Monday, December 3, 2007

Once Taboo, Nuclear Power Experiences Renaissance in California

The state's ambitious goals to combat climate change have some environmentalists turning to an outlawed former nemesis.

Monday, Dec. 3, 2007 With the state's attention focused on combating climate change, lawmakers and some environmentalists are increasingly willing to at least talk about building new nuclear energy plants -- a topic once considered taboo.

Three decades after being banned in California, nuclear power has a long way to go before it could play a role in the state's ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gases. Legislation passed last year, Assembly Bill 32, set a goal for California to cut greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020. An 80 percent cut is planned by 2050.

With those goals in mind, some say nuclear energy could be one tool to cut emissions. Nuclear plants produce electricity without emitting carbon dioxide.

"The global warming conversation -- and particularly AB32 -- has given us these concepts in California to start to consider," says state Sen. Christine Kehoe, who will hold an informational hearing about nuclear power Dec. 10. "We're not going to meet our greenhouse gas emissions goal unless we start taking some major steps to find cleaner ways to produce the tremendous amount of energy we need."

Kehoe, D-San Diego, says the reexamination of nuclear is at its earliest stages. But the fact that the discussion is happening at the behest of a lawmaker -- and a Democrat at that -- in a state with an outright ban on new nuclear plants highlights the technology's slowly reemerging popularity. Despite the stigma brought by Three Mile Island and the Chernobyl disaster, nuclear power is no longer so taboo.

Throughout the 1990s, the United States' nuclear power industry appeared to be dying. More plants closed than opened. Faced with a costly upgrade in 1992, one of the three reactors was decommissioned at San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station. Its two remaining reactors provide San Diego with 20 percent of its electricity.

Since Congress approved the 2005 Energy Policy Act, energy utilities across the country have rushed to file applications to build new nuclear plants, hoping to capitalize on federal subsidies and loan guarantees offered by the legislation. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission this year received its first permit application in 31 years.

Environmentalists and many Democrats have historically been staunch opponents of nuclear energy, citing its impacts on things such as water quality. Nuclear plants suck in hundreds of millions of gallons of water, killing marine life that gets pumped in. Concerns have also been raised about the threat of nuclear proliferation and security risks in a post-Sept. 11 age.

But choosing between climate change and nuclear power, some environmentalists are turning to nuclear as the lesser of two evils. Some have signaled a willingness to consider new nuclear plants as a way to supplant the country's dependence on coal, a dirty-burning fossil fuel that provides almost half of the country's electricity. Many still remain staunchly opposed to nuclear energy. While nuclear produces energy cleanly, its radioactive waste has long-term storage concerns, plants are expensive and can take decades to build.

Here is the full article.