BERKELEY — As concerns about greenhouse gases and global warming mount, nuclear energy is getting a second look in California, with supporters ranging from the governor to at least one environmental activist.
"I have changed my mind from being mildly anti-nuclear to mildly pro-nuclear because carbon dioxide is now the most dangerous pollution and it is endangering the natural environment," said Stewart Brand, who in 1968 created the Whole Earth Catalog, which covered subjects including alternative energy.
"Global warming is affecting the fisheries in northern California and creating drought to the south. Like a number of other environmentalists, I have had to change my tune," said Brand, who lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
Indeed, nuclear is an energy alternative that produces fewer greenhouse gases than coal, generates cheap round-the-clock electricity and creates roughly 1 million times the energy released by the burning of oil.
But it faces a number of obstacles. Even as government officials, utilities and universities search for new ways to generate electricity, nuclear energy is about as welcome in California as a former spouse at a wedding.
Utilities are prohibited from building new plants by law in California; Pacific Gas & Electric has no plans for new facilities; four of the state's six commercial plants have long since closed, and experts say it'll take some doing just to keep the two remaining reactors going.
Despite these obstacles, a small group of determined business representatives, passionate advocates and elected officials are fighting to launch a renaissance of nuclear energy in California — and recent comments by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggest that he's on board.
Love you, love you not
The state's relationship with nuclear energy resembles a once-blissful romance gone wrong. Initially, California was dazzled with the prospect of harnessing the atom to light homes and businesses.
The first civilian nuclear plant in the country came online in the small Southern California town of Santa Susana in 1957, a harbinger of the so-called Atomic Age.
That same year, the nearby city of Moorpark enjoyed a shining hour as the first U.S. city to be powered by nuclear energy, albeit briefly, in an event covered by national news media.
But the glow began to wear off as early as 1958. Ironically, it was not nuclear weapons, but power plants, that led to the birth of the anti-nuclear movement in California. A bitter battle began in Bodega Bay in 1958 opposing PG&E's attempt to build a plant there — a struggle that ended with the utility abandoning its plans in 1964.
Things really heated up in the mid-1960s and 1970s, with Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo helping to fuel the fire.
"It was rebuilt several times because of serious mistakes," said Roger Herried, a 28-year member of antinuke group Abalone Alliance, which led one of the largest anti-nuclear-power demonstrations in the U.S. at Diablo Canyon in 1981.
In 1976, the California legislature enacted a moratorium on new nuclear reactors until there is a place to put the waste. At the time, there wasn't any such place, and despite efforts by the Department of Energy to create one in Nevada, more than 30 years later there still is nowhere to store it. The result: a ban on new nuclear plants in California.
To all appearances, the marriage was over and the divorce was final.
A nuclear accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979 and the subsequent Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986 seemed to reinforce the decision.
But now, more than 30 years have passed, and attitudes are changing.
One of the most important indications of this shift is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's comments this month that nuclear power has "a great future" and that it is time to "relook at that issue again rather than just looking the other way and living in denial," made at the Wall Street Journal's ECO:nomics Conference in Santa Barbara.
Moreover, in a 2007 poll, while 54 percent of Californians opposed building more nuclear power plants, 37 percent favored the idea and 9 percent were undecided, according to the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California.
Another possible good sign: even antinuke activists seem to have little trouble accepting California's two remaining operating nuclear plants, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, which is midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. The two plants supply about 13 percent of California's electricity.
In worldwide terms, France gets a higher percentage of its energy from nuclear power than any other country, at 78 percent; Lithuania is second highest at 72 percent; and Slovakia comes in third, getting 57 percent of its energy from nuclear power, according to a 2006 study by the World Nuclear Association.
On the national front, currently the U.S. has more than 100 reactors generating 19 percent of the nation's electricity. Supporters of nuclear power include President Bush and the Republican presidential front-runners; the top Democratic contenders see it as worth consideration.
This fiscal year, more than $1 billion in federal research and development spending was devoted to nuclear power research. Though no new nuclear plants are yet under construction, three applications landed at the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission this year. Much of the action is happening in Southern states seeking relief from the cost and pollution of coal plants.
No welcome mat here
But that's not the case in California.
"We aren't even looking at the possibility of building any more nuclear power plants. We have no plans to do so," said Emily Christensen of PG&E.
PG&E may not be interested, but a group of Fresno businessmen has a different take.
"The people of Fresno pay PG&E 16 to 22 cents a kilowatt hour for energy. We can make it for two," said John Hutson, chief executive of Fresno Energy Group. The group's plan: To build a $4 billion, 1,600-megawatt nuclear energy plant in Fresno.
Hutson's group has signed a letter of intent with UniStar Nuclear Development LLC, a subsidiary of Baltimore's Constellation Energy, to design, build and operate a plant.
Fresno has about 500,000 residents, according to U.S. Census projections for 2007. Since one megawatt of energy can power some 750 California homes under normal conditions, the consortium would be able to sell its power to the city at cost and then make a profit selling to other cities or utilities, Hutson said.
"We can give them energy until the cows come home and we'll probably have 700 to 900 megawatts left," said Hutson, who got the idea after his appointment to the city's utilities commission by Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, who supports the proposed nuclear plant.
However, nuclear energy costs 8 to 11 cents a kilowatt hour according to a June 2007 study by the independent Colorado-based Keystone Center, which was performed by a diverse group including nuclear plant owners, environmentalists and consumer advocates.
