Nuke power — time to re-energize?

Politics – Steve Wiegand: Nuke power — time to re-energize? –

Steve Wiegand: Nuke power — time to re-energize?
By Steve Wiegand – Bee Columnist

Last Updated 12:06 am PDT Saturday, June 30, 2007
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A3

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Here’s what’s new on nuclear energy in California:

Zip. Zero. Zilch.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But only a bit. The Assembly has killed an effort to repeal the state’s moratorium on new nuclear plants, and a bill to make it tougher for the current nukes to extend their life spans is still alive.

But 31 years after legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown imposed the ban, the prospects of nuclear expanding its role in the state’s ongoing energy drama remain dim.

The 1976 moratorium requires the state Energy Commission to assure the Legislature that there’s a good way to permanently and safely dispose of spent nuclear fuel, or to reprocess fuel rods, before any new plants can open in California.

In 1978 and again in 2005, the commission formally said ixnay. Another report is due to lawmakers and the guv in November. And judging from the tone at two days of commission hearings on the subject this week, the answer is almost certainly going to be the same: No new nukes even started in California for at least a decade.

Nuclear power already plays a sizeable supporting part in the state’s ongoing energy drama, although that may be a surprise to people who figured nukes lost their glow about the time Three Mile Island had a meltdown in 1979.

Actually, California still gets about 15 percent of its electricity supply from nuclear plants.

“It’s something of a backbone of energy production in the state,” said Steven McClary, an energy consultant hired by the commission to help produce the November report.

But the backbone is arthritic, crippled by a daunting burden of scientific debate, bureaucratic bungling and political intransigence.

The federal nuke waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nev., which was supposed to open in 1998, won’t even get an operating license before next year and won’t open until 2017 at the very earliest.

A fair number of scientists say the site isn’t safe. Nevada politicians — notably U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — are adamantly opposed and may have the clout to cut much of the funding for Yucca Mountain, and there is an impression the U.S. Department of Energy couldn’t organize a one-car funeral, let alone build a nuclear waste dump.

As for recycling waste, the draft report by consultant McClary’s firm notes that the Bush administration last year proposed something called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which is supposed to find a way to recycle spent fuel.

That’s a marked departure from 25 years of federal opposition to commercial reprocessing because of fears the recycled fuel might be used to make nuclear weapons. But GNEP is still a very iffy proposition, and years, if not decades, away from having any real impact.

So, that leaves California with 2,437 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel within its borders, more than $1 billion in California ratepayer money already spent on getting Yucca Mountain off the ground, so to speak, and no real prospect of turning nuclear plant waste into anything useful.

Of course other states face the same problems. But since they don’t have 30-year-old moratoriums that discourage any substantive planning, about 20 nuclear plants are at least being looked at elsewhere in the country.

Maybe it’s time to rethink California’s 1976 ban. In the last year or so, we’ve turned down coal and rejected building a liquefied natural gas terminal off the coast. Renewable energy is only going to go so far in a state of 37 million.

And notwithstanding the merits of conservation, changing the kinds of light bulbs we use just isn’t going to be enough to keep them lit up.

About the writer:

* Reach Steve Wiegand at (916) 321-1076 or swiegand@ Back columns at

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