Critics decry ‘disappointing’ billion-dollar Biden bailout of California’s last nuclear plant

"Instead of putting Diablo Canyon back on life support, dependent on a drip of taxpayer subsidies, California should turn a new leaf and lean into building the electric system of the future," said one campaigner.

Environmental and climate campaigners decried Monday’s announcement that the Biden administration—which promotes nuclear energy as part of its solution to the climate emergency—will give more than a billion dollars to California’s largest utility to keep the state’s last nuclear power plant operating.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said it will award $1.1 billion in credits to Pacific Gas & Electric—which has pleaded guilty to numerous manslaughter charges resulting from dozens of wildfires caused by the utility—to keep the Diablo Canyon plant, located near Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County, online.

Noting that nuclear energy provides about half of the nation’s carbon-free electricity, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called the grant “a critical step toward ensuring that our domestic nuclear fleet will continue providing reliable and affordable power to Americans as the nation’s largest source of clean electricity.”

While California politicians including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal—both Democrats—joined Green Nuclear Deal and other advocates in welcoming the Biden administration’s move, anti-nuclear campaigners expressed their chagrin.

“We need to get our priorities straight. It’s disappointing to see the federal government throw PG&E more than a billion in taxpayer dollars for an outdated and potentially dangerous power source, when cleaner, safer, and more affordable energy solutions exist. This is a poster child for sending good money after bad,” Laura Deehan, state director at Environment California, said in a statement.

“Taxpayers shouldn’t prop up aging nuclear plants while commonsense energy efficiency programs, such as the Weatherization Assistance program, get only a fraction of the federal support,” she added.

DOE’s announcement came two months after California lawmakers voted 67-3 to keep Diablo Canyon—which was slated to shut down in 2025—online until at least 2030, including by loaning bankrupt PG&E $1.4 billion.

State lawmakers, nuclear advocates, and even some environmental groups pointed to soaring summer temperatures and expected energy shortages in calling to keep Diablo Canyon open, arguing that it will be difficult to achieve California’s goal of transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2045 without the plant’s 2,250-megawatt capacity.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, asserted in September that Diablo Canyon “is critical in the context of making sure we have energy reliability going forward.”

“That energy does not produce greenhouse gases,” he noted. “That energy provides baseload and reliability and affordability that will complement and allow us to stack all of the green energy that we’re bringing online at record rates.”

However, opponents point to catastrophes like the 2011 Fukshima meltdown in Japan and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the then-Soviet Union—which left an area the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island uninhabitable for centuries, if not millennia—in arguing against nuclear power.

“Instead of putting Diablo Canyon back on life support, dependent on a drip of taxpayer subsidies, California should turn a new leaf and lean into building the electric system of the future,” said Deehan. “Our state and our nation need to be laser-focused on building an efficient energy system powered by renewable sources such as the sun, the wind, and the heat of the Earth.”

Meanwhile, a group of Chumash—the largest Indigenous tribe in California prior to the genocidal Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. conquest of the region—is seeking a return of the stolen land on which Diablo Canyon was built.

“We want to be in a position to protect this land. Protect what’s there, not just for our benefit, it’s for the benefit of California. It’s for the benefit of all people,” Mona Tucker, chair of the Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini Northern Chumash, told the New Times of San Luis Obispo in July.

“[While] I can’t speak for other tribes, I’d like for communities and governments, organizations [to] maybe reach out to the local tribes in your area and ask them what help can you provide,” Tucker added. “Because we all need allies. We all need friends. And in order for us to get our land back, we’re asking for help.”

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Brett Wilkins is staff writer for Common Dreams.

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