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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.

“Nukes were originally developed to make weapons,” says Bill Powers, a local engineer. “They developed a peaceful purpose for it. But it’s got that shadow to it.”

California is one of eight states with an outright ban on new nuclear construction. The ban is designed to stay in place until the federal government opens a repository capable of storing radioactive nuclear waste in perpetuity. The facility would safeguard the used fuel rods that power nuclear plants.

The federal government’s plan for long-term nuclear storage, tucking it away deep within Yucca Mountain in Nevada, has moved in fits and starts since first being studied in 1978.

New nuclear plants would not help fight climate change in the short-term. If California’s ban were overturned today, a new plant wouldn’t provide energy until 2015 at the earliest, allowing time for permitting and construction. The last nuclear plant to come online in the United States, a Tennessee plant that opened in 1996, took 24 years to be built after receiving its permits.

With such ambitious statewide goals for greenhouse gas reductions, some say nuclear should at least be considered in California.

“Going to 1990 (emission) levels by 2020 is going to be extraordinarily difficult,” says Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at University of San Diego. “If we get there, it’s going to require significant changes in everything we do.”

Nuclear should be evaluated, Anders says, “but it should be like any other option — judged on its merits. You should at least consider it, with the caveat that there’s financial issues, construction timeline issues and waste issues.”

California’s discussion about nuclear has been sparked in part by Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, who has proposed repealing the statewide ban. Earlier this year, DeVore introduced legislation to expand the San Onofre plant to power seawater desalination efforts at the same site in northern San Diego County. Building a desalination plant and a dedicated nuclear reactor at San Onofre could provide two-thirds of the county’s drinking water, DeVore says. The bill went nowhere, but DeVore’s efforts have brought attention to nuclear power.

DeVore has seen little support for his nuclear proposals. He says he will continue advocating for nuclear — alone, if need be — with the hope of even slightly accelerating the day when the ban is overturned.

“California will eventually have to come around, if we’re serious about these global warming goals and serious about getting rid of coal,” DeVore says. “The only way you can make a big dent in the problem is if you increase the use of nuclear power and dramatically increase electric vehicles powered by that power.”

Nuclear is not the only tool available to fight climate change, though. Princeton professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala have outlined 15 equal options to stabilize global carbon emissions by 2054. All are based on existing technologies. Among them: Eliminating all tropical deforestation, increasing cars’ fuel economy from 30 to 60 miles per gallon, and doubling the capacity of nuclear power plants worldwide. Seven options would need to be chosen, the professors say, meaning that nuclear expansion would not be a requisite.

California has cheaper options available, says Ralph Cavanagh, energy program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. He points to a need to expand investments in energy efficiency, a strategy that would reduce electricity demand by replacing inefficient appliances or distributing compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Nuclear power has been on the table for almost 30 years, Cavanagh says. “But no one’s been interested in picking it.”

Pointing to plant construction costs that can range as high as $6 billion, Cavanagh says nuclear energy is too expensive to be revived. It has succeeded in places like France and China, he says, because their governments have heavily invested in it.

“Nuclear, it’s not an ideological decision. It’s a financial one,” Cavanagh says. “It will be made by the nation’s utilities. It comes down to a hard-headed financial choice by old-fashioned entities like San Diego Gas & Electric.”

Sempra Energy, SDG&E’s parent company, has debated whether to continue investing in the San Onofre nuclear plant, CEO Donald Felsinger said in an interview earlier this year. The investment made sense, he said, because of issues such as global warming. But Sempra is unlikely to develop a new nuclear plant, Felsinger said, citing the expense of doing so.

San Diego currently receives 20 percent of its energy from the San Onofre plant, which is jointly owned by SDG&E, Southern California Edison and the city of Riverside.

“Done properly,” Felsinger said, “nuclear energy is a good outcome for the U.S. But it’s a long path to go on.”

Kehoe’s hearing will be held Dec. 10 in CalTrans offices at 4050 Taylor St. in San Diego.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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