As feds consider 80-year-old nuke plants, California could shutter its last

Dive Brief:

  • While Dominion Virginia Power is making the case for an 80-year operating term at a nuclear facility on the East Coast, in California owners of the last nuke operating in the state are weighing expensive measures that may be needed to continue operating. 
  • Dominion last month became the first utility in the United States to notify nuclear regulators of its intent to file for a second license extension, essentially doubling the operating life of a plant beyond the initial 40 year term.
  • But on the West Coast, where solar and wind power are more prevalent, Pacific Gas Electric is considering whether to push ahead with its first 20-year extension at Diablo Canyon, where questions over seismic risks and water use could add billions to the cost.

Dive Insight:

The United States nuclear industry is most definitely a Tale of Two Coasts.

An Associated Press story points out what a difference a few decades can make for an industry’s outlook: it wasn’t so very long ago that boosters of the nuclear industry predicted plants every 50 miles along California’s coast, looking to meet growing energy demand with carbon-free and inexpensive generation.

But now the state is down to its last nuclear facility, the Diablo Canyon plant, which came online in 1985 and produces about 18,000 GWh annually. The licenses for its two units expire in 2024 and 2025, and according to PGE’s web site, relicensing  “will help ensure California will be able to meet the state’s future energy demands.” But according to AP, the utility is also focused on the potential costs. Debate has raged over whether the plant, which sits less than 1,000 yards from a fault line, can be operated safely. And there are ongoing concerns about the plant’s water intake, which some say has contributed to large marine kills.

“We continue to evaluate feedback on the seismic research and steps needed to obtain state approvals,” PGE spokesman Blair Jones reportedly told AP. Large amounts of renewable energy, along with cheap natural gas, are also pressuring the plants.

But it’s a different story some 3,000 miles away. Dominion Virginia Power is planning to request a license extension for its Surry Power Station, which would allow the facility to operate out to 80 years – or longer than the average lifespan of an American, Bloomberg points out.

“Renewing Surry Power Station’s licenses for a second 20-year period is good news for our customers, the regional economy and the environment,” said David Christian, CEO of the company’s Dominion Generation business unit.

Christian said the facility can produce safe, reliable and low-cost electricity from the station through the middle of the century. It produces 20% of the electricity used in Virginia, he said.

“Our nuclear power stations have proven to be among the most efficient and most reliable sources of electricity in our fleet,” he said. “The operation of Surry also positions Virginia for economic growth.  … And, Surry – like the nation’s other 61 nuclear stations – provides the backbone for the nation’s carbon-free power generation.”

Low natural gas prices and high operating costs have put pressure nuclear generation, spurring a handful of announcments of plant closures on the East Coast. But for utilities like Dominion, relicensing a nuke plant is one option to keep nuclear power afloat. By some accounts, up to 11% of the U.S. nuclear fleet is at risk for early retirement. 

Recommended Reading

Bloomberg News via Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Operators of U.S. nuclear power plants want to extend life to 80 years

Houston Chronicle:
Nuclear crossroad: California reactors face uncertain future

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