SF Chronicle: Nuclear Power Revisited in state

Nuclear power revisited in state / Bill would lift ban on new plants — polls show voters evenly split

Nuclear power revisited in state
Bill would lift ban on new plants —
polls show voters evenly splitMatthew Yi,
Chronicle Sacramento Bureau

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


Nuclear Power Plants in California. Chronicle Graphic

(04-04) 04:00 PDT

Sacramento — A small but growing movement to promote nuclear power construction, dormant for three decades, is working to overturn the state’s ban on new reactors as worries about climate change have softened voters’ opposition to new plants.

A legislator from Southern California has introduced a bill to lift the state’s ban on new nuclear power plants. The bill would give a boost to plans by investors to bring nuclear power to the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, says lifting the moratorium on new nuclear power plants even before the federal government builds a permanent storage facility for spent fuel rods is necessary to meet the state’s demand for power.

A revival of nuclear power, which doesn’t burn fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases, also will help in the fight against global warming, he said.

Skepticism about nuclear power abounds among environmentalists and in the Democrat-controlled state Legislature, but recent polls show that California voters are quickly changing their views on nuclear power in light of global warming. Likely voters are evenly split over the need to build more nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power’s critics point out that that no permanent storage solution exists for nuclear waste, that such radioactive waste is harmful to the environment and that nuclear plants could become targets of terrorists.

“DeVore’s bill is completely unrealistic,” said Bill Magavern, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “Nuclear power is too expensive and too dangerous, and we’d be much better off investing our resources in safer, cleaner and cheaper technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a much lesser cost.”

California has two nuclear power plants that account for about 16 percent of the overall electricity generated in the state. They are Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station co-owned by Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric.

Construction on both facilities began in the 1970s, and they began operation in the mid-1980s.

Proponents argue that nuclear power plants in the United States, which are based on technology that is 30 years old, have long safety records and that new plants built with today’s technology would be even safer.

DeVore also insists nuclear power has to be part of the equation in limiting carbon emissions, specifically to meet the mandates of AB32, landmark legislation approved last year that requires the state to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

But Dan Hearst, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a California-based anti-nuclear watchdog group, said using the environment as an argument for nuclear power is simply “shameful.”

“These are people who have been on the dark side on everything and are now callously trying to drown us in radioactive waste,” Hearst said.

The likelihood of the bill’s survival in the Legislature is shaky at best. The chairs of both the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and the Utilities and Commerce Committee argue that there are plenty of other environment-friendly methods of generating electricity, such as geothermal, wind and solar power.

“Until we figure out the issue of fuel rods, the issue of nuclear power is a nonstarter,” said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, who chairs the Utilities and Commerce Committee.

DeVore said he is not surprised by such a response, but he is convinced that the sum of those alternatives won’t be able to meet the state’s energy demand and that Californians will experience brownouts and rolling blackouts.

Some high-profile Democrats in recent weeks also have agreed that nuclear power should at least be considered a part of the overall mix of the nation’s energy sources.

The list includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, who has softened her previously hard-line stance against nuclear power.

“The speaker has said that she is open to nuclear power being in the mix when talking about climate change solutions, but she has concerns about the disposal of the waste and about environmental implications,” Pelosi’s spokesman Brendan Daly said.

Even former Vice President Al Gore, whose documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” focuses on the dangers of global warming, has expressed interest in expanding nuclear power.

Gore told members of Congress in March that he is “not reflexively against” nuclear power and “not an absolutist” on the issue.

Some public opinion polls indicate the focus on saving the environment has had an impact on the public’s perception of nuclear power.

In a July poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 39 percent of Californians surveyed said they supported the building of additional nuclear power plants, while 52 percent opposed the idea. A year earlier, the results were 33 percent in support and 59 percent opposed.

Opinions have shifted even more dramatically among likely voters. Last summer, that group was split down the middle at 46 percent on each side of the issue. In 2005, the result was 37 percent in support and 55 percent opposed.

“The notion of global warming has had all kinds of ripple effects and unintended consequences,” said Mark Baldassare, the institute’s chief executive officer.

A group of businessmen has taken steps to bring nuclear power to Fresno County in spite of the state moratorium.

The Fresno Nuclear Energy Group LLC, which formed last year, signed a letter of intent with UniStar Nuclear Development LLC, a subsidiary of Constellation Energy in Baltimore, to design, build and operate a plant. Their preliminary plan calls for a single reactor generating 1,600 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.2 million homes.

The Fresno firm is hoping to build the nuclear power plant next to a large sewage treatment plant and use its wastewater to cool the reactor.

“The state must build more nuclear plants for cheap, non-carbon-emitting electricity,” said John Hutson, the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group’s chief executive. “Or the Legislature needs to provide an alternative. But at this point, there isn’t one.”

DeVore’s bill also has received the attention of at least one official who says he is interested in bringing such a facility to his town.

“The entire Southern California area is really in a precarious position in terms of energy consumption and energy needs,” said Terry Caldwell, mayor of Victorville in San Bernardino County. “And it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”

Victorville, which has about 100,000 residents, is already getting into the energy business. The city is in the permitting process to build a new electricity generating plant that will use both natural gas and solar power.

“We’ve not actually gone out and proposed building a nuclear plant,” he said. “But my mind is open to it. We should see what the opportunities are and what the downsides are.”

DeVore said that’s exactly what he is hoping for in his first legislative attempt at allowing more nuclear power in California.

“I think we need to at least advance the discussion,” he said. “And if we’re not ready to do it this year, I’m prepared to bring this bill back again and again.”

E-mail Matthew Yi at myi@sfchronicle.com.

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