California Constitutional Amendment Would Classify Nuclear as Renewable

California Constitutional Amendment Would Classify Nuclear as Renewable
One of Pacific Gas and Electric's Diablo Canyon Power Plant's nuclear reactors in Avila Beach on California's central coast, on Nov. 3, 2008. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant)

A proposed amendment to California’s constitution would classify nuclear power as renewable and keep the Diablo Canyon Power Plant open long after its official closure date of 2026, with supporters saying it would reduce the state’s carbon footprint.

In August, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, (R-Templeton), proposed a state constitutional amendment to designate nuclear power as a source of renewable energy. The objective, according to a statement from Cunningham’s office, is to prolong the life of Diablo Canyon to help the state fulfill its climate goals and “provide ratepayers with a cheap and constant source of energy for decades to come.”

Diablo Canyon, the state’s last nuclear plant, generates nine percent of California’s electricity and 20 percent of its clean, carbon-free electricity. However, organizations such as Friends of the Earth are concerned the plant needs expensive upgrades and may be at risk of damage from local earthquake faults.

According to Cunningham, “Future generations — and present ratepayers — deserve nothing less than an ‘all-of-the-above’ approach to fighting climate change.”

If the amendment passes, nuclear energy would become part of California’s renewables program that requires utilities to purchase specified amounts of clean power. In addition, the amendment would prohibit the legislature from passing any future energy law that’s not “technology neutral,” or that discriminates against any form of renewable energy, which would include nuclear.

Supporters argue that nuclear energy provides the largest source of clean, carbon-free power in rich nations. Nuclear plants produce four times less carbon pollution than solar farms, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
France generates 72 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, according to Michael Shellenberger, a contributor to Forbes. Meanwhile, the country produces 10 times less carbon emissions and spends a little over half as much for electricity than Germany, which has replaced many nuclear plants with other power sources.
The cost of electricity to California consumers increased nearly six times (28 percent) more than in the rest of the country (5 percent) between 2011 and 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The closure of California’s last nuclear plant, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, contributed to the increase, reported Shellenberger.
In 2016, a group of climate scientists wrote a letter urging then-California Gov. Jerry Brown to keep Diablo Canyon open. However, that same year, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which owns Diablo Canyon, agreed to retire (pdf) the nuclear plant at the expiration of its operating license.

In January, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), declared bankruptcy amid billions of dollars in claims by victims of wildfires linked to PG&E’s electric wires. The state legislature then passed a law in July creating a fund to help pay for the wildfire lawsuits.

According to Shellenberger, if the state classifies nuclear energy as renewable and keeps Diablo Canyon open, it may reduce the amount Californians would pay for the PG&E bailout by a third.

In addition, if the nuclear plant were to close, it would have a significant economic impact on California, including raising electricity rates and affecting local tax revenue, he argued.

Allowing the plant to operate as a generator of renewable energy could keep it open until as long as 2045, Cunningham told The Tribune. He also hopes that investors might see the value in acquiring the plant during PG&E bankruptcy proceedings. New operators would have to go through relicensing procedures, but Cunningham thinks the plant would be considered a valuable asset once it receives the designation of a renewable energy source.
Proponents of the amendment include the pro-nuclear nonprofit groups Environmental Progress and Californians for Green Nuclear Power. One opponent, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, argued (pdf) that Diablo Canyon was “no longer economically viable” and the shutdown would actually save Californians billions of dollars.

Two-thirds of the members of each chamber in the California legislature will have to approve placing the proposed amendment before voters in order to avoid a signature-gathering process.

“I’m not going to argue it’s not a long shot, but we can’t make a serious dent in slowing the warming trend in the world without an investment in nuclear power,” Cunningham told The Tribune.