California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore is becoming one of my heroes. Last year he tried to get the California legislature to modify the language in their state law that has effectively banned new nuclear power plant construction since 1976. That effort died in committee before ever making it to the full legislature. Now he has announced plans to work through the ballot initiative process to ask the voters to change the law. Assemblyman DeVore has reached the same conclusion that I reached a long time ago.
If you want to have the power needed for economic growth, and if you are fundamentally concerned about making that power in as clean a manner as possible, then you CANNOT avoid using nuclear power. You might use other power generation methods in addition to splitting uranium atoms, but fission is the BEST method available in many important markets like electrical generation, large scale heat production and ship propulsion.
There is a July 11, 2007 Reuters wire service article titled California lawmaker seeks vote on nuclear power that provides some more details about Assemblyman DeVore’s efforts.
As an English major, not a lawyer, it seems to me that new nuclear power plants could be built in California without a change in law. The current law contains language that seems to have been carefully chosen in 1976 to put up a sneaky roadblock without causing too much opposition.
At the time of its passage and to this day, there has been a fairly strong base of support for nuclear power within the state. The state was an early leader in the field with construction projects started soon after the development of Shippingport. The Department of Water Resources put a lot of effort into working with Admiral Rickover’s Naval Reactors group (which was just coming off of its success with Shippingport) to design plants specifically for the purpose of pumping water. In a state where most of the people live in a natural desert, there is a huge infrastructure that moves water from the north to the south. Those reactors were never built, but periodically the DWR goes back to the legislature to try again to get permission – its power bills must be huge. (See, for example AB 719 Assembly Bill – Bill Analysis)
Utilities (both pubic and investor owned) built large facilities at San Onofre, Diablo Canyon (a project that had the specific support of the Sierra Club for a large portion of its early development), and Rancho Seco (which was shut down well at a time when there seemed to be a surplus of available power.) The state even passed a law in 1970 that
“declares the policy of the state to encourage use of nuclear energy, wherever feasible, recognizing that such use has the potential of providing direct economic benefit to the public, while helping to conserve limited fossil fuel resources and promoting clean air.”
(Chapter 1299, Statutes of 1970)
AB 719 Assembly Bill – Bill Analysis
However, sometime during 1976 – a year that should live in infamy for anyone who understands the advantages of fission over combustion – language was inserted into the law that states
2)Except for two existing facilities (Diablo Canyon and San Onofre), prohibits the siting of nuclear fission thermal power plants requiring the reprocessing of fuel rods unless the State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission (California Energy Commission or CEC) meets the following conditions:
a) That it makes an affirmative finding that the U.S.
Department of Energy has determined that adequate nuclear
waste disposal facilities exist in the country.
b) That those findings are provided to the Legislature.
AB 63 X2 Assembly BILL, 2nd Extraordinary Session (May 30, 2001)- Bill Analysis
I believe that I read a speech recently indicating that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers that there are adequate methods of safe disposal of used nuclear fuel – the dry casks that have been licensed will safely store the material for at least 100 years. Now if we can just ensure that the same kind of language is officially issued by the Department of Energy, the California Energy Commission can certify to the legislature that the conditions of the 1976 law are met.