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Nuclear Power and Politics

Updated on April 15, 2012

Nuclear Energy Misunderstood

Do you think the uncertainty surrounding energy and overregulation contributes to the current economic slump? 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. In 2010, California’s two nuclear plants provided 14 percent of the state’s power. The 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. 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. As if California weren’t far enough behind in the energy curve, a small group of activists have been busily working to put an immediate stop to nuclear plants in California, until waste handling conditions are met. Their efforts take the form of the “The Nuclear Waste Act of 2012” initiative planned for the November 6, 2012 ballot. An impartial analysis by California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) staff found that the measure is likely to result in increased costs in the billions of dollars annually. The magnitude of costs depends on the frequency and duration of rolling blackouts. There would also be major potential costs to compensate utilities for losses due to nuclear plant closures. It’s a good thing for Californians that the proponents of the anti-nuclear energy measure are likely to fail in their attempt to gather the more than 500,000 signatures required to qualify it for the ballot. We shall see as the deadline for submitting signatures is April 16, and other deadlines for signature reviews occur over the next several months. Unfortunately, even if the ballot measure fails, we can expect to see the issue coming to life again for a variety of reasons. First, there is a determined group who will not be satisfied until nuclear power meets their standard of safety. Secondly, it seems to me that the anti-nuclear crowd is sustained by reporters who frequently fail to present a consistently balanced picture of the issues at stake. It seems there is no way to make up for the shortfall in energy from shutting down nuclear power plants. The design of our power grid is based on the availability of power from nuclear plants. How can we get this message across to a sufficient number of people to stop them from signing endless petitions against nuclear power? Instead of shutting down nuclear power, we should be supporting laws to enable installation of the latest advanced technology. How can we get our politicians to take advantage of high technology to improve our position in nuclear power generation? California law makers have put the nuclear industry in a box by prohibiting new plants (Generation III+ Westinghouse plants, for example) until the waste disposal issue is resolved. While this may seem reasonable on its face, Nevada doesn’t want our nuclear waste and no other state that I know wants California’s nuclear waste, so most of it must remain stored near the plants. Aside from nuclear, California’s electricity supplies come from coal (7.7%), natural gas (41.9%), hydropower (12.5 %) and other sources including renewables such as solar (.3 %) and wind (4.7 %) among others. Coal fired plants in California are a thing of the past, coming mostly from plants outside the state. Natural gas is an attractive alternative but siting of gas fired plants remains a lengthy and costly process.

If you are interested in further details on the mix of energy in California see For details on SONGS go to For a thorough review of latest developments in the nuclear industry see


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