Duck and cover

The nuclear power industry is coming back – even in California. And it's more frightening than it was the first time around.

By Matthew Hirsch

Our children will enjoy in their homes electric power too cheap to meter.

Lewis Strauss, Atomic Energy Commission chair, September 1954

LAST MONTH IN Sacramento, on one of those sweltering summer days when politicians sweat giant armpit stains in their shirts and still don't loosen their neckties, the California Energy Commission was talking nuclear power.

In a marathon hearing the commissioners peppered a clutch of nuclear experts with a wide range of questions. They asked about spent nuclear fuel, which has been accumulating for 20 years on the California coast and will most likely stay there for decades to come. They asked about the threats of terrorism and natural disasters at California's commercial nuclear power plants on the central coast and in San Diego County.

And they asked about next-generation nuclear technology – in other words, new plants.

That's right: There is a serious discussion going on at high levels of state government about the prospect that nuclear power – that dinosaur of a dangerous technology – might actually be making a comeback.

And it's more than just talk. The Bush administration's 2005 energy bill includes funding for a $1 billion project to promote new nuclear power plants. This initiative, known as NP (for "nuclear power") 2010, aims to have at least one new plant up and running by the end of the decade.

Rebecca Smith-Kevern, a Department of Energy (DOE) associate director who's working on NP 2010, told the commissioners that the nation needs to build some 39 new plants in the next 25 years to keep nuclear power at 20 percent of America's electricity, the level it is today.

"We are very hopeful that there is going to be an order for a new plant very soon," she said.

Californians haven't worried about new nukes for a generation. That's because a 1976 state law effectively banned new nuclear power plant construction until the federal government figures out a way to permanently dispose of the radioactive waste.

But there's a catch: Nothing in the law says existing nuclear plants can't renew their licenses for another 20 years. And already Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which operates the Diablo Canyon plant, is taking the preliminary steps to relicense the plant, which is supposed to shut down forever beginning in 2021. There's plenty of precedent: 32 of the nation's 109 nuclear plants have recently won license extensions.

Letting a decrepit, gamma ray-riddled nuclear plant keep humming well beyond its intended life span is a scary thought – even scarier than the prospect of allowing a new one.

State Assembly member Sam Blakeslee, who represents San Luis Obispo and serves on the Utilities and Commerce Committee, put it simply. This, he told the Bay Guardian, "will possibly be one of the most significant and risky infrastructure decisions we make in our lifetime."

Atoms for Peace

California gets 13 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Some of it is piped in from a power plant in Arizona. The rest is brewed in-state, at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego County and at Diablo Canyon.

You can easily view San Onofre while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, about five miles south of San Clemente. But since 9/11 you're not allowed within sight of Diablo Canyon, which is nestled in the coastal hills facing the ocean. The best you can do now is visit the PG&E Information Center, tucked just off the freeway as you're heading west toward Avila Beach, where power plant employees report to work.

The information center, a diminutive structure that's dwarfed by rows of empty parking spots out front, feels about as inviting as a public health clinic. Assorted stacks of brochures line the wall to the left, some labeled "Radiation" and "Emergency Information for San Luis Obispo Residents and Visitors." Others invite you to tour the central coast wineries and hike the Pecho Coast Trail.

For those who've come to learn about the power plant, there's a modest two-room exhibit scattered with fun facts about how a nuclear reactor works. Set off behind the reception desk, there's a children's room stocked with nuclear-themed picture books and a few hand-held appliances like the frisker, which is used for detecting radiation.

PG&E staffers use these devices to demonstrate radiation safety – to show, for example, that background radiation exists naturally all around and that you can block out higher-level radiation with a thick slab of lead. Boy Scouts come to the center to absorb this sort of data and earn an atomic energy merit badge.

The images displayed at the information center are carefully selected to downplay the dangers of nuclear power. Instead of dwelling on what could cause a meltdown, they steer the mind toward a pristine vision of the future, one that's safe and prosperous and fueled by nuclear technology.

