The nuclear industry’s campaign against renewable energy has reached a critical point in California during the tenure of Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. A terrifying new development now poses a significant threat to the state and the nation, increasing the risk of widespread exposure to highly radioactive fallout.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
Earlier this week, on October 24, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) made a shocking announcement. Despite previous assurances, the company revealed that it will not conduct embrittlement tests on its 38-year-old nuclear reactor, located in Diablo Canyon in California, during the current refueling outage. Instead, PG&E plans to delay the crucial safety tests until the next outage in 2025.
Embrittlement is a process that weakens the resilience of a metallic reactor pressure vessel (RPV) due to heat, pressure, and radiation. When a reactor pressure vessel becomes embrittled, it can fracture and cause severe explosions when coolant water is poured in during an emergency situation. These explosions can release massive amounts of steam, hydrogen, and radioactive materials.
If such an event were to occur at Diablo Canyon, the resulting release of radioactive clouds could spread across the state and the nation, surpassing the devastating impact of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.
Nuclear power comes at an exorbitant cost: contamination nightmares and a threat to humanity’s survival.
During the last inspections between 2003 and 2005, the reactor at Diablo Canyon showed signs of dangerous embrittlement, but no further tests have been conducted since then. PG&E is now advocating for the continued operation of the 38-year-old nuclear reactor, known as Unit One, without examining this critical safety feature. The company argues that it is unable to remove a component necessary for testing until 2025.
This disturbing decision highlights the full-scale battle between nuclear power and renewable energy in California. The conflict can be observed on multiple fronts, including the power grid, where renewable sources such as rooftop solar panels and battery storage systems are in direct competition with nuclear power plants. Additionally, the conflict takes place in regulatory agencies, financial institutions, and legislative bodies. The outcome of this zero-sum game between green energy and the “Peaceful Atom” will shape the future of humanity.
California’s last remaining nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, has been generating over a thousand megawatts of “baseload energy” into the grid from its two big light-water reactors since 1985. However, the value of this energy has been disrupted by the rapid growth of renewable sources, particularly solar panels. California now receives more than a quarter of its electricity from solar panels installed on rooftops, surpassing the contribution of Diablo Canyon.
Wind power, geothermal energy, and other renewable sources have also gained a significant foothold in California’s energy mix. The adoption of advanced efficiency technologies, such as LED lighting, has further reshaped the demand curve. Moreover, the deployment of large-scale battery arrays has successfully prevented blackouts in the state. Smaller battery installations in homes, offices, and factories are also ready to provide backup power when needed.
Pacific Gas and Electric … plans to wait until the next outage in 2025 before conducting the crucial safety tests.
Batteries, which have become a reliable and rapidly growing component of the energy supply, may soon be installed in customers’ basements by a utility in Vermont instead of extending power lines. In a state that recently shut down its sole nuclear reactor, such a battery-based system would be more cost-effective and reliable compared to relying on electricity transmitted from distant generators.
Diablo Canyon’s inflexible energy supply has become unsustainable. Nuclear reactors are costly and challenging to maneuver, operating in a steady and high-cost manner, except during refueling or repairs. In contrast, decentralized renewable energy sources like solar and wind can quickly adjust their output. With the widespread deployment of batteries, these renewable sources can meet peak electricity demands and scale back during periods of low usage. In essence, Diablo Canyon’s power supply has become an obstruction to the electric grid, similar to a debilitating blood clot.
Ironically, Finland’s Olkiluoto reactor experienced a forced slowdown shortly after its opening in 2020. The grid had to accommodate a large influx of significantly cheaper wind and hydro power, leading to reduced production at the nuclear facility. The complicated decision to shut down Diablo Canyon in 2024 and 2025 was based on the recognition that nuclear power is no longer economically viable and that renewables can easily compensate for its closure.
In 2022, Governor Newsom unexpectedly abandoned the shutdown agreement he had endorsed in 2016. Citing potential energy shortages during hypothetical peak demand windows, he used his influence to secure a bailout plan for PG&E, providing over $1.4 billion in state funds and an additional $1.1 billion from the federal government to keep Diablo Canyon operating. This reversal has outraged anti-nuclear and renewable energy advocates in the state, triggering legal challenges against the decision.
