(TNS) -- Gavin Newsom has a prediction about California’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon: It won’t stay open another 10 years.
And due to a quirk of Diablo’s complicated history, he could have a hand in closing it.
Diablo sits on a coastal bluff near San Luis Obispo and uses seawater for coolant. The chutes that suck in water from the Pacific and return it to the ocean — 2.5 billion gallons per day — lie on tidelands owned by the state and leased by the plant’s owner, Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
Those leases expire in 2018 and 2019. Without the cooling system, the plant can’t run.
So PG&E this year asked the State Lands Commission, chaired by Lt. Gov. Newsom, for a new lease, casting the move as a simple administrative step.
Instead, Newsom wants to subject the request to a full environmental impact review, a process that can take more than a year. It could also rekindle arguments about Diablo’s safety, since the plant sits within a web of earthquake fault lines discovered after construction began.
“I don’t think that PG&E, in its quiet moments, would disagree that this may not have been the ideal site for a plant,” Newsom said at the commission’s Dec. 18 meeting.
Already running for governor in 2018, Newsom often touts his support for green causes. At the same Lands Commission meeting, he even predicted that Diablo Canyon could close when its federal operating licenses expire in 2024 and 2025 — something many California environmentalists desperately want. PG&E has not yet decided whether it wants to renew the federal licenses.
“I just don’t see that this plant is going to survive beyond 2024, 2025,” Newsom said. “I just don’t see that. Now, I absolutely may be wrong, but that’s my punditry. And there is a compelling argument as to why it shouldn’t.”
And yet, Newsom has not slammed the door on PG&E’s request.
He has urged the commission to think about how Diablo fits into California’s future energy mix as the state tries to halt global warming. Unlike conventional power plants burning fossil fuels, Diablo pumps no greenhouse gases into the sky. It also supplies 8 percent of the electricity generated within the state. Closing it now, the plant’s supporters argue, would undermine California’s climate fight.
The commission may vote in February on whether a new tidelands lease will require an environmental report, under the California Environmental Quality Act. PG&E argues that it shouldn’t.
“PG&E has been consistent in our point of view that a CEQA review is not required as the structures are currently operating under approved leases, and we have proposed no new operational or design changes,” said utility spokesman Tom Cuddy.
When PG&E leased the tidelands at Diablo, the company didn’t realize that the leases would expire six years before the plant’s federal operating licenses. But then, very few things in Diablo’s early days went according to plan.
Construction on the plant began in 1968, and the state granted Diablo’s two tideland leases in 1969 and 1970. Each lease would last 49 years. Federal operating licenses for nuclear plants run for 40 years. So as long as PG&E managed to open the plant by 1979, the state leases and the federal licenses would match up.
But in 1971, geologists discovered an offshore fault line 3 miles from Diablo. PG&E was forced to redesign a plant it had largely built, and defend it from massive protests. Diablo didn’t open until 1985. Hence the lease problem.
Renewing Diablo’s federal licenses would keep the plant open an additional 20 years. But since PG&E has not decided on this move, rather than seek another 49-year lease on the shore, the company asked the State Lands Commission for a new 6-year lease that would expire at the same time as the plant’s existing licenses.
Much of the debate about the plant’s future already focuses on the cooling system.
Another California government panel — the State Water Resources Control Board — is expected to vote this year on whether PG&E should be forced to install a new cooling system that uses less seawater and kills fewer fish. Diablo’s system kills an estimated 1.5 billion fish eggs and larvae each year. A report commissioned by PG&E forecast that replacing the system with cooling towers could cost as much as $14 billion.
Environmentalists who have been pushing to close Diablo for years argue that the plant’s toll on fish violates the existing state leases, which were supposed to protect the coastal environment.
“There shouldn’t be a new lease issued under these circumstances, and if the state is even going to think about it, certainly an environmental assessment should be required,” said Damon Moglen, senior adviser to the environmental group Friends of the Earth. He welcomed Newsom’s interest in Diablo’s future.
“It’s great that a political leader is paying attention to this plant,” Moglen said. “An accident would be absolutely devastating for the state. So it’s well and just that a politician like Newsom is thinking about it.”
©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.