This was the utopian vision inspired by the '50s-era Atoms for Peace program, this country's attempt to refashion into a humanitarian device the nuclear war machine that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But the prospect of safe, clean, and cheap energy never quite came to pass. A 1957 fire at the Windscale plutonium production reactor in England sprinkled radioactive iodine across Great Britain and northern Europe. A 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania came close to causing a meltdown that would have rendered a huge area of the state uninhabitable – and seven years later, that exact scenario came to pass at the Soviet Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

Listening to the new discussion of nuclear power, it's as if this history never happened.

The costs of nuclear energy soared too: By the time Diablo Canyon started generating power, it had cost PG&E's ratepayers some $5.5 billion – more than 10 times the original projected cost.

Meanwhile, the environmental impact continues to haunt the industry. Diablo Canyon sucks 2.5 billion gallons of ocean water through its maw every day (the equivalent of six Olympic swimming pools every minute). Big piles of deadly waste still sit on the site; the stuff will be radioactive for thousands of years, and there's no place to put it.

Vision 2010

Before the California Energy Commission got to talking last month about the state's own power plants and its nuclear future, the commission asked its experts for the inside scoop on Yucca Mountain. That's the southern Nevada spot where the feds want to bury 70,000 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste.

The Yucca Mountain project has crucial implications for nuclear power in California. Until that site opens and begins receiving spent nuclear fuel, most of the operating and decommissioned power plants nationwide (including the four spread out across California) will continue to function as mini nuclear waste repositories.

What's more, Yucca Mountain stands as the main obstacle to nuclear development in California. Unless the legislature overturns the 1976 nuclear safety laws, no plants will be built in the state until a federal waste depository is up and running.

Through our monthly utility bills, Californians have already chipped in more than $1 billion for the national nuclear dump. But it's looking more and more like it won't be located at Yucca Mountain.

The facility definitely won't open on schedule: The DOE had said it would begin receiving waste seven years ago. The agency now says 2012 – maybe. Some Energy Commission experts say dream on.

Bill Loux, head of nuclear projects for the state of Nevada said, "We believe the Yucca Mountain project is in an advanced state of disintegration, and it has a number of obstacles to overcome before it can actually go forward, some of which we believe are completely unresolvable for the most part."

But that hasn't stopped the nuclear industry and its allies from moving forward.

Smith-Kevern, the DOE staffer, says the government is bullish on nuclear plants. NP 2010, the administration's plan, will "explore sites for new nuclear power plants and demonstrate key untested regulatory processes, specifically the early site permit process, which is aimed at identifying and resolving site safety issues, environmental issues, and emergency issues," she testified at the hearing.

The billion-dollar initiative, funded half by the federal government and half by industry, has already identified sites for development in Virginia and Alabama, and a third either in Maryland or upstate New York.

"In the United States it would be necessary to build approximately 39 new nuclear power plants over the next 25 years," Smith-Kevern told the Energy Commission. "This would be just to maintain the current fraction of 20 percent that nuclear power is generating of our overall electricity-generation capacity."

The federal energy bill Bush signed Aug. 8 ought to help the industry along with this. The legislation, called "a miserable failure" by the consumer group Public Citizen, extends one type of production tax credit to nuclear power that has traditionally been reserved for renewables. It also covers up to 80 percent of the cost of a nuclear reactor if a utility defaults on a loan, which is intended to lower interest rates as an incentive for Wall Street to invest in nuclear power.

It also reauthorizes the Price-Anderson Act, an insurance scheme that limits the liability of nuclear plant owners. When the Price-Anderson Act first became law, in 1957, the risk of a nuclear accident was too high for any insurance company so the feds agreed to have taxpayers assume the risk instead. Over time that has created a disincentive for utilities to invest in their own equipment.

On Sept. 1 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it would reorganize its staff to prepare for an upsurge in nuclear reactor license applications. The NRC also said it's beefing up recruiting in an effort to hire 350 new employees who will see to it that these new reactors get the attention they deserve.

Nuclear relapse

Although some might find the nature of the discussions alarming, Rochelle Becker is glad that people are talking about nuclear power again. A longtime leader of San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, and more recently the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, Becker is trying to use this opportunity to finally close California's last two operating nuclear power plants.

