Newsom 🤝 nuclear?
By Nick Van Osdol
Nuclear power has been on the back foot in recent decades, especially in the West. That’s why pro-nuclear activists readily celebrate even small victories.
One such example? Over the weekend, news came out that Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, alluded to the possibility of tapping $6B in federal funding intended to help keep nuclear power plants (“NPPs”) open longer nationwide. To be sure, Newsom doesn’t have any direct purview of whether or not this happens – that will ultimately be up to PG&E, who decided to close the plant back in 2016.
- There are 93 reactors in the U.S at 55 licensed NPPs
- Across the country, 11 plants have closed since 2013
- 3 more reactor closures are scheduled before 2025.
Now, with electricity prices skyrocketing, all levels of government are looking for low-hanging fruit to ease burdens on consumers. While not everyone focuses exclusively on opportunities to produce low-carbon power, the moment should theoretically portend good things for nuclear power. As noted by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm when the funding was announced, even without significant growth in recent decades:
U.S. nuclear power plants contribute more than half of our carbon-free electricity, and President Biden is committed to keeping these plants active to reach our clean energy goals….
This focus on prolonging the life of existing energy assets also comes against a global backdrop in which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war there have drastically destabilized the global energy landscape. Countries that were previously big importers of Russian commodities are scrambling for alternatives.
You can probably tell from past newsletters + the amount of coverage I lend nuclear that I’m roughly pro-nuclear. How much progress has nuclear really made so far this year, though? As I noted above, it should be having quite the moment. Let’s go one step deeper.
DIABLO? OR GOD’S GIFT TO DECARBONIZATION?
Of the three scheduled reactor closures in the U.S., two twin reactors are at Diablo Canyon in California. Operational since 1985, the Diablo Canyon NPP is California’s last remaining nuclear power plant. San Onofre ceased operating in 2013. Diablo Canyon has faced considerable pushback from environmentalists since it opened, especially as it sits very near several fault lines. Concerns aren’t purely about safety. NPPs have failed to deliver, whether on construction timelines or cost estimates.
Last week also marked the 36th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. This year, events in the Russian-Ukrainian war have also heightened fears about nuclear power plant safety once again. While concerns about actual meltdowns are overblown, other criticisms focus on the safe handling of nuclear waste. As a note, Finland is making exciting strides on the latter.
Counterarguments to concerns about nuclear power’s safety and viability range from the fact that cutting all nuclear power generation makes the math harder for states like California as they try to get to a net-zero emissions footprint in the medium-term to nuclear power bulls who see fission as a critical, permanent fixture of a zero-carbon society.
Overall, California has done a reasonably good job of mitigating emissions increases, even as its population has grown. Solar and wind together still ‘only’ provided ~25% of the state’s electricity in 2020 (a much larger share of renewables than global or even national averages). A sizable share continues to be supplied by natural gas (37%).
Still, to say California won’t be able to decarbonize without nuclear energy is probably shortsighted. The state hit an exciting milestone over the weekend, with renewables providing almost 100% of electricity for a short window. South Australia hit a similar milestone for the entire month of October last year.
Other states are similarly passing over nuclear as they make plans to get to zero.
Firstly, on the policy front, a lot of the heavy lifting to decarbonize will come from the top down. But Diablo Canyon is an example of what can be accomplished at the local level, too. Pro-nuclear activists’ efforts to protest the plant’s closures shouldn’t be underestimated.
Similarly, for a deeper dive on what local involvement can yield in terms of $ and emissions impact, check out this Twitter thread from over the weekend. One man’s story of his (relatively) solo effort to get his city to expand renewable power generation capacity instead of opening a new natural gas-powered plant.
Secondly, do I think the closure of the Diablo Canyon NPP will still proceed? Probably. But it’s a noteworthy moment for me nonetheless. Why? Because all of 2022 is shaping up as a case study of how everyone from local governments to global organizations are grappling with accelerated decarbonization timelines.
Whether weaning off Russia’s energy assets or climate change are the primary catalysts in question, everyone’s talking about how to enhance energy resilience, ideally in lower carbon ways. This conversation will only ramp up as the Northern hemisphere tilts along Earth’s axis towards fall and winter.
So far? I’m holding my breath, waiting to see more concrete steps taken. As opposed to someone like Newsom suggesting a utility provider look into securing federal funding. Or my other home nation, Germany, waffling about how to simply start weaning off Russian gas.
Finally, concerning nuclear itself? Again, mostly headlines and talk so far this year. Newsom in California is one example. India is also talking about building more NPPs. But a collaborator of mine and energy analyst in India, Rajan Kalsotra, kindly re-oriented my excitement on this point, noting that these are, again, not much more than headlines for now. China has the world’s most ambitious nuclear energy plans… but they’re also quadrupling down on coal right now.
In the U.S., renewable energy sources surpassed nuclear for the first time in 2021.
In what should be a golden moment for its renaissance, nuclear isn’t bucking that trend right now.