California Debates Its Nuclear Future

by CalWatchdog Staff | October 29, 2010 8:46 am

OCT. 29, 2010


California faces an energy conundrum: The 2006 global warming law AB32, dictates the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions back to 1990 levels, by 2020. However, with the demand for electricity increasing, state energy experts are considering nuclear energy production once again.

Nuclear power is considered a low-carbon energy source, but production in the state has been rather restricted due to a nuclear power plant moratorium in place since the mid-1970’s.

This week, the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communication committee [1]held an informational hearing to discuss the role nuclear power can play in climate change issues and the need for energy production in California.

Several panels were convened covering aspects from an overview of the moratorium, to the economics of nuclear power.

California has four nuclear power plants, but two were decommissioned in 1976 by then-governor Jerry Brown, according to energy committee Chairman, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima. “We are facing one of the greatest challenges to our economy – global warming. California’s two remaining nuclear plants need to be either decommissioned, or extended,” Padilla said.

Tim Leahy with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory and Burt Richter, Nobel Laureate from Stanford University, presented information about the role of nuclear power, past, present and future.

Both scientists agreed that there is plenty of evidence to support the changing climate on Earth, but said the causes are not as clear. “The energy supply will increase to meet demand,” said Richter. “There are plenty of energy sources, but some are not controlled by nations friendly to the U.S.”

“Nuclear power is the number one source of non-carbon energy, and has a remarkable safety record,” Leahy said. “The operating costs are the lowest, and nuclear energy is the lowest for carbon footprint.”

Currently 16 countries use nuclear power. There are 333 nuclear power plants outside of the U.S. Inside of the United States, there are 104 operational nuclear power plants[2], according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In 2009 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) issued a report that stated, “Nuclear power could be one option for reducing carbon emissions and that taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emissions.”

Leahy and Richter’s testimony agreed with the MIT report.

“There are 7 billion people on Earth. 200 years ago there were 1 billion. 40 years ago there were 3.5 billion. By 2050 is it estimated there will be 9 billion people on Earth. This increase has made an unprecedented impact on resources, and all will want and need access to energy,” said Leahy.

Richter agreed and said, “Access to energy fuels economic growth,” and both said nuclear power should be embraced.

Nuclear power already makes up 15 percent of California’s total energy production, but because the energy consumption in the state is expected to significantly increase in the next decade, nuclear power is being considered, even with the future of the two remaining California nuclear power plants in question.

No nuclear power plants have been constructed in California in more than 30 years. At issue is storage of the nuclear waste. James Boyd with the California Energy Commission[3] explained that the CEC reviewed the role of nuclear power in California in 2005, and found that the technology for nuclear waste disposal had not progressed enough to permanently dispose of or reproduce high-level waste.

Boyd disagreed with Leahy and Richter’s assessments of the role of nuclear power, and said, “We continue to find reproduction very expensive.” He also said that U.S. policy is opposed to the reprocessing of nuclear waste.

Boyd said that nuclear proliferation is another issue to be very concerned about as it directly relates to nuclear waste storage or reprocessing.

According to Boyd, the CEC recommended that the Legislature develop a framework to analyze the costs versus benefits of nuclear power plant license extensions, evaluate the long-term implications of continuing to store the waste on-site at the two remaining nuclear plants in the state, and reexamine nuclear transport fees.

A background report provided at the hearing stated, “there are approximately 57,700 tons of nuclear waste at 100 temporary sites, with tons more being generated every year. While there appears to be an international consensus that long-term storage of nuclear waste in deep underground geologically stable repositories is ideal, no nation including the United States has yet opened such a site.”

Boyd said he was “reluctant to recommend” nuclear power “because of the waste storage problem – it needs to be set right.”

Staff Scientist Robert Budnitz, a nuclear engineer and physicist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory[4], presented a more positive outlook for nuclear power, while explaining the history of problems associated with nuclear power. “In 1976 there were two debates,” said Budnitz. “The safety of plants, and high-level waste. But the Legislature could not enact anything about safety, because safety is regulated by the federal government.”

Budnitz said that nuclear experts now know much more about safety, and analogizing nuclear power to airplanes, “is far more safe now.” Budnitz said that in 1976 scientists “asserted” safety, “but in 2010, we know for sure.” He said that the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility will be safe “for a million years.”

Also testifying about current storage and waste technologies were Caroline McAndrews with Southern California Edison, and James Becker, from PG&E’s Diablo Canyon power plant in San Luis Obispo.

The economics of nuclear power was presented to the committee by attorney Breton Peace. “Wind, solar and nuclear power are fundamentally different. You cannot compare power sources,” said Peace. “The state subsidizes wind and solar, but does not subsidize nuclear power.”

Peace explained, “Nuclear plants use little land, are safe and reliable.” Peace said nuclear power is not cost prohibitive when calculated over time. He said plant building costs can be high, but critics are thinking of the massive cost overruns of the building in the past. “And those costs were passed on to the rate payers.”

Peace said if California lifted the moratorium, rate payers would not bear the cost because nuclear power plants built today would not be built using a “typical energy model.” According to Peace, corporate boards won’t bet the company, because the risk is shared with all partners – political, regulatory and financial.

“California is not really even at the table yet,” Peace said.

In 2005, the Energy Policy Act was created to provide financial incentives for the construction of nuclear power plants through tax credits, loan guarantees and regulatory risk insurance. And while the licensing process has been streamlined dramatically, there are only two nuclear power plants scheduled to go online in the future. Both nuclear power plants are in Georgia, scheduled for 2016 and 2017 activation.

Peace said that the licensing costs are massive, and the interest for such projects “skyrockets” during the time it takes to complete a plant. States that have strict regulatory atmospheres are “too politically charged,” according to Peace, for lenders to lend money for the building of nuclear power plants. “The costs are so massive, they may be prohibitive,” he added. “The construction loan could double with interest expenses.”

And he said, “If the government guarantees a portion of the debt, it creates another debt market. Not all subsidies are the same.”

Peace said that states need to find a way to reduce risk in order to build nuclear power plants. “If California wants nuclear power, it may be three to five years out for licensing.” There is an early site program with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but California would need to apply for it now.

For financing, Peace said, “The Department of Energy is more qualified than any financial institution to vet the project. But the biggest factor is the support at the state level. If California lifted the moratorium, somebody would just show up. If California enters the energy discussion at the federal level, the NEC and DOE would have people on a plane and here the next day.”

  1. Senate Energy, Utilities and Communication committee :
  2. 104 operational nuclear power plants:
  3. California Energy Commission:
  4. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory:

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