The Riggs Report: Diablo Canyon’s demise

Gov. Jerry Brown was a vocal opponent of the nuclear plant’s licensing

PG&E’s announcement this week that it had agreed to shut down Diablo Canyon—the last nuclear power plant left in California—reflects a steady shift toward the use of renewable energy in California. It also marks the end of an era of environmental conflict that has spanned the career of Governor Jerry Brown.

When Brown was governor the first time, in the late 1970s, he was a vocal opponent of PG&E’s efforts to license the twin reactor plant near San Luis Obispo. As a radio reporter just out of the journalism program at Cal Poly, I covered a large anti-nuke rally in June 1979 that drew the governor and an estimated crowd of 40,000 protesters.

Brown took the stage that day, shouting “No on Diablo Canyon!”

That demonstration, one of a series organized by the Abalone Alliance that included blockade attempts and mass arrests, was fueled by growing concerns following a serious accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania earlier that year.

PG&E was also faced with persistent questions about seismic safety, following the discovery of the Hosgri Fault three miles offshore as the plant was under construction. The company argued, publicly and in filings with federal regulators, that the plant had been designed and retrofitted to withstand a serious earthquake.

The utility’s case wasn’t helped when a top executive told me, in 1979, that too large an investment of shareholder dollars was involved for the project not to go forward. Diablo Canyon eventually received its operating licenses and its reactors went on line in 1985 and 1986.

Fresh questions were raised at the state Capitol in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami seriously damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, causing a meltdown at three reactors and a series of radiation leaks into the atmosphere. PG&E told regulators and lawmakers that Diablo Canyon was safe from a Fukushima-style episode and referenced a June 23, 2011 statement from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission that addressed the risk at both the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre plants.

“The NRC believes that it is highly unlikely that a similar combination of events such as those which occurred in Japan could occur in the United States, including at the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear plants,” the statement read. “The NRC remains convinced that U.S. nuclear power plants are designed and operated in a manner that protects public health and safety.”

San Onofre, in northern San Diego County, was shut down by Southern California Edison in 2013 amid questions about the integrity of the plant and opposition from environmental groups.

PG&E had filed for renewal of Diablo Canyon’s operating licenses in 2009. But the company appears to have concluded since then that it would eventually be too expensive to continue operating the facility, given California’s focus on shifting to renewable energy.

Diablo Canyon will be shut down permanently by 2025, nine years from now. And with that closure comes the end of an environmental and legal conflict that winds back to a time when the Iranian hostage crisis was underway, Jimmy Carter was president, Linda Ronstadt was a top rock singer, and her then-boyfriend, Jerry Brown, was a fresh political face and loud critic of the Diablo plant.