Guest Juice: Law, Water & Quakes

By Published On: April 11, 2008

By Peter V. Allen and Richard M. Shapiro Editor’s Note: This week, two guest editorials examine problems of siting new nuclear power plants in California With the recent increase in concern about global warming and energy security, supporters of nuclear power are arguing that it is now time to restart the construction of nuclear power plants in the U.S. The national debate around nuclear power has focused on cost, safety, and waste disposal issues. California adds constraints on siting. These constraints, along with California’s significant renewable energy resources, combine to make renewable generation a better choice in California. Even beyond California’s legal prohibition on new nuclear power plants, other factors, including the politics and economics of water, and the prevalence and location of earthquake faults, render nuclear power a far less attractive option in California than in other parts of the U.S. In California it is more practical to get additional electricity from new renewable plants, not new nuclear plants. The Law California’s moratorium on new nuclear power plants can only be lifted when there is a demonstrated method for the “permanent and terminal disposition” of high-level nuclear waste. (Public Resources Code section 25524.2.) Since under the law the state will not even consider granting permits for the construction of new nuclear plants until there is a permanent waste storage solution, there is little incentive for anyone to put much money or energy into developing a new nuclear project in California. With the uncertain future of the proposed national dump at Yucca Mountain, and the repeated failure of attempts to repeal the moratorium (see story on page 6), the legal climate for building a new nuclear plant in California is decidedly chilly. Water and Earthquakes Nuclear plants need tremendous amounts of water for cooling. Given the time needed to recover the plants’ high capital cost, the sources of water need to be reliable for quite a while. If there is a commodity in California that is scarcer and more politically fraught than electricity, it is water. California rivers are increasingly impractical and unavailable for nuclear power. In addition to environmental pressure to restore salmon runs and preserve rivers in their wild state, there is continued demand for fresh water from agriculture, industry, and residential development. In the southern U.S., recent droughts have resulted in nuclear reactors being shut down due to low water levels and high water temperatures in rivers and lakes. The bulk of California’s rivers are fed by Sierra snowmelt, which means that drought and global warming (combined with the other demands for water), tend to make river water an unreliable long-term source. The Pacific Ocean provides the water for California’s two operating nuclear power plants, Diablo Canyon (on the Central Coast) and San Onofre (between Los Angeles and San Diego), and there is certainly plenty of it. One problem in siting new nuclear plants on the coast becomes apparent upon looking at seismic hazard maps–the coastal region of California is also largely an area of significant seismic risk. Thus, siting a nuclear plant in California presents a dilemma–if you site it where there is plenty of water-you are increasing your earthquake risk. The backers of the one nuclear plant that has been proposed for California are planning to site it in Fresno, an area with little seismic risk, and propose to use municipal waste water for cooling. This is a fairly elegant solution to this particular dilemma, but given the increasing pressure on California’s water supplies, it is not clear how long such water will continue to be considered otherwise unusable “trash” water. Better Alternatives Compared to many other states, California is rich in potential for development of renewable generation. Wind in the Tehachapis, geothermal in the Imperial Valley, solar in the Mojave, tidal and wave power along the coast–all of these are relatively untapped resources. The California Independent System Operator currently has interconnection requests for over 42,000 MW of renewable energy (albeit not all of it viable). Context is everything. In the southern U.S., a region with few earthquakes, plenty of water, lots of coal plants and fewer renewable resources, a carbon-constrained future starts making nuclear plants look fairly attractive, especially when compared with a coal plant. But in California, we have better choices. Nuclear power plants are simply not the best option for California. And besides, it is the law. –Allen and Shapiro are attorneys with Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner. Sidebar: Hybrid Electricity Market California’s “hybrid” electricity market, with electric generation being provided by both utilities and independent power producers, raises the question of who would build a new nuclear plant. At first glance, the large investor-owned utilities would appear the most likely to build a nuclear plant. They can get rate recovery of costs, they don’t have to find a buyer for the energy, and they also currently own and operate successful nuclear plants. Nevertheless, California’s investor-owned utilities appear unlikely to seek to build new nuclear power plants. — Allen and Shapiro

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