Newsom’s About-Face On Diablo Canyon Underscores Foolishness Of Indian Point Closure And Need To Save Palisades

Maybe there’s hope for California after all. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to intervene to save the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant from premature closure, which is slated to begin in 2024. While it can’t be known whether Newsom’s administration will be able to save California’s last nuclear plant, the announcement is a massive win for rational climate policy and the pro-nuclear movement in the United States.

But the timing is also bittersweet. It was one year ago today that the last reactor at the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, New York was prematurely shuttered. Indeed, the possible rescue of Diablo Canyon underscores the criminality of the closure of Indian Point, a power plant that was both a marvel of technology (Emmet Penney calls nuclear plants our “industrial cathedrals”) and the single most important source of electricity for New York City.

The news from Newsom about Diablo Canyon also brings two other points to mind: Will federal and state officials be able to prevent the closure of Michigan’s 811-megawatt Palisades Nuclear Plant, which is slated to be prematurely shuttered at the end of May? And finally, it shows how little federal money – a mere $6 billion in funds from the Department of Energy – has been committed to keep some of America’s most important power plants online and pumping out zero-carbon juice.

Back to Indian Point, a plant that I visited in 2018 and has a starring role in the documentary I co-produced with Tyson Culver: Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.

In these pages on April 29, 2021, I wrote that the looming closure of the nuclear plant “should make anyone who cares about climate change, electricity prices, or the security of the electric grid even more cynical about our politicians and the ‘green’ groups who insist we must take urgent action to slash, or eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, cynicism, and lots of it, is the sensible response to the closure of Indian Point because it will result in dramatic increases in New York’s greenhouse gas emissions at roughly the same moment that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, climate activists, and top officials in the Biden administration are claiming that we need to quit using hydrocarbons.”

My prediction that New York’s electricity prices and greenhouse gas emissions would rise after the closure of Indian Point has been proven correct. An analysis done last year by Environmental Progress found that emissions from New York’s in-state electricity generation were 46% higher in the first full month after the closure of Indian Point than it was before the shutdown because gas-fired generators were used to replace the juice that was coming from the nuclear plant. Environmental Progress also found the state emitted “37% more carbon dioxide from electricity generation on an absolute basis.” The state’s consumers have also seen a huge increase in their electricity bills. According to one estimate, the cost of electricity in the metro New York City area in January 2022 was 20% higher than in January of last year. A key reason for the higher electricity prices: increased dependence on natural gas to produce electricity. As natural gas prices have increased over the past year, those increases have resulted in higher power bills.

Newsom’s comments about Diablo Canyon came just a few days after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called for federal funds to be used to prevent the closure of Palisades, which is owned by Entergy
Corp., the same firm that owned Indian Point when that plant closed. As Tim Cavanaugh of the Mackinac Center recently explained, the potential loss of Palisades would deal a “traumatic blow” to Whitmer’s plan “to take the state to zero emissions by 2050.”

Cavanaugh also points out that Palisades produced about 7 million megawatt-hours in 2021. “Compare that with output from the 1,400 giant wind turbines that occupy large tracts of the state. A recent study from put Michigan on an honor roll of wind-powered states — for producing only 5.8 million megawatt-hours per year.” Thus, Cavanaugh said that by itself, Palisades is producing more electricity than all of the wind turbines in the entire state of Michigan. (Michigan, by the way, has also seen a significant backlash against the encroachment of wind energy projects. Numerous communities in the state have rejected or restricted new wind project development.)

Like Newsom, Whitmer is hoping to tap some of the $6 billion available in the Department of Energy’s Civil Nuclear Credit Program, which was created through the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law in November. In a letter to the Department of Energy, Whitmer said stopping the closure of Palisades was a “top priority” and that keeping it open will “allow us to shore up Michigan’s energy supply to prevent price spikes on working families and small businesses.”

I am all for keeping our existing nuclear plants online. But let’s also be clear: the $6 billion that could be used to keep Palisades and Diablo Canyon operating is a mere farthing when compared to federal tax credit gravy that’s being lavished on the wind and solar sectors. As I noted in a report for the Center of the American Experiment last year, between 2010 and 2029, federal tax incentives for the wind and solar sectors will total some $140 billion. And the wind and solar sectors are lobbying hard to get even more tax credits.

Furthermore, the wind industry’s production tax credit is the single most-expensive energy-related provision in the federal tax code. Not only that, but as I explained in these pages in 2020, the U.S. solar sector got roughly 250 times as much in federal tax incentives as the nuclear sector in 2018 when measured by the amount of energy produced. Coming in a close second is the wind sector, which got 158 times as much as nuclear.

As I said at the top of this piece, it’s not clear if Diablo Canyon (and Palisades) will be kept open. A myriad of details will have to be worked out regarding licensing and ownership. Nevertheless, many people deserve credit for getting Newsom to change his mind, including Michael Shellenberger, who’s now running for governor in California. Credit also should be given to people like Kristin Zaitz and Heather Hoff, the co-founders of Mothers for Nuclear, Gene Nelson and Carl Wurtz from Californians for Green Nuclear Power, as well as the group of scientists and activists who sent a letter to Newsom in February telling him to “reverse the decision” to close Diablo. (I have long advocated for keeping the plant open, including this piece in the Wall Street Journal last month.)

It might be cynical to point out that Newsom may simply be following the polling data. As Sammy Roth points out in his article in Friday’s Los Angeles Times, a recent poll found “that 39% of voters oppose shutting down Diablo Canyon, with 33% supporting closure and 28% unsure.” The same poll found that “44% of California voters support building more nuclear reactors in the Golden State, with 37% opposed and 19% undecided — a significant change from the 1980s and 1990s.”

But one of the most important lines in Roth’s article was a quote from Newsom, who “told the editorial board that reliable electricity is ‘profoundly important.’” Amen to that. Now begins the hard work of saving Diablo Canyon and Palisades from premature closure.