Global warming rekindles debate over nuclear power in California
by Virginia Draper
"I myself think that nuclear power has a great future," said Gov. Schwarznegger in March at a national conference on the economics of reducing global warming. He went on to decry environmentalists who use "scare tactics" to "frighten everyone."
The governor's remarks were surprising (he had never mentioned nuclear power before) and quickly challenged by an LA Times editorial (3/25) and by a letter from Assemblymember Lloyd Levine, Chair, Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee. The letter was co-signed by Sierra Club California's Senior Advocate, Jim Metropulos, and representatives from three other environmental groups.
Acknowledging that nuclear safety has improved since the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown, the editorial said that given the highly toxic nuclear waste that lasts for millennia, "It's flatly wrong to conclude that this means nuclear plants are safe." Other negatives include significant carbon emissions from uranium mining, costs, and building time. Many estimate that it would take more than ten years to get a new nuclear power plant up and running. The editorial concluded, "It would be impossible to build nuclear power plants quickly enough to make an impact on global warming."
Assemblymember Levine's letter challenged the claim that nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases by describing nuclear power's "vicious pollution cycle," and urged the governor to reject nuclear power in favor of "the safer, quicker, cheaper and cleaner alternatives such as solar and wind power."
Levine also reminded the governor that in 1976 the Warren-Alquist Act banned construction of new nuclear power plants in California until the federal government developed a technology for safe disposal of the spent nuclear fuel the plants produce. In 2006, the California Energy Commission (CEC) found that such a technology still does not exist. Given that lack and the debate over the location for a national repository (Yucca Mountain), CEC Vice Chair James D. Boyd recently said "California utilities must expect to retain spent fuel in storage facilities at nuclear plant sites for an indefinite time to come."
Spent fuel is now stored at four sites: at plants that were shut down over two decades ago (Rancho Seco and Humboldt Bay) and at currently operating plants, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre.
Though Diablo Canyon (near San Luis Obispo) and San Onofre (south of LA) supplied about 8% of California electricity in 2006, their continued operation is also up for debate because of the unexpected need to store nuclear waste, the age of the plants, possible seismic activities, and coastal water pollution. In 2007, the legislature directed the CEC to assess the cost, benefits, and risks of the state's reliance on the two aging plants. Due in November 2008, the study will also compare the "cradle-to-grave" costs and environmental impacts of nuclear power to other baseload plants.
The study may have some influence on re-licensing proceedings. The 40-year licenses of the two reactors will expire between 2022-2025. In the next year or two both operators plan to ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to extend their licenses another 20 years. The NRC has never denied a license extension according to Nuclear Power in California 2007 Status Report. In addition, states and other interested parties have had "limited success" getting the NRC to include public concerns in their hearings.
Legislative committees have also entered into these debates. In December the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Communications invited public testimony on the present status and future of nuclear power in California. On April 7 the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources voted down (6-3) two bills proposed by Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) that would have lifted the ban and permitted construction of new nuclear power plants. Sierra Club California testified before both committees arguing that nuclear power is not the answer to global warming.
Last year Assemblymember DeVore considered a ballot initiative to revoke the ban on new nuclear plants. He decided against it when a poll sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation found that 54% of Californians oppose and 37% support the building of new nuclear power plants.
< back to all issues