Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007 | If new nuclear power plants play any role in helping California address global climate change, it won’t happen any time soon.

At a state Senate hearing Monday, a disparate group of speakers agreed on just that point: Nuclear energy has a long way to go before it helps California reduce its statewide carbon footprint.

The hearing had few surprises. An industry group touted results of its own polling showing overwhelming support for new nuclear plants. An opposition group warned that a grapefruit-sized ball of plutonium would be powerful enough to level San Diego.

In between the poles, the most telling insight into the status of nuclear power in California rests in the simple fact that the hearing took place at all. The Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications hadn’t scheduled a hearing on nuclear power in at least 20 years, said state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, the committee’s chairwoman.

So the five-hour hearing’s most noteworthy accomplishment may have simply been its symbolism. After two decades of silence in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident and Chernobyl disaster, politicians can say the word “nuclear” again.

While Kehoe wanted to gather information about nuclear power, she said afterward that the industry still faces serious questions. The state’s 1976 ban on building new nuclear power plants should not be repealed “at this point,” she said. “It’s way too early.”

Elsewhere across the country, utilities are turning to nuclear power for the first time in decades, hoping to capitalize on federal subsidies and loan guarantees Congress offered in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission this year received its first permit application in 31 years.

Nuclear power has begun to emerge as a potential tool in the fight against global climate change. While refining uranium releases carbon dioxide, the actual production of nuclear energy is carbon-free. Choosing between a warmer world and more nuclear power plants, some environmentalists have signaled a willingness to consider nuclear.

But in California, no new nuclear plants can be built until the federal government opens a repository capable of storing radioactive nuclear waste in perpetuity — or until the legislation outlining that requirement is repealed. And federal plans to open a repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain have moved haltingly since first being considered in 1978.

That ban is clearly keeping California utilities from joining the application frenzy that has occurred elsewhere. Dick Rosenblum, chief nuclear officer at Southern California Edison, owner of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, testified that his company would “certainly proceed” to build a new nuclear plant if the state’s regulatory and political environment supported it.

Although the state aims to cut greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020, Californians should not expect new sources of nuclear energy to contribute, said James Boyd, vice chairman of the California Energy Commission.

“Nuclear power is not on the menu,” Boyd testified. Nuclear power may be important in the state’s long-term future, Boyd said, but targeting gains from energy efficiency — compact fluorescent light bulbs, more efficient appliances — would be easier in the near-term.

Boyd highlighted the many hurdles that the nuclear industry faces. Building a new plant can cost between $4 billion and $6 billion, he said, and constructing plants has historically taken much longer than anticipated.

Even without the ban, turning to nuclear to reduce carbon emissions would be a major task. Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, said the state would need to build four or five nuclear plants to achieve a 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions — solely from the electricity sector. The state currently has two nuclear plants operating: San Onofre and Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo.

Other economic issues linger. Jim Harding, an energy consultant and former Seattle City Light official, warned that the threat of monopolies hovers over the nuclear supply chain. Only one steel forge in the world creates the large parts needed in nuclear plants, he said.

“You’ve got a serious risk of monopoly pricing all along the way,” Harding said.

While nuclear may not be an option to help reach the state’s 2020 goals, deeper cuts are planned beyond that. California aims to eliminate 80 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at University of San Diego, said after the meeting that nuclear power may receive more attention as the state looks at those later targets.

“2020 is not a magic number,” Anders said. “If you look beyond that, questions come up about how you get there.”

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