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 trucks.
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 it.
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 has delivered.
And if the clear will of the electorate doesn't change the legislature's mind, perhaps the electorate will want to change the legislature.
Senator Tom McClintock represents the 19th Senate District in the California Legislature. His website address is www.sen.ca.gov/mcclintock.
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