Controversial California power plant set to stay online after court decision

By Shannon Kelleher

A federal court on Monday cleared the way for California’s last nuclear power plant to keep operating for five years after its licenses expire, rejecting arguments from environmental advocates that the facility poses ongoing risks that could prove catastrophic, including the potential for a “nuclear meltdown”.

The move by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) decision to exempt Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant from a rule that would require its two reactors to shut down in 2024 and 2025. The court rejected the environmental groups’ claims that the NRC did not properly account for safety and environmental concerns.

“We filed our lawsuit because NRC was playing fast and loose with decisions that could quite literally lead to a nuclear meltdown,” Hallie Templeton, legal director for the nonprofit Friends of the Earth, said in a statement. “We will keep fighting to ensure that all involved officials properly and thoroughly apply pertinent laws to Diablo’s attempted extension.”

The NRC’s decision to grant an exemption for Diablo Canyon, which has been operational since 1985, was not “arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to law,” US Circuit Judge Consuelo Callahan wrote in his opinion. “NRC adequately explained why California’s changing energy needs constituted a special circumstance, and why the record supported its findings of no undue risk to the public health and safety.”

The court decision comes on the heels of a lawsuit Friends of the Earth filed earlier this month against the US Department of Energy (DOE) over a more than $1 billion award the agency is granting PG&E to help keep Diablo Canyon up and running. The group alleges that the DOE’s assessment of Diablo Canyon’s environmental impact relies on an outdated analysis that fails to incorporate a range of safety risks posed by the plant, including an outdated cooling mechanism, dangerous wear and tear, potentially catastrophic risks from earthquakes, and increased flooding risks due to climate change.

Critics of the plant also say it will be costly for Californians. A 2023 analysis by the Environmental Working Group suggested Diablo Canyon could cost the public nearly $45 billion if it stays open through 2045.