If there is a silver lining in the energy crisis it is that
most Californians - and, indeed, most Americans - have
reawakened to a simple but inescapable truth: that if we want
clean, cheap, abundant and reliable electricity, we must make a
significant commitment to nuclear power.
California has only two nuclear facilities left from the era
when our state was committed to a prosperous future. Yet just
those two facilities today supply more than 18 percent of
California's electricity, at the price of 3-cents per
kilowatt-hour. At that price, an average home's electricity bill
would come to $18 per month.
Every year, those two plants prevent the release of 181,000
tons of sulfur dioxide and 7.7 million metric tons of carbon
particulates that would otherwise have been produced if the same
power had been generated by conventional power plants. All told,
this nation's existing nuclear plants have prevented the
equivalent air pollution of half of the nation's cars and light
As the energy crisis has focused public attention on the
issue, a remarkable transformation is taking place. Earlier this
year, the Los Angeles Times Poll found that 2/3 of Californians
were not only opposed, but strongly opposed, to nuclear power.
Last month's Field Poll found that a clear majority now favors
An important issue in this debate is over nuclear waste. The
amount of waste produced by nuclear power plants is a fraction
of other types of electricity generation. And 95 percent of
spent fuel can be reused, turning this fraction into an even
smaller fraction. But there is no denying that what remains is
radioactive and requires proper disposal.
Under California law, nuclear plant construction cannot even
be considered until a national repository for nuclear waste is
approved. Meanwhile, the state's nuclear plants have been
storing their waste in temporary containers on site since 1969.
And that brings us to a desolate and remote location in the
middle of the Nevada desert called "Yucca Mountain."
For many years, Yucca Mountain has been recognized as the
ideal site for a national waste repository. It is the most
stable geological site on the continent, a solid rock formation
where over 100 underground nuclear tests have been conducted.
Ironically, the surrounding rock gives off greater background
radiation than would the repository itself.
As former Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recently
pointed out, Yucca Mountain makes sense both environmentally and
geologically. The site has been analyzed for more than 20 years,
at the cost of $7 billion dollars, making it the most
extensively environmentally evaluated project in history. The
remaining objections to it are now strictly political.
California ratepayers have already forked over $800 million
in surcharges on their electricity bills to pay for the
repository, which the federal government had promised to open in
1998. Three years later, the site is still not approved, stalled
by the political opposition of the Luddite anti-nuclear lobby
and Nevada's NIMBYs.
Meanwhile, every major power plant now under consideration in
California is to be powered by natural gas, a shortsighted
policy assuring that Californians will be held hostage to the
high costs of pollution and the ruinous volatility of natural
gas prices for decades to come.
California's legislature had the opportunity to adopt a
resolution supporting the Yucca Mountain facility recently, but
rejected it on nearly a straight party-line vote.
They did so knowing full well that the alternative to Yucca
Mountain is to stall California's ability to deliver clean,
cheap and abundant electricity indefinitely and to continue to
maintain more than 30 years of nuclear waste in temporary
storage in California. Shockingly, this is the option preferred
by California's leftist legislature.
Of course, California's legislature is a lagging indicator of
public sentiment. It's a good bet the public prefers the 3-cent
power and clean air that nuclear energy promises rather than the
crushing debt, high electricity bills, rolling blackouts and
continued air pollution that California's current energy policy
And if the clear will of the electorate doesn't change the
legislature's mind, perhaps the electorate will want to change
Senator Tom McClintock represents the 19th
Senate District in the California Legislature. His website
address is www.sen.ca.gov/mcclintock.
by David McCullough
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