Once feared, Diablo Canyon now key to California clean energy goals | Courthouse News Service
Monday, November 27, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Once feared, Diablo Canyon now key to California clean energy goals

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant sparked controversy when it first opened decades ago. But in an era shaped by climate change, it may be just what California needs while the state awaits construction of an offshore wind farm.

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) — During a 1981 protest described by Rolling Stone as “the boldest demonstration yet against a nuclear future," singer-songwriter Jackson Browne peacefully crossed a blue line, held out his wrists, and waited for Sheriff Deputy Gary Hoving to take him into custody.

Law enforcement had prepared for potential violence, bringing helicopters, boats and trucks. But the protestors had trained to passively resist, and those protests in September ‘81 turned out to be festive.

"There was music, and there were balloons," Hoving told me in an interview in 2013. As for Browne, the long-haired rock singer gave him no trouble.

"When it came to the arrest, there was no resistance,” Hoving said. “He was just a pleasant young man."

Fearing the potential for nuclear disaster, Browne was one of more than 2,000 protestors arrested in the seaside community of Avila Beach during the multi-day protest. But civil disobedience wouldn’t stop the the plant from opening — and over time, it would become vital to the local economy as San Luis Obispo County's largest private employer and a major source of tax revenue.

“It’s been an anchor institution for decades now,” said Joshua Boswell, vice president of policy and economic development for REACH, which promotes business and economic policy on California’s Central Coast. The protests against Diablo Canyon may have been “the assault that failed,” as Newsweek put it at the time — but in the end, the plant turned out to be a boon for many local residents.

A proposed offshore wind energy project would be created roughly 20 miles off the coast of Morro Bay, known for its picturesque Morro Rock, seen here from nearby Cayucos. (Photo: Pat Pemberton/CNS)

Fast-forward to the present day, and concerns about Diablo Canyon are back in the forefront.

Now, though, some worry about closing the facility, the last working nuclear power plant in California.

Energy company PG&E, which runs the plant, had planned to retire Diablo Canyon by 2025. While that decision pleased ardent anti-nuke activists, state politicians are now asking PG&E to extend the plant's life a little longer so it can buy time for more palatable clean energy.

As the effects of climate change have become more apparent, the drawbacks of carbon-heavy forms of power like gas have also become more obvious, and nuclear energy has gained new support. For some, that’s cast fresh doubts on the wisdom of shuttering Diablo Canyon for good.

Diablo Canyon’s unlikely comeback comes as California looks for ways to keep the lights on while still meeting climate-change targets. Just a few miles up the coast, in Morro Bay, three companies recently won bids to create an ambitious wind energy project in San Luis Obispo County that could produce more power than Diablo — all without the threat of nuclear catastrophe. 

While that project aligns with California’s lofty goal of 100% clean energy by 2045, it will take time to build. Because nuclear energy produces zero carbon emissions, Diablo Canyon is increasingly viewed as a good temporary option.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 846, calling for the extension of Diablo Canyon for five more years, until 2030. 

“That timing is not accidental,” State Sen. John Laird, a Democrat whose district includes San Luis Obispo County, said in an email interview. “it was intended to bridge the gap between Diablo operations — which produces about 8.5% of the state’s energy — and the implementation of offshore wind.”

There are two offshore wind projects slated for California, the other being in Humboldt County. Morro Bay is likely to be first since the area already has infrastructure in place, both from Diablo Canyon and from a decommissioned Duke Energy natural-gas and oil power plant that shut down in 2014. The latter’s trio of 450-foot smokestacks have become as recognizable to the landscape as nearby Morro Rock.


The proposed wind project would be the first of its kind in the United States. It would feature skyscraper-sized wind turbines that float in the open ocean roughly 20 miles from shore — a favorable trait with locals who enjoy postcard-worthy Pacific sunsets.

 “The turbine themselves will not be visible at Morro Bay or anywhere along the San Luis Obispo County coastline,” Laird said.

The stacks at the retired Duke Energy plant in Morro Bay have become part of the landscape since the 1950s. The infastructure fro, the plant, which closed in 2014, will be used to create offshore wind energy. (Photo: Pat Pemberton/CNS)

That feature could make it more popular than grounded East Coast wind turbines, which some see as a threat to marine wildlife and a visual blight. Most offshore wind turbines are fixed to the ocean floor — but on the West Coast, the ocean is too deep for that. So the 1,100-foot turbines will float far out to sea, like an anchored ship.

Because wind is abundant 24 hours a day, it’s more consistent than solar energy. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the two wind energy areas in California could create 4.5 gigawatts of electricity — 3 gigawatts from Morro Bay and 1.5 from Humboldt. Just by itself, the project in Morro Bay would produce more energy than Diablo. The nuclear power plant currently produces 2.2 gigawatts of electricity.