Energy cost estimates and the way to calculate them vary widely, but in a different study, solar energy costs were roughly pegged at 20 cents a kilowatt hour (though this is anticipated to eventually drop to 10 or 15 cents), 8 to 10 cents a kilowatt hour for wind, and coal 7 cents a kilowatt hour, according to Arjun Makhijani, president of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a nuclear watchdog group founded in 1987.
The price of natural gas fluctuates between nine to 111/2f cents per kilowatt hour, according to industry sources. The cost of hydroelectric power varies depending on the age of the plant, with hydro from older plants costing just over 3 cents a kilowatt hour and hydro from newer plants costing as high as five cents.
"What kind of future will our children have if we don't stop this gluttonous cycle of global warming?" Hutson asked. "Nuclear can't do it alone. Wind can't do it alone. Solar can't do it alone." Hutson's group has raised $2 million so far and has obtained a site permit and property for the plant, he said.
According to Hutson, the plant could be a source of jobs and a force for social good in the area.
"I'm on the board of directors for (Fresno's) Marjaree Mason Center for Domestic Violence. Domestic violence went up 60 percent in our community over the last ten years," Hutson said. "We have the highest pockets of poverty in the nation. We have domestic violence because when men don't have jobs, they lose their self-worth and harm the people they love. We need to attract businesses and jobs.'"
Legislator plugs in
California Assemblymember Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, agrees. In April 2007, he introduced a bill, AB719, seeking to lift the ban on new nuclear plants in the legislature. His bill was shot down in committee - within five minutes, he ruefully recalls — but his efforts are continuing. The assemblyman seems to be on a genuine crusade: he frequently posts about nuclear energy on his blog, www.chuckdevore.com/blog/index/php.
DeVore introduced two more nuclear-related bills this year, AB1776 and AB2788. He said AB 1776 was written with the Fresno group in mind.
Speaking of the proposed plant, "You're probably looking at 1,000 jobs after the plant is built," DeVore said.
"He has just told you after spending $4 billion, you'll have 1,000 jobs?" responded Ralph Cavanagh, energy program co-director for environmental group National Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.
"A nuclear plant is not a job-intensive use of money. Most of your money is going to equipment and a small number of operators," Cavanagh said. "If you really want to create jobs, the best thing for Fresno would be to run a massive energy-efficiency campaign and cycle the dollars through Fresno's economy."
Brand and DeVore point out that while the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, nuclear power is generated constantly.
"Nuclear is not 24/7 either. It has a habit of going off all at once," replied Cavanagh, referring to a Florida blackout that stretched from Miami to Daytona Beach in February, the country's largest power outage since August 2003.
"It's true that you need a mix of resources, but you can back up sun and wind with geothermal, biomass and high-efficiency natural gas generation," Cavanagh said.
"Nuclear is too big, too expensive, too risky. I don't think any utility would order a nuclear plant today. I'm not anti-nuclear; we have nuclear plants, they're part of the fleet. But it is just too risky from a financial perspective," Cavanagh said.
Dollars and sense
A group of academics at a UC Berkeley energy symposium March 7 reinforced Cavanagh's assertion.
"The big issue is construction costs for new plants," said Per Peterson, a UC Berkeley nuclear energy professor and nuclear energy advocate.
"The probability you are going to make money without subsidies is zero," said Geoffrey Rothwell, a senior lecturer at Stanford University, referring to government subsidies offered for building nuclear power plants. "There is not going to be a renaissance (of nuclear power) before 2021, I can guarantee that."
DeVore isn't concerned with issues of cost. "Nuclear power plants do cost a lot of money up front, but you can recover that pretty quickly when you compare it with natural gas turbines," the assemblymember said.
Hutson isn't concerned either. He said if his group can get the state's moratorium on new plants lifted, they will be able to attract venture capitalists to fund the project.
In addition to high capital costs, uncertain construction timelines, regulatory issues and most of all, waste disposal are obstacles to new plants, said Susanne Garfield of the California Energy Commission.
"It can take 20 years or much more to construct a nuclear power plant," Garfield said. "The Wats Bar project in Tennessee began in the mid-1990s, took 23 years to complete and cost $6.9 billion.
Where's the Dumpster?
"The biggest issue is waste disposal. The law says we must find that a high-level waste disposal technology has been found and approved and we have not found that in our analysis. We found this in 1978 and again in 2005," Garfield said.
"The (California Energy Commission) asked me what I would do with the spent fuel. We have a railroad line to the Delta which we would use to ship our fuel to France for recycling just like the Japanese have done. France said they would recycle it for free," Hutson said.
Indeed, despite the obstacles, it's clear even to their opponents that DeVore and Hutson are hanging tough.
"We're assuming next February there will be another round of battles. They'll start trying again," said Herried of Abalone Alliance.
"The rest of the world is waking up to nuclear power and is building nuclear plants as fast as it can," said DeVore. "We want to get a modern nuclear plant built in California before it's too late. We're not giving up."
Janis Mara can be reached at (925) 952-2671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her Energy Blog at www.ibabuzz.com/energy.
n Site selected: 1966
n Facility approved: 1968
n Cost estimate of $350 million: 1968
n Construction begins: 1968
n Earthquake fault found two miles from plant: 1972
n Some 1,500 people protest facility onsite: August 7, 1977
n Some 20,000 people protest onsite: Sept. 10, 1981
n Mirror image reversal in blueprints found: 1981
n Construction begins to correct error: 1981
n Costs total $5.5 billion: 1985
n Unit One comes online: May 7, 1985
n Unit Two comes online: March 13, 1986
n License to operate Unit One expires: Sept. 22, 2021
n License to operate Unit Two expires: April 26, 2025
Sources: Pacific Gas & Electric Co.; California Energy Commission