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California's nuclear genie in regulatory box

Updated on April 16, 2012

It is obvious that wrongheaded laws and overregulation constrain California’s economy, and hinder carbon reduction efforts. The California energy Commission cites a long history of state laws and regulations designed to force industry to use more “renewable energy.” This clean source of energy is only a small element of the energy mix; and no matter how many regulations, laws and gubernatorial proclamations are made, renewables will be a relatively small part of the picture. In 2010, about 12 percent of all electricity came from renewable resources. These are defined as wind, solar (less than 1 percent), geothermal, biomass and small hydroelectric facilities. Another 10.8 percent came from “large hydroelectric facilities.”

Fossil fuel driven energy is by far and away the largest portion of California’s power mix with about 42 percent coming from natural gas and coal accounting for close to 8 percent. Most of the coal power comes from out of state due to strict environmental regulations that preclude development of plants in California. A little more than one half of California’s natural gas supply is produced in the state; the rest is bought from outside California. Currently, prices are low, but the market price for natural gas has always been volatile and therefore difficult to forecast. Also, it takes years to obtain the permits and construct new plants anywhere in California.

Nuclear power which accounts for almost 14 percent of California’s power mix, and 16 percent of all power produced in the state stands alone as an especially promising source of electrical energy. It is not classified as a renewable source of energy, and it is a much cleaner source of energy than any of the fossil fuel based sources - including natural gas.

In an April 2010 report, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) declares, “To achieve energy security and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction objectives, the United States must develop and deploy clean, affordable, domestic energy sources as quickly as possible.” Over the last 35 years, DOE has expended over $127 billion in energy-related research and development (R&D). Nuclear energy has received 36.9 percent of the funding. In the last 10 years, the share has dropped to 25.9 percent, averaging a little over $1 billion annually. Today, the key areas of research include cost, safety improvements, integrated and permanent solution to high level nuclear waste management and national security issues related to international expansion of nuclear technology and nuclear weapons proliferation.

The Obama Administration is committed to development of nuclear energy as well as further research on other energy sources including renewables, energy efficiency, fossil and electric energy sources. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu expresses the Administration’s position as one that recognizes the importance of nuclear energy and continued R & D. On the other hand, it seems that a long line of California law makers and the current governor have no such commitment to nuclear energy.

The United States is the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, but until 2012, no new plants had been licensed since the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979. Cost and other factors combined to stop construction of nuclear power plants in the U.S. The United States government and industry leaders have invested substantial amounts in research and development to get the country back on the track of leadership in nuclear power. Last February, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a license to build and operate two advanced generation nuclear plants. The units, adding to the nation’s stock of 104 nuclear reactors, will be Westinghouse Advanced Passive 1000 (AP 1000) reactors. Several other new reactors are scheduled to come on line by 2020. California lags. The state’s two nuclear plants account for the 14 percent of the state’s power from nuclear energy. Diablo Canyon plant on California’s Central Coast generates 2.16 megawatts. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) near San Clemente can generate 2.2 megawatts of power. Combined, the two plants provide enough electricity to meet the needs of nearly 2.4 million homes. These plants have been updated and improved over the years. They operate safely and efficiently as required; but they do not represent the most recent design available. Utilities cannot build next generation plants in California at this time, even if they wanted to do so. Due to concerns about the safety of nuclear waste from the plants, current state law prohibits the development of new nuclear plants until the industry finds a way to reprocess spent fuel rods, and there is an acceptable place for permanent disposal of high level waste. These restrictions have effectively prevented installation of the latest generation of smaller, more efficient and arguably safer, third generation nuclear plants in California.

Energy developers face conflicting laws and regulations

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