Court shuts down Diablo Canyon shutdown effort

August 29, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear News
Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. (Photo: PG&E)

A California court has dismissed a lawsuit brought in April by Friends of the Earth (FOE), an inveterate enemy of nuclear power, to derail last year’s state-supported plan to keep the two-unit Diablo Canyon plant running past 2025.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in September 2022 signed into law S.B. 846, a measure providing the option to extend the operational life of Diablo Canyon—the Golden State’s only operating nuclear facility—for five years beyond its scheduled 2025 closure date. The following month, Pacific Gas & Electric, the plant’s owner and operator, submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission seeking approval to maintain power production at the plant until 2030.

Defendants named in FOE’s suit included PG&E, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, and the Coalition of California Utility Employees—all of which were parties to a 2016 agreement with FOE and other environmental organizations to retire the Avila Beach, Calif., plant following the expiration of Unit 2’s operating license on August 26, 2025. PG&E had previously backed a longer life for the reactors, filing the units’ license renewal applications with the NRC in 2009.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in January 2018 approved the early retirement agreement, but in January of this year the commission opened a rulemaking to consider life extension for the units, a requirement of S.B. 846. The legislation also requires the CPUC to make its determination on extending Diablo Canyon operations by the end of this year.

The ruling: FOE contended in its complaint that certain obligations under the 2016 agreement “are still operating, including PG&E’s obligation . . . to ‘retire’ Diablo Canyon at the expiration of the current NRC licenses.” In last Thursday’s 18-page ruling, however, Judge Ethan P. Schulman said that FOE was asking the court to “impermissibly hinder or interfere with the CPUC’s exercise of regulatory authority over the retirement of Diablo Canyon.” In addition, Schulman said that to find in favor of FOE “would require the court to assume or interfere with the CPUC’s regulatory jurisdiction . . . and would enmesh the court in complex questions of energy, economic, and environmental policy that are best handled by the CPUC as well as other responsible regulatory agencies.”

FOE fighters: “We are deeply disappointed in today’s outcome,” said Hallie Templeton, FOE’s legal director, in an August 24 news release. “Diablo Canyon’s operations are extremely dangerous, environmentally harmful, and put all of California at risk of a devastating accident. We continue to strongly believe in our case and are considering appealing the unwarranted dismissal. One thing is clear: The fight to shutter Diablo Canyon is not over, and this is not our only iron in the fire.”

The release noted that FOE has an active legal challenge in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals against the NRC “for decisions related to Diablo Canyon’s extension.”

In case you missed it: The NRC in March granted PG&E a “timely renewal” exemption to allow Diablo Canyon to continue operating while it prepares new license renewal applications. (In November 2022, the NRC rejected the utility’s request to have the agency resume its review of the 2009 license renewal applications.) Agency staff determined that continued operation of the plant is “in the public interest because of serious challenges to the reliability of California’s electricity grid,” according to a March 2 NRC news release.

With the exemption, PG&E now has until December 31, 2023, to submit a new license renewal application for Diablo Canyon. The NRC’s application review process typically lasts 22 months.

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