The nuclear power business is resurgent, re-energized by billions in Congressional subsidies and its reincarnation as a relatively greenhouse-gas free source of electricity. But the industry can pretty much write off global warming-fighting California – the world’s eighth largest economy – as a market, according to a new state government report assessing nuclear power’s prospects in the Golden State. Three existing nuclear plants provide 15 percent of California’s electricity, but in 1976 the state banned the construction of new nuclear power stations until the California Energy Commission determines technology exists for the permanent disposal or reprocessing of radioactive waste. "Commercial nuclear power is riding a wave of renewed interest and support," notes the 302-page report from the California Energy Commission. But the authors conclude the lack of a permanent radioactive waste disposal site – such at the long-delayed facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada – will continue to doom industry’s prospects in California. "In light of Californiaís moratorium on nuclear power development, until progress is made in disposing of or reprocessing spent fuel, the Energy Commission could not provide land use permits or certification for such a power plant at this time," according to the report. "It is unlikely that the Energy Commission will be able to provide land use permits or certification for a new nuclear power plant in California in the near future." The report also predicts that utilities that operate or own the state’s existing nuclear plants – PG&E (PCG), San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) and Southern California Edison (EIX) – will not attempt to license new power stations in the next two years.
Beyond the hurdle posed by the California moratorium, the report casts doubt on just how clean and green the nuclear option would be. "Nuclear power generation poses direct environmental risks, including aquatic impacts from once-through cooling; risk of groundwater contamination with tritium; radiation hazards associated with disposal of radioactive waste; and risks of radioactive releases triggered by earthquakes, tsunamis, accidents, or sabotage," the report says. "Additional environmental impacts are associated with the full nuclear lifecycle, which starts with uranium mining and extends through reactor construction and operation to spent fuel storage/disposal or reprocessing and finally, decommissioning."
The California Energy Commission report also finds the jury is still out on how effective a nuclear strategy would be in countering global warming, noting that the capital-intensive industry could drain investment from much cheaper and greener renewable energy technologies. Still, the report’s authors did not rule out a return of nukes to California. "Ultimately, this debate over whether nuclear power should be part of a greenhouse gas reduction strategy is constrained by our limited knowledge of what other resources will be available," they state. "Consequently, the best path right now may to pursue all options and defer decisions until more is known."