LOS ANGELES — Nuclear energy has a daunting list of negatives – economics, fears about safety and waste disposal, and the potential to fuel the creation of nuclear weapons.
But California’s power crisis is prompting some to renew calls to expand the power source.
State Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, plans to introduce legislation in the next few weeks to move the state toward greater use of nuclear energy.
The measure would seek the reopening of the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, which shut down in 1989 a day after Sacramento-area voters passed a referendum calling for its closure.
“I’m told that with half a billion dollars and nine months we could refit the facility and generate 1,100 megawatts of power,” McClintock said.
“I don’t think the support exists at present, But once there has been public debate on the issue, I believe the support will exist.”
California’s two nuclear facilities – Diablo Canyon and San Onofre – are the state’s two biggest power sources, generating more than 4,000 megawatts between them.
State Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-San Fernando, said the energy crisis has thus far produced little talk in Sacramento of expanding nuclear energy. But the topic seems much less divisive, he said.
“The discussion is much more casual,” he said. “In the past, it would conjure up automatic controversy.”
Alarcon also sees a cautious optimism among nuclear power providers that the energy crisis could make it easier for them to operate.
Alarcon, however, believes options like solar energy and new natural gas plants are better ways to handle the state’s long-term needs.
Nuclear power provides roughly one-fifth of the nation’s electricity needs, but no nuclear plants have been approved in this country for 23 years. Meanwhile, a number of plants have closed.
That could hamper any effort to bring more plants on line.
“The politics could be insurmountable; it’s not clear,” said John P. Holdren, director of the Program on Science, Technology and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy’s School of Government. “There’s a group in the middle I think are revisiting their views.”
Holdren is scheduled to speak Friday in Irvine at a National Academy of Engineering symposium on the future of nuclear power.
He said nuclear energy should be re-examined as an alternative to fossil fuels, which provide about 75 percent of the world’s energy but contribute to global warming.
Holdren said he is “not an unabashed nuclear booster.”
He considers using more natural gas and developing renewable energy sources like wind as high priorities on the world’s energy to-do list.
“The question is will that be enough. We have to look at some of the more difficult” options, including nuclear energy, Holdren said.
“There is no silver bullet out there, and that is what people need to get through their heads.”
Dan Jacobson, legislative advocate for the California Public Interest Research Group, said embracing a rebirth of nuclear power “would take us from one crisis and put us in the next.”
Nuclear power has proven to be a needlessly expensive and dangerous energy source, especially in earthquake-prone California, he said. In a state with the potential to meet about half of its energy needs with renewable sources, the long-term need for nuclear power is nonexistent, he said.
Holdren said there are four primary obstacles to expanding nuclear power.
It’s more expensive than fossil fuels; safety must improve before a significant number of new plants can be built; long-term solutions for waste disposal are needed; and strategies to keep nuclear material from ending up in weapons must be developed.
“The authorities have endorsed so many missteps that they have little credibility,” Holdren said.
Peter Lyons, science adviser to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said a project in South Africa may be the prelude to greater use of nuclear power.
The 100-megawatt “pebble bed modular reactor system” is about one-tenth the size of a typical nuclear reactor and is designed to have zero chance of a meltdown, even if all coolant flow is lost.