Two nuclear plants on opposite U.S. coasts are seeing life–one in initial test phase and another through nuclear life extension. This is happening as the stability of the U.S. electric grid gets threatened with intermittent renewables, and inflation and supply chain issues increase the cost of new generating plants. Diablo Canyon in California was supposed to close its doors in the next two years but its operating life has been extended due to inflationary pressures and high materials costs for renewable energy projects that have hampered development of solar and wind projects and battery storage in California. Without the plant’s nuclear output, the California grid would be vulnerable to severe supply shortfalls as it pushes to electrify its economy through city bans on new natural gas hookups and state bans on sales of new gasoline and diesel vehicles. In Georgia, Vogtle Unit 3 has safely reached initial criticality–a key step during the startup testing sequence that demonstrates its operators have safely started the nuclear reaction inside the reactor.
The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that PG&E can operate Diablo Canyon beyond the planned closure of its reactors in 2024 and 2025 after the California Energy Commission completed an assessment of the state’s power resources and output from Diablo Canyon, which produces almost 9 percent of the state’s electricity. The Commission concluded that before taking the plant offline, California should first confirm that the necessary resources are online or available to supply the power the nuclear plant generates. They found that due to fast-rising prices for solar panels, transformers, and other materials used in renewable energy projects, the necessary generating resources would not be available to make up for the output of Diablo Canyon. The plant announced its closure in 2016, citing that it was becoming uneconomic because of the priority given renewable energy in California’s system, which both mandates and subsidizes renewables.
All parts of the supply chain have experienced inflationary pressures, including cement, transformers, and other plant equipment due to both lingering disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as tariffs and labor issues, including those affecting solar manufacturers. Fast-rising commodities prices for materials such as lithium carbonate, which is critical to battery development and storage, have forced some projects to be placed on hold.
Not only has California not kept up with its renewable building program, but it has had to battle extreme heat, wildfires, and other events that have strained the state’s electric grid. Things could get worse as the state seeks to go all-electric in the next decade, with the elimination of gasoline and diesel powered cars by 2035. There seems to be little consideration for how California will be able to satisfy the rising demand for the electricity that electric vehicles require. California imports over 30 percent of its energy from outside the state, and it is by far the nation’s largest net electrical-importing state.
California lawmakers in October overwhelmingly approved a measure to approve Diablo’s operations through 2030 and granted a $1.4 billion loan to PG&E to keep the plant online. PG&E applied for funding in the Department of Energy’s initial phase of the $6 billion Civil Nuclear Credit program to keep U.S. nuclear power reactors open. The Biden administration provided PG&E with a $1.1 billion grant to help the company prevent the closure of Diablo Canyon. The conditional funding, which comes from the infrastructure law passed by Congress last year, creates a path forward for Diablo Canyon to remain open and could allow PG&E to pay back some of the $1.4 billion loan for the plant that California lawmakers approved.
The Vogtle Nuclear Plant
Vogtle reactors 1 and 2 in Georgia have been operating safely for decades with the first unit beginning commercial operation in 1987. Once reactors 3 and 4 are in commercial operation, Plant Vogtle will be a four-unit site making it the largest of its kind in the United States. Now that the Unit 3 reactor has reached criticality, operators will continue to raise power to support synchronizing the generator to the electric grid and begin producing electricity. Then, operators will continue increasing power through multiple steps, ultimately raising power to 100 percent.
The in-service date for Unit 3 is projected to be May or June 2023 as further equipment, component or other operational challenges could affect its in service date. Unit 4 is projected to begin commercial operation sometime between November and March 2024. The cost of the third and fourth reactors, each consisting of 1100 megawatts, has more than doubled to over $30 billion from an initial expected cost of $14 billion through years of delays due to regulatory oversight and operational challenges. Nuclear units can produce reliable electricity at 90 percent of their nameplate capacity for 60 to 80 years compared to solar and wind units that operate for 20 to 30 years at 20 to 40 percent of their nameplate capacity and need the wind to blow and the sun to shine to generate electricity.
Diablo Canyon is getting at least 5 years of further operating life as California lawmakers recognize that the necessary resources are not online or available to supply the power generated by Diablo Canyon’s reactors. California is having a hard time generating enough power to supply current demand with wildfires and extreme heat hurting current generating output that losing almost 9 percent of its current generation would ensure blackouts to the state’s residents unless imports could make up the difference. California already gets over 30 percent of its electricity supply through imports from neighboring states, so additional electrical imports of the magnitude needed are highly unlikely. Wind, solar and renewable builds have not kept up due to supply chain issues and rising costs of materials needed for their construction.
Vogtle units 3 and 4 have been under construction since 2009 due to regulatory and construction delays and are expected to start commercial operation this year for unit 3, which is in initial testing, and within a year for unit 4. They will support Georgia’s electrical grid with reliable power for 60 to 80 years at a rate 3 to 4 times higher than the equivalent capacity of wind or solar power—both intermittent sources of electricity supply requiring the wind to blow and the sun to shine. Inflation and increased material costs are affecting the costs of all generating sources, and those prices are rising for consumers.