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U.S. energy chief hints California may grant reprieve to its last nuclear plant

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By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON, Nov 30 (Reuters) - California may reconsider whether to close its last nuclear power plant as public support has grown for the low-carbon energy source, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told Reuters on Tuesday.

She added she was willing to eventually talk with state officials about keeping the Diablo Canyon plant open.

The Biden administration has expressed support for the nuclear power industry as crucial to its goal of decarbonizing the U.S. electrical grid by 2035.

"California has been very bullish on zero-carbon emission energy," Granholm said in a wide-ranging interview to be broadcast next week at the Reuters Events conference Energy Transition North America 2021 https://reutersevents.com/events/energy-transition-north-america, where leaders will discuss the move to clean energy.

"It may be something that they decide to take a look at, given that I think there is a change underfoot about the opinion that people may have about nuclear."

Utility PG&E decided in 2016 to allow the licenses for two Diablo Canyon reactors to expire in 2024 and 2025. That move would close the last nuclear power plant in the country's most populous state where the public was worried about earthquakes, nuclear waste and use of seawater to cool the plants.

But because nuclear power now accounts for about a fifth of U.S. electricity, reactor shutdowns expand the country's need for clean energy, making Biden's goals harder to reach.

Reactors in Connecticut, New York, South Carolina and other states are also in danger of shutting as utilities turn to plants that burn low-cost natural gas to generate electricity.

The Biden administration on Tuesday announced it is seeking feedback from local communities on whether they would host interim sites to store nuclear waste. Such a step could lead to a more permanent and centralized fix for dealing with radioactive waste now stored in casks and pools at 76 reactor sites across 34 states.

Granholm said the Energy Department will talk with communities in the next few months about opportunities for interim sites that can create local jobs.

"If it's a community that is more favorable toward nuclear power, they might not be averse to taking on the waste problem, so that those communities that have nuclear facilities won't have to worry about that problem," Granholm said.

While California is well known for earthquakes, nuclear plants in South Carolina and Missouri face far higher quake risks https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-nuclearpower-earthquakes-idINL1N2HD11P than Diablo Canyon does, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists nonprofit group.

A report this month from researchers at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said California should extend the life of Diablo Canyon to meet state climate goals.

Granholm said any decision on keeping Diablo open is up to California and did not indicate she had any information that regulators were set to change their position.

"This is clean dispatchable base load power. ... I know the decision has been made already to close it down, perhaps it's something that they might reconsider," she said.

And she hinted she would be willing to give her persuasion skills with officials in California, a state plagued with power outages and climate-related wildfires, a try. "Let's just get through this consent-based siting process first and certainly I'm willing to have those conversations."

PG&E spokesperson Suzanne Hosn said the plan to shut the plant was approved by the California legislature and state regulators and the company's focus is on safely operating the plant until the end of its licenses.

California Public Utility Commission spokesperson Terrie Prosper said the commission had not received any proposals to extend the life of the reactors, and said certain upgrades would be required for the licenses to be extended. (Reporting by Timothy Gardner; additional reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by David Gregorio)

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