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Thomas D. Elias: Diablo will be late again, but not for its handout

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Thomas D. Elias

Thomas Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column, appearing twice weekly in 93 newspapers around California, with circulation of over 2.2 million.

The always controversial Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant has always been late. But never when lining up for handouts. So why should this year be different?

That’s a legitimate question now that the Legislature has ratified Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to keep the almost 40-year-old facility on the coast northwest of San Luis Obispo going at least five years past its previously set closing date, while California pursues expansion of renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal.

But Diablo Canyon’s owner, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., never paid any serious price for the delays that plagued the plant from the beginning. It is in line for another handout now, coming up soon.

Diablo delays began even before ground was broken for the plant, this state’s last surviving source of large-scale atomic energy. Others at Humboldt Bay near Eureka, San Onofre near San Clemente and Rancho Seco near Sacramento shut down years ago.

Diablo Canyon’s first delay came in the 1970s, when PG&E and others suddenly noticed an earthquake fault near its planned site. It took years of redesign to satisfy authorities the plant would be largely earthquake safe.

Then, in the early ‘80s, with construction almost complete, came the revelation that PG&E engineers had made a “mirror image” error in reading blueprints, and the plant was completely haywire. That delayed opening by more than three years.

This summer, with PG&E and environmental groups having agreed six years ago on closing Diablo Canyon when its license was due to expire in 2025, Newsom suddenly realized that without Diablo Canyon, California might have blackouts at heavy usage times, especially summer and early autumn afternoons that grow ever hotter as climate change progresses.

Newsom’s plan once again reveals the fealty he plainly believes he owes PG&E, one of his most steadfast donors, having given more than $10 million to his campaigns over the last quarter century.

The governor’s plan “lends” the huge utility $1.4 billion in consumer fees to pay the costs for extending Diablo’s life, including relicensing, needed updates and improvements to assure continued safety. No one is sure that money will ever be repaid, despite the further billions of dollars PG&E will reap for Diablo's juice.

This time, rather than coming entirely from PG&E customers, Newsom would have money for continuing the plant billed to every electric customer in the state who does not buy power from a municipally owned utility.

So residents of Los Angeles, Sacramento, Glendale, Riverside and a few other places with publicly-owned utilities, will be exempt, while everyone else pays, whether or not they use Diablo Canyon power.

This was entirely consistent with Newsom’s great efforts and care in making sure PG&E survived its almost 100 convictions for manslaughter and its many billions of dollars in liability for damage from the many devastating fires it caused over the last five years in Northern California via negligent maintenance over the last 70 years.

But does it make sense for California? Producing 2,240 megawatts, or less than 5 percent of what California needs at peak times, Diablo Canyon by itself probably won’t stave off many blackouts. That might best be done by keeping open a few conventional gas-fired power plants that are also due for retirement soon and using them as “peakers” to be fired up only when need is greater than the rest of the power grid can handle. One thing for sure: a nuclear plant like Diablo Canyon is unsuited for use as a peaker, taking far too long to get going after a shutdown.

In their last-ditch effort to stave off Newsom’s plan for keeping Diablo Canyon open, many legislators ignored peakers, instead suggesting the money PG&E will now get from consumers instead go to improving the efficiency of air conditioners and other appliances, creating incentives for consumers to use power at non-peak times or install solar rooftop panels.

The bottom line: Newsom’s clout overcame resistance to his plan and Diablo Canyon will go on pumping out power at least five years past its former deadline, also delivering money to its owner, to the dismay of conservation backers, consumer activists and others who somehow remain key parts of Newsom’s electoral coalition.

Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. Readers may reach him at tdelias@aol.com.

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