Some in Morro Bay wonder how the emerging industry would alter an enclave known for fishing and tourism, but the community reception has so far been far warmer than it was for Diablo Canyon. In the United States, nuclear energy was long viewed with suspicion, partly due to the atomic bomb's devastation during World War II and partly due to troublesome incidents at nuclear power plants. 

Just two years before the 1981 protest, a partial nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania stoked fears of a local nuclear disaster in Avila Beach. Diablo Canyon offered its own unique concerns: It's located near the San Andreas and Hosgri fault lines, prompting some to wonder if the next Big One might lead to a disaster worthy of an apocalyptic movie.

“The site is surrounded by multiple earthquake faults, some of which are classified by the United States Geological Survey as major and active,”  said Jane Swanson, spokesperson for Mothers for Peace, one of the organizers of the 1981 protest.

As the years passed, Mothers for Peace continued its opposition to Diablo Canyon. The group notes the plant, which features two reactors, was designed decades ago.

“The reactor vessel of Unit 1, where fission happens, is known to be embrittled,” Swanson said. “This means that if there were an emergency need to cool the core by flooding it with cold water, there is a great risk of the vessel cracking and causing a meltdown — as happened at Fukushima, although from different causes.”

Despite fears of nuclear disaster, Diablo Canyon remained in operation through the decades without major incidents.

Meanwhile, nuclear energy has been gaining in popularity, with 55% of U.S. adults saying they "strongly" or "somewhat" support it, according to a spring Gallup poll. Democratic stars like former President Barack Barack Obama and current President Joe Biden have even encouraged nuclear energy as a clean energy source.

In San Luis Obispo County, Diablo Canyon became an economic power. One 2013 study, performed by Cal Poly professors, concluded that the plant injected $1.1 billion into the California economy annually. 

Aside from roughly 1,500 well-paying local jobs, taxes from the county’s largest private employer provided key funding for local schools and other public services. When PG&E announced in 2016 it planned to shut down Diablo to pursue other sources of clean energy, local economists worried the community might suffer an economic meltdown just like those faced by communities in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and Illinois when other nuclear plants closed.

“We know how other communities have been impacted,” Boswell said. “If you don’t prepare, it can be quite devastating.” 

PG&E did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The offshore wind project in Morro Bay won't impact gorgeous sunsets since the 1,100-foot turbines will be 20 miles off the coast. Here a surfer walks past the waves at Morro Rock. (Photo: Pat Pemberton/CNS)

The best way to offset a too-big-to-fail company’s closing, Boswell said, is to diversify. The county has worked to do that with tourism, wine and the tech industry. 

At the same time, he said, San Luis Obispo County could become known as a leader in clean energy — especially once the technology gets a little further along. “Offshore wind energy as a whole is still a developing technology,” he noted.

Excitement from insiders like Boswell has given air to the region’s wind energy plans. While the exact scope of the Morro project is yet to be determined, another Cal Poly study concluded it could create 24,000 jobs during construction and 600 jobs annually over the next 25 years.

While Morro might not be completed until 2030, licenses for Diablo’s two reactors are set to expire in 2024 and 2025. Because the Diablo Canyon extension approval still requires several steps, PG&E is moving forward with plans to shut it down despite concerns about renewable-energy targets. 

For residents who never warmed to Diablo Canyon, that’s hardly bad news. At a recent public hearing to discuss dismantling the sprawling, coastal property, multiple residents expressed concerns about safety — including disposal of hazardous waste.

“Clearly, the decommissioning and dismantling of Diablo Canyon will create significant and disturbing environmental impacts in the ocean, on the land and in the air,” said Jill ZamEk, a resident of nearby Arroyo Grande and a Mothers for Peace volunteer. “But so does the continued operation, with the added risk of catastrophic radiological releases.”

Despite nuclear energy's public relations comeback, Mothers for Peace disputes the claim that nuclear energy is clean energy.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Swanson said. “Radioactive waste that remains lethal to all life forms for 250,000 years or more is not clean; it is the ultimate poison.”

The group has not taken a position on offshore wind energy, saying it has not studied it enough. Still, offshore wind power has support from unions, industry and environmentalists. 

Besides, the Morro Bay project offers plenty of promise for California’s clean energy goals. While communities in San Luis Obispo County had once feared the potential economic impact of Diablo’s closing, the wind project offers hope and a path forward for future generations.

For Boswell, it’s the best of both worlds, keeping the jobs and income in the region while moving to renewable power. 

“It really is that good of an opportunity that you don’t get every day,” he said.

A view of Avila Beach from the south. The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is a heavily guarded facility located along the coast here. (Photo: Pat Pemberton/CNS)
Categories / Economy, Energy, Environment

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.