Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
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Landmark Agreement to Decommission Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant Endangered by Proposed Ruling

By Tom Dalzell, Business Manager of IBEW Local 1245, and Ralph Cavanagh, CoDirector of The Energy Program at the National Resources Defense Council

Shutting down a nuclear power plant is not an easy thing to do. Safely de-operationalizing a plant is one thing. Replacing the energy it produces with new, carbon-free power is something else. But perhaps most difficult is negotiating a just economic transition that leaves affected families, communities, and workers intact.

In 2016, when Pacific Gas & Electric entered into talks to close Diablo Canyon (the nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo that supplies nine percent of the state’s total energy load), challenges abounded. What would happen to the thousands of families that would lose their livelihood? What would happen to San Luis Obispo’s vibrant communities as one of their largest employers and taxpayers went dark? What about the schools, who could lose funding in short order? And what about our climate goals, as the state lost access to carbon-free nuclear power?

The pitfalls were many. But in 2016, an unprecedented and unlikely alliance of stakeholders (including PG&E, the Natural Resource Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 and more) came together to craft an inspired agreement that all parties could support. With months of intense deliberation and sacrifice on all sides, we emerged with a blueprint for a just, environmentally-sustainable transition – one that can serve as a model for the many states and countries that are confronting this same challenge. The bones of the proposal are this: The plant would be taken offline by 2025. Communities and schools would receive funding to combat the economic fallout of the plant’s closure. The energy used to replace Diablo’s load would be even greener than the law currently requires, and there would be an allocation for increased energy efficiency. And there would be a just transition for affected workers: each would receive an economic incentive to stay at the plant instead of leaving, each would receive retraining so he or she could find work someplace else, and severance would be available. Meanwhile, PG&E customers would save at least $1 billion by substituting lower cost resources for the plant following its retirement.

When first announced on June 21, 2016, the Joint Proposal was widely celebrated. The New York Times editorialized that the proposal’s “commitment and imagination are worth emulating” and that “the agreement could serve as a positive example for other states and nations that may in time need to replace aging nuclear power plants without increasing carbon emissions.” Supportive statements came from across the political spectrum.

But all of that is now at risk. Inexplicably, an administrative law judge at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued a proposed decision that puts the Joint Proposal in jeopardy. In place of a commitment to replace Diablo Canyon with zero-carbon resources, he recommends that the Commission throw up its hands, writing: “the impact of the retirement of Diablo Canyon on greenhouse gas emissions is not clear.”

If the five-member Commission were to accept his recommendations, support for workers would be slashed by more than 50 percent, the community compensation would be disallowed altogether, and the proposed investment in zero-carbon replacements for the plant would be deferred to a separate proceeding of uncertain duration and outcome.

Tragically, what started out as a sustainable energy blueprint would instead become a repudiation of California’s leadership on equitable and affordable climate solutions, while hurting the workers and surrounding community and jeopardizing the plant’s prospects for safe and reliable operation in the years ahead. It doesn’t have to happen. The CPUC Commissioners will hear arguments from all parties to the Diablo Canyon case on November 28 and make their own judgment on the future of the joint proposal. We are hopeful the Commission will recognize the extraordinary efforts of all parties involved, and the value of California leading the way on this issue. And we will be there to remind them of what’s at stake.

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