The benefits to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. from keeping the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near San Luis Obispo open longer than previously scheduled are now very clear: electricity customers all over California soon will almost certainly be paying the big utility for not producing power.
That’s the apparent bottom line, after Diablo Canyon shut down for substantial periods twice in the last six months because PG&E violated its own management procedures.
The outages at the huge generating station, which when working can produce 8.5 percent of all power created in California, came when a hydrogen cooling system within the plant’s Unit 2 leaked and had to be shut down manually.
Resulting energy losses from Diablo Canyon demonstrated the plant’s unreliability, which was also on view in 2020-21, when the facility experienced 149 days of unplanned outages over a 476-day period. Essentially, Diablo produced little or nothing over one third of that time.
PG&E customers are likely to be dunned $178.6 million for the costs of replacement power during the shutdowns of the last 30 months. But the state law that will let Diablo keep operating through 2030, more than five years beyond its previously planned closure date, will have all customers of privately-owned utilities everywhere in California foot the bills for future Diablo problems, up to $300 million.
The extension was Gov. Gavin Newsom’s way of providing backup electricity during heat waves when blackouts have been threatened repeatedly in recent years. But Newsom’s backup turns out to be a plant that has recently been dead weight about one-third of the time.
The entire plan, passed with little public review by the Legislature in the dying days of its 2022 session, can be seen as Newsom again rewarding PG&E for the $10 million-plus it has contributed to his many campaigns.
Or, it can be seen as plain stupidity. For sure, the new subsidies for Diablo’s error-caused outages are a recognition that it’s risky to count on the 40-year-old facility as an ultimate power backup.
Said Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, a longtime Diablo Canyon watchdog, “The extraordinary size of these (outage) costs is a very bad omen for Diablo’s post-2024 future.”
Becker points out that most of the recent Diablo outages have been caused by operator errors, including “the botched installation of the newest equipment at the plant, the Unit 2 main generator stator. (That’s the part that went haywire in the latest shutdowns.) History shows that with PG&E, if something can go wrong, it will.”
That’s strong language, but it is backed up by PG&E’s record of the last 12 years, including a natural gas explosion that killed eight in San Bruno and company-caused fires that killed about 100 persons and destroyed towns like Paradise and Greenville, leading to multiple manslaughter convictions for the company.
It’s not an enviable record, and for California to depend on extended use of one of the company’s older facilities might turn out to be a huge and expensive mistake.
It’s all part of the coddling of utilities by a long series of California governors, Democrat and Republican, all of whom received large donations from utility companies, then appointed regulators who consistently favor the companies over their customers.
That’s why Southern California Edison consumers, soon to begin subsidizing PG&E mistakes, are still paying on their unjustly assigned $3.3 billion share of the $4.7 billion cost of closing the failed San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which became a white elephant after to an Edison blunder.
It’s why PG&E’s corporate survival was allowed under a plan seeing customers pay multiple billions into a fund designed to pay for damages from future wildfires caused by that company.
The question now is whether extending Diablo’s life will turn out to be yet another regulatory and consumer blunder.
In the very likely event that it does, PG&E will get even more hundreds of millions of dollars than it already has from California electric bills. And none of this even begins to count the $1 billion in federal tax dollars the Biden administration granted the company late last month.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net