Nuclear power? Not so fast
Thomas D. Elias
Article Launched: 04/30/2008 07:43:16 PM PDT
Ever since former Vice President Albert Gore won an Oscar and a Nobel Prize for his fight against expanding climate change, there have been claims that nuclear power plants are the easy solution. They give phenomenal amounts energy, after all, without much carbon production.
Some who seek facile solutions say it’s about time to dump the safeguards first proposed in the 1976 Proposition 15, then signed into law by ex-Gov. Jerry Brown, which essentially put a stop to atomic power construction in this state after completion of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant on the central coast.
One example: Last fall, Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Orange County introduced a bill aiming to permit construction of a new nuclear power plant if 20 percent of the power were used for desalination facilities. That bill went nowhere, despite rampant threats of a drought.
It met that fate because building and maintaining new nukes is no simple matter, if California’s experience means anything. And if California’s own experience with nuclear power doesn’t matter in this state, something is wrong.
Take the very latest glitch, revealed last winter by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission after examining the record of the San Onofre nuclear generating station near San Clemente, whose reactors produce power for 2.75 million households served by Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and the city of Riverside’s municipal utility.
found numerous violations of rules and falsified records perpetrated by employees at San Onofre, including one worker who faked records for more than five years to show operators made hourly fire patrols when they had not.
There were also two unspecified security lapses, whose details were not unveiled publicly because of what they might reveal to possible terrorist attackers.
No one suggested these incidents represented a “serious threat” to the safety of San Onofre or its neighbors. But they might be. For if an uncontrolled fire broke out in a nuclear facility, one consequence could be radiation leaks. And security lapses could have all manner of unknown ill effects.
Then there was the “mirror image” problem during the construction of Diablo Canyon, which saw workers essentially build that plant backward and then have to do it over again, costing Pacific Gas & Electric Co. an overrun of more than $3 billion in 1970s-era currency. Make the same kind of mistake today and the costs might be triple or more.
There’s also the problem of nuclear waste, for which there is no answer in the offing. For decades, spent fuel from most American nuclear power plants went to points in South Carolina and Washington state. But those dumps are at or near capacity and most waste both in this country and around the world is now stored at or near the places where it is produced.
So far, no country has built a deep geological repository for radioactive waste, and there is certainly no American site in prospect anytime soon. For a while, Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush eyed a space beneath southern Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, but once California elected Barbara Boxer to the U.S. Senate, that was pretty much out. Boxer bought into the theory that radioactivity from Yucca Mountain might trickle into underground water supplies that eventually flow to the Colorado River, and thus pollute much of California’s and Arizona’s water supply for generations to come.
Yucca Mountain is also highly unpopular in Nevada itself, and every Democratic presidential candidate this year pledged it would not be used for spent fuel. Republican John McCain was less definite about that, even though water earmarked for his home state of Arizona could be affected.
The upshot is that there can be no absolute guarantees of either environmental purity, protection from employee negligence or safety from terrorism at any new nuclear power plant. All of which means politicians like DeVore who seek facile ways to solve both energy and water problems need to look elsewhere. It is not yet time to give up the protections Californians have long enjoyed. Far better to look toward more emphasis on renewable energy sources like wind, sun and geothermal than to bank on the uncertainties of the atom and the people associated with it.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who covers California issues (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)