view of the harm of radiation — especially if they don't like the idea of nuclear to begin with. Most people do not know — or do not want to know — that they are exposed to radiation every day, or that the most common form of cancer is skin cancer, whose main cause is sunlight. What's clear is that people fear what they don't like, don't understand, and don't want to understand.
Is the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) independent and competent?
Yes. NRC is independent, effective and is considered one of the best regulatory agencies in the world. NRC is governed by bi-partisan chair and commissioners selected by the President and Congress. NRC has "resident inspectors" on-location in every nuclear plant who report to NRC headquarters.
NRC staff are well-trained, high-status and well-paid; they often work at NRC the entire career. The agency has been rated one of the "best places to work" in the federal government. It is overseen by the US Inspector General that enforces strong laws and strong ethics rules.
What about whistle-blowers?
NRC staff and nuclear plant workers have whistle-blower protections that go above and beyond other industries and regulatory agencies. NRC has a unique process, known as Differing Professional Opinion, that allows NRC staff to raise issues without fear of retaliation, and insures that their concerns will be vetted at the appropriate level. This function is highly valued by Congress, NRC and independent observers.
Who supports nuclear energy?
President Barack Obama, Bill Gates, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a large majority (65%) of scientists favor building more nuclear power plants for climate and the environment. Nuclear supporter have included: Ansel Adams, photographer and Sierra Club board member; Carol Browner, former EPA head under President Bill Clinton; liberal Minnesota Senator Al Franken; Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; the economist Jeffrey Sachs; and Gaia hypothesis originator, James Lovelock
Diablo Canyon generates power for $0.05-.06/kWh, and PG&E's lowest retail rate is $0.16/kWh.
How much does it cost to run Diablo Canyon?
Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) says it costs $0.05-0.06/kilowatt-hour (KWh). PG&E sells electricity to its retail customers starting at $.16/KWh. That means Diablo makes PG&E approximately $2 billion per year, some of which goes into maintaining the grid, some of which goes to ratepayers and investors, and some of which goes into subsidizing the deployment of renewable energy, like solar and wind farms.
But doesn't nuclear get subsidies, including free insurance?
Nuclear is one of the least-subsidized forms of energy. Solar receives 140 times more subsidy and wind 17 times more than nuclear, according to the independent government Energy Information Administration. The utilities with nuclear plants pay insurance into a government fund. The cost of insurance, and the cost of decommissioning plants, are all included in that $0.05-0.06/KWh number.
If Diablo is so profitable, why would PG&E close it down?
Nuclear energy provokes an irrational reaction in many people, including some government officials who have been trying to shut it down since the 1970s. PG&E makes a lot of money on Diablo, but is under pressure from many of the government officials named in the open letter from conservationists and scientist. There is the risk that PG&E's CEO, Board of Directors and management will throw in the towel rather than do the right thing.
PG&E could throw in the towel rather than do the right thing.
But isn't solar and wind the best thing for the environment?
Solar and wind can play a role, but because they require so much land, scaling them up would significantly affect California's natural environment. It would take 41 solar farms the size of the new Ivanpah solar farm in the Mojave desert — or twice as many solar panels as California has installed — to generate the same amount of power annually as Diablo Canyon.
What do we do with the nuclear waste?
Currently the small amounts of waste generated from nuclear plants is stored on-site. In the future, after Congress passes bipartisan nuclear waste legislation, it will likely be transported and stored underground in New Mexico or another state that wants it as a source of income.
But what if nuclear waste leaks?
Nuclear waste is one of the easiest forms of waste to manage because there is so little of it. It can be monitored to make sure there are leaks, as nuclear waste from the US military is monitored in New Mexico.
It would take 41 Ivanpah solar farms to generate the same amount of power annually as Diablo Canyon.
Why do environmental groups oppose nuclear energy given that it is pollution-free and takes up so little land?
In the late sixties, a splinter group of Sierra Club members opposed Diablo Canyon fearing that the success of such a cheap source of energy would result in more people coming to live in California. This group, which included David Brower, Ed Wayburn, and Martin Litton, had become followers of the now-discredited English economist, Rev. Thomas Malthus. However, their anti-growth argument was unpopular, and so they focused instead on tapping into irrational fears of radiation.
Why does it seem like celebrities and wealthy people are especially afraid of nuclear energy?
The basic picture offered by 40 years of research is that as societies grow wealthier, we all become more individualistic, distrustful of scientific authorities, and romantic about how the world could and should be. Some of us fall prey to conspiracy theories, like the idea that vaccines cause autism. Wealthy people generally and celebrities particularly are detached from the productive sectors of the economy — how food, meat, electricity, and modern infrastructure — are made. That so many Hollywood celebrities fear nuclear may simply be a consequence of wealth, or it may be related to working in a creative industry focused on constructing highly dramatic fantasies.
Is it true environmentalists are changing their mind about nuclear?
Yes, every year brings more environmentalists and environmental thinkers who have changed their minds, including White House Science Advisor John Holdren; Whole Earth Catalogue Founder, Stewart Brand; Virgin's Richard Branson; former Greenpeace UK Executive Director, Stephen Tindale; left-wing columnist George Monbiot and many others.