San Onofre and Diablo Canyon both have more than 15 years left on their original 40-year licenses. But each plant faces major equipment upgrades in the next few years – and both are free to file for a license extension well before the original expires.

PG&E hasn't formally asked for an extension yet – but the process is under way. It has also commissioned a feasibility study to look at extending Diablo Canyon's life span. The company has joined a nationwide group of six nuclear plant operators that together notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of their intent to pursue license renewal, and executives are talking about the next steps.

"We're trying to look around the curve and plan for the future, and I think that's the responsible thing to do," Jeff Lewis, news manager for the Diablo Canyon plant, told us. "It's prudent to make sure you have a base-load supply of energy that provides 20 percent of the energy that we use."

Becker hopes the antinuclear movement, which may be invigorated by all this new talk, can organize to stop that – before something disastrous happens.

"Earthquakes and terrorists don't give you 13 hours' notice," Becker told us, referring to the amount of time the Waterford nuclear plant, near New Orleans, had to shut down before Hurricane Katrina hit.

It's weird to place San Luis Obispo in the same thought as New Orleans and New York. There's ample parking in the heart of this city of about 50,000, not that you need a car if you don't mind riding the bike lanes. Residents here certainly don't seem preoccupied with thoughts of death and destruction.

The city is closer politically to San Diego than to San Francisco, yet in the run-up to the Iraq war it consistently turned out more protesters than larger cities to the south. Perhaps that's part of the activist residue left over from the early '80s, when San Luis Obispo became a focal point for the antinuclear movement.

Diablo Canyon in the 1980s was a national buzzword, a political symbol of how reckless and irresponsible the nuclear industry and its regulators could be. After all, the site for the plant was right on the Hosgri fault.

Sandra Silver, an early leader of Mothers for Peace, told us that a lot of early opponents believed the government would never allow a nuke on an earthquake fault. "[PG&E] became the butt of jokes," Silver said. "People would say, 'If you want to know where there's an earthquake fault, have PG&E construct a nuclear power plant.' "

But the giant utility used its considerable political clout to overcome that obstacle, and in 1985 the company got the green light to fire up the reactors. Silver and her husband put their house on the market and moved upwind to Santa Cruz. For those who stayed behind, the only way to close the nuclear plant was to challenge PG&E in front of state and federal regulators and, as a last resort, in the courts.

So that's what Becker and her group have done, boning up on the esoteric rules governing nuclear power plants along the way.

The state, Becker says, has only three areas of jurisdiction over nuclear plants: reliability, economic risk, and cost. Everything else is controlled by the NRC.

That means if the state government wants to have any say on the decision to give Diablo Canyon and San Onofre 20-year license extensions, legislators have to move quickly. "Once [the utilities] file, the state has no jurisdiction," she said.

But it looks like the government is in no rush to get involved.

"Right now it's not clear what the state's role in that consideration would be," state energy commissioner John Geesman told us.

When asked if California should allow license extensions for Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in spite of the state's moratorium on nuclear power plant construction, Geesman said it's the NRC's decision to make. But he agreed the state legislature should give it some attention too.

Assemblymember Blakeslee, who holds a PhD in geophysics, said he's disinclined to let the NRC make the decision itself: "I've seen how our understanding of seismic vulnerability has evolved over time, and I've seen how the NRC has been slow to appreciate that evolution."

To Becker and the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, the fight against Diablo Canyon isn't just about San Luis Obispo. It's about common sense. If the state won't let anyone build a new plant until the waste issue is resolved, why is it OK to let an existing plant keep running longer – and keep generating waste?

"It's just logical to say you don't get to relicense the plants either," Becker said.

Meanwhile, Becker said her group's opposition to Diablo Canyon is not just about getting some radioactive junk out of the neighbors' collective backyard. She told the Energy Commission that, until there's somewhere safe to send the waste and until there's a transportation plan for nuclear matter that's proven safe, the group wants it to stay put in San Luis Obispo.

"Who do I not like enough to send this waste to?" she asked. "Whose children are not as special as our children?"

E-mail Matthew Hirsch at matthew@sfbg.com.