The Mothers for Peace organization has filed a lawsuit against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), arguing that PG&E’s relicensing plans fail to meet the agency’s own safety standards. Together with Friends of the Earth, Mothers for Peace has also petitioned the NRC, warning about the potential dangers posed by the embrittled Unit One at Diablo Canyon.
Embrittlement occurs when a reactor pressure vessel is subjected to prolonged exposure to high temperatures, pressures, and radiation. Over time, the materials of the vessel lose their resilience, making them susceptible to fracture when rapidly cooled. Such fractures can lead to explosions involving steam, hydrogen, and radiation, releasing large amounts of radioactive fallout.
The NRC mandates embrittlement tests every 10 years, and the failure to conduct these tests led to the permanent shutdown of the Yankee Rowe reactor in Massachusetts in 1992. Astonishingly, comprehensive embrittlement tests have not been carried out on Diablo One for 20 years. Currently, the reactor is offline for refueling, expected to last approximately 50 days. Numerous experts are calling for immediate inspections of the plant’s internals to assess its condition. However, the NRC has yet to respond. Meanwhile, PG&E has announced that it will not inspect Unit One for embrittlement until at least 2025, with results not expected until 18 months later. Despite this critical safety concern, the company still plans to operate the plant untested.
An embrittled reactor pressure vessel can shatter when coolant water is poured in during an emergency, causing massive steam, hydrogen, and fission explosions.
Furthermore, concerns have been raised about the neglected routine maintenance requirements at Diablo Canyon while it has been heading for permanent shutdown since 2016. Technical experts worry that if the plant is allowed to go back online without a thorough public inspection, it could compromise the safety of communities downwind from the facility. Given that Diablo Canyon is situated on the central coast of California, an explosion could result in radioactive fallout spreading across the entire continental United States.
Following the catastrophic nuclear reactor incident in Fukushima, Japan in 2011, and with numerous earthquake faults near the Diablo reactor site, demands for additional seismic testing have also emerged. As early as 2014, Michael Peck, a former NRC resident site inspector, warned that Diablo might not withstand a strong seismic event.
Thus, the deepening doubts about Diablo Canyon, particularly after the decision to shut it down in 2016, have led to growing grassroots anger against Governor Newsom. However, the controversy extends beyond nuclear power.
Since 2016, California’s renewable industry has experienced remarkable growth. More than 75,000 people now work in the state’s rooftop solar industry, surpassing the number of employees in the entire coal mining industry nationwide.
Wind power, geothermal energy, energy efficiency measures, and battery technologies have all surged beyond expectations since 2016. Even PG&E acknowledges that renewables can adequately compensate for any shortfall caused by the closure of Diablo Canyon.
Energy expert Robert Freehling, based in California, said, “Even PG&E confirmed that keeping Diablo running after 2025 would prevent the production of cheaper renewable energy. In 2020, Diablo actually threatened the grid with two partial blackouts totaling less than two hours. Newsom has somehow used that as justification to keep Diablo operating.”
However, in 2021, Newsom’s chosen CPUC launched an aggressive attack on solar power. With no apparent economic justification, the CPUC significantly reduced net metering programs that compensate solar panel owners for feeding excess electricity into the grid, and imposed severe restrictions on programs that promote solar installations in housing developments. As a result, the installation of rooftop solar panels in the state has declined by up to 40 percent.
Newsom, on one hand, takes credit for not vetoing certain pro-green legislation recently passed by the state legislature. On the other hand, his CPUC’s assault on solar panels, combined with his determination to keep Diablo Canyon in operation, has incensed the significant safe energy supporter base in California.
Angry renewable energy advocates speculate that, despite his denials, Newsom is aligning himself with utility and nuclear industry interests in anticipation of a potential run for the presidency in 2028. This could become feasible even earlier, in 2024, if President Biden’s popularity wanes.
Moreover, they caution that the push to prop up nuclear power with substantial subsidies could be driven by the nuclear weapons industry. This industry relies on the infrastructure, fuel supply, and a highly skilled workforce associated with nuclear power plants to maintain the production of atomic bombs.
As French President Emmanuel Macron stated in 2020, “Without civilian nuclear energy, there is no military use of this technology—and without military use, there is no civilian nuclear energy.”
Regardless of the motivations behind these actions, the months ahead will be critical in determining the trajectory of California’s energy supply. Debates over safety, economic viability, flexibility versus baseload power, outdated reactors versus new renewable technologies, such as solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, will shape the future of the nation’s power generation.
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