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    John Seiler: Does nuclear power have a future in California?
    • July 10, 2023

    California’s ambitious goal for carbon neutrality by 2045, if it’s even close to achievable, would require a major rethink of nuclear power generation. Fortunately that seems to be happening, beginning with how to deal with nuclear waste.

    Teri Sforza recently reported in the Orange County Register how the Department of Energy is awarding $26 million to restart “an effort to enlist communities ready, willing and able to host the nation’s nuclear waste, at least temporarily,” including “3.6 million pounds of waste now encased in steel and concrete at San Onofre.”

    The plant closed in 2012 after technical problems.

    Dealing with the nuclear waste problem would make it easier to build new plants. But a roadblock is that Nevada ferociously has resisted developing the federal Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Project, which would centralize most waste 65 miles north of Clark County. Last year then-Gov. Steve Sisolak filed a legal motion to permanently end the project.

    But there’s a lot more. California currently does not classify nuclear or even hydro energy as “renewables.” In 2020, current Assembly Minority Leader James Gallagher, R-Chico, introduced Assembly Bill 1941 to include both in the California Renewables Portfolio Standard Program. It died in the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy.

    But doing some research for this article I noticed the following on the California Energy Commission’s webpage, for 2021 Total System Electric Generation, the latest year available: “California’s non-CO2 emitting electric generation categories (nuclear, large hydroelectric, and renewables) accounted for 49 percent of its in-state generation.” So the technicians who collect the data are thinking of nuclear and hydro (dams) as renewables.

    Next consider the 2020 national Democratic Party Platform, under which President Biden was elected. It urged: “Recognizing the urgent need to decarbonize the power sector, our technology-neutral approach is inclusive of all zero-carbon technologies, including hydroelectric power, geothermal, existing and advanced nuclear, and carbon capture and storage.”

    Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the head of the Squad of progressive Democrats and advocate of the Green New Deal, in February visited the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the site of the 2011 disaster. She noted Japan’s nuclear energy production then went from 40% to near zero. “The flipside to that is the major drop in nuclear energy production has been made up in increased use of coal and fossil fuels, whose carbon emissions accelerate climate change,” she said. While not an endorsement of nuclear, it’s a realization of the role it could play in decarbonization.

    Westinghouse’s new Vogtle plant in Georgia in March celebrated the criticality of its Unit 3 reactor, using a new design called AP1000, a Generation III+ reactor design “with fully passive safety systems, modular construction design” and the smallest footprint per megawatt on the market. That means if there’s a mishap, the reactors shut down automatically. Unit 4 is expected to go critical later this year.  These are the first new U.S. nuke plants in three decades. Unfortunately, the immense expense of at least $31 billion, $17 billion over cost, bankrupted Westinghouse in 2017.

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    “Part of the problem was regulatory, part of it was they didn’t have it fully designed,” Myron Ebell told me; he’s the director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He also discussed France, where 70% of electricity is derived from nuclear, the highest percentage in the world. He said they used a “cookie cutter” design to put up numerous similar plants across the country.

    Ebell said we’re still perhaps 30 years from Generation IV reactors, which would be even safer and more efficient. Bill Gates’ TerraPower and other investors are pushing the research.

    Returning to California, last September Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 846, which extended to 2029-30 the life of the two reactors at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant.

    In November, the Department of Energy granted $1.1 billion for the project. That will take Diablo well beyond any Newsom presidential bid, whether in 2028 or, should Biden’s health falter, even in 2024.

    As cynical as we can be about democracy, this is how it’s supposed to work, pushing solutions to real problems.

    Despite disasters at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, nuclear power is getting safer and will be a key part of our electrical future for many years to come.

    John Seiler is on the SCNG editorial board.

    ​ Orange County Register