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Nuclear power gets a second look

Photo by Mike McGillTalk about bad timing. On Feb. 3, with embattled Southern California Edison (SCE) struggling to convince California's voters that the company knows what it's doing, a fire broke out at the firm's San Onofre nuclear power plant.

The accident took place inside a reactor that had just been turned on after a month of maintenance downtime. Though no radiation was released, the fire highlighted for some the dangers of nuclear power.

But SCE officials insist that nuclear power is not only safe but also ready for a renaissance—especially given California's power crisis.

"Looking forward, I think there will be a new generation of nuclear power plants," predicted Ray Golden, a spokesperson for SCE's nuclear power plant near San Clemente, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

Golden isn't alone. Across the country, nuclear power is getting a second look, thanks in large part to California's jacked-up energy market. Nuclear-energy proponents are lobbying lawmakers around the nation to reconsider new plants, and George W. Bush appointed several nuclear-industry officials to his energy transition team.

SCE officials and other nuclear power proponents say their product deserves a second chance because it has proved safe, efficient and cost-effective. Just one of SONGS' reactors is capable of producing the equivalent of SCE's entire inventory of 30 to 40 hydroelectric power plants. Unlike coal-burning plants, nuclear reactors produce virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. And from the perspective of SCE officials, it's hard to conceive of a more cost-effective power plant than SONGS: every penny of the facility's $4.3 billion construction cost has been paid for by the public, thanks to a unique deal with the California Public Utilities Commission.

But such arguments ignore nuclear energy's well-known dark side—and belie the industry's own claims just a few years ago.

"These same utilities said that nuclear power was so cost-ineffective that they should be compensated billions of dollars for what they called the 'stranded costs' of building those plants," said Dan Hirsch, executive director of LA's Committee to Bridge the Gap. "They conceded that nuclear power was uneconomic and they had made a huge mistake. They knew that in a free marketplace, the reactors could not compete, so they demanded that the public bail them out."

And the public did, as part of the landmark 1996 deregulation bill that created the current power crisis.

Critics point out that in the long run, it's impossible to say how much nuclear power costs because no nuke plant has ever been completely "decommissioned" —shorthand for the expensive, years-long process of dismantling and disposing of every part of a radioactive reactor.

SCE has already started decommissioning San Onofre's Unit 1 reactor, a job Golden says won't be finished until 2007. That process involves classifying each part of the huge reactor by radiation exposure. The concrete vessels that house the reactors—the immense, breast-like domes visible from the San Diego Freeway—must also be broken into pieces in preparation for removal, while the plant's irradiated fuel rods must be placed in protective concrete barrels and buried.

The cost of burying the radioactive waste is still undetermined. SCE plans to operate SONGS' two remaining reactors until 2022, by which time the company hopes to have found a remote location for its radioactive waste. Specifications for such a dump are exacting: the waste must remain intact and underground for the next 10,000 to 20,000 years—about how long it took Homo sapiens to go from living in caves to landing on the moon.

SCE is still having trouble finding a cemetery it can trust for what looks like, well, forever. The company planned to dump SONGS waste in an underground bunker near Yucca Mountain, Nevada. But concerns about the area's active seismology stalled that plan.

For the moment, SCE has found a dump much closer to home. Last November, the company announced it will begin burying the radioactive waste from the disabled Unit 1 reactor onsite at San Onofre—a scary thought for the plant's neighbors. Whether the radioactive material will stay there forever or be moved somewhere else—at a much greater expense—is an open question.

"Every energy technology has its environmental impact," Golden admits. "The nuclear industry has always demonstrated its willingness to plan for and deal with its environmental impact. We are taking responsibility for our product. . . . I think nuclear [power] should be given a fair shake, and it could be—if we could just get over this phobia about radiation."

But Bridge the Gap's Hirsch said no one would even contemplate building nuclear in a free market. "Anybody who suggests otherwise is smoking something," he said. "Maybe that's what caused the fire at San Onofre."

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