Ballot Prop Would Shut Down California's Nuclear Power Plants

The Diablo Canyon nuke could be shut down by a popular vote | Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr/Creative Commons License

An initiative cleared for signature-gathering last week would shutter California's two remaining nuclear power plants until the federal government has figured out where to put high-level nuclear waste. The "California Nuclear Initiative," given the thumbs-up February 6 by Secretary of State Debra Bowen, would keep the nuclear power plants at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon off-line until the California Energy Commission (CEC) determines that "federal government has approved technology for permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste." That condition is unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon.

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The San Onofre plant has been offline for a year after leaks were discovered in the steam generator tubes at the plant's Unit 3 in January 2012, a discovery that has been the subject of intense recent controversy. Operator Southern California Edison had taken Unit 2 offline for scheduled maintenance a few weeks before Unit 3's leaks were discovered.

In the year since, the lack of San Onofre's 2.2 gigawatts of generating capacity raised fears of rolling blackouts during peak summer months, a fear that turned out to be unjustified -- though a series of Flex Alert days were called just in case, during which Californians were urged to conserve energy. Diablo Canyon's twin reactors, which provide another 2.2 gigawatts of power to PG&E customers, would double the size of the hole San Onofre's closure has made in the grid. That fact led the Legislative Analyst's Office to forecast that if the initiative passes, it could mean "potentially major impacts on state and local finances in the near term in the form of decreased revenues and increased costs due to near-term disruptions in the state's electricity system and electricity price increases."

California Nuclear Initiative proponent Ben Davis, Jr., who is also the author of another measure that would effectively nationalize electrical utilities in California, isn't buying it. In an analysis of the rolling blackout predictions on his pro-initiative site, he points out that that state sailed through San Onofre's outage last summer:

last January [San Onofre] went down after a radiation leak and stayed down; and it is still down due to severe wear and defects in newly-replaced steam generators. And the state did take emergency actions just as we predicted. In steps coordinated through the Governor's office, the state's major energy agencies (the Public Utilities Commission, the Energy Commission, and the Independent System Operator (CAISO)) along with various state air and water quality Boards, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, all worked together to create a plan to avoid rolling blackouts in California, and their plan worked.

In the history of [San Onofre], both nuclear reactor units have never been closed at the same time. But now that they are both shutdown we have irrefutable proof that ameliorative actions can be taken to avoid rolling blackouts in the LA Basin, even through the hot summer months of peak energy use.

The implication being that a similar drop in generation in PG&E's more northern, somewhat more conservation friendly territory should be similarly easy to handle.

That may not even be an issue, as it looks like California is well on track to replacing at least one of the two nuke's capacity with distributed solar by Summer 2013, at least when it comes to meeting peak demand during hot afternoons. Shutting down two 2.2 gigawatt nukes for Summer 2013 may prove no harder than shutting down 1 was in 2012.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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