California should revive nuclear energy option

Christine Todd Whitman
The Sacramento Bee
August 3, 2009

Given the fiscal challenges facing California, there will be great temptation to put on hold any major new projects. It’s important to remember, however, that postponing spending commitments doesn’t mean they disappear; rather, costs rise even higher later while the needs remain.

As they re-examine options, this is an opportune time for California’s legislators to address a continuing problem for the growing state and take a longer view of the state’s energy policies. With the added financial imperative of making the most cost-efficient investment in California’s energy infrastructure, perhaps it is time to rethink the state’s position on new nuclear power plants.

By 2030, America is going to need 20 percent more electricity. This requires that we invest in new electricity generating capacity to keep pace as a burgeoning population demands new schools, roads and health care facilities. Our energy challenge is compounded by our need to produce electricity in cleaner and more sustainable ways. California’s adoption of rigorous goals for renewable energy generation shows that it takes this responsibility seriously.

But California legislators need to listen to their constituents when it comes to one promising solution: emissions-free nuclear energy. For the first time in more than 30 years, a majority of California’s registered voters approve of building new reactors in the state, according to a Field Poll conducted last year.

That majority knows that no other large-scale base electricity source is doing as much to rid our atmosphere of harmful pollutants. Nuclear power accounts for nearly 75 percent of the clean energy produced in the United States.
Because they produce no greenhouse gases, America’s 104 nuclear reactors helped avoid the emission of almost 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year. You would have to remove 99 percent of all passenger cars from our roads and highways to achieve the same result.

The majority of Californians also understand that while construction of new reactors is costly, the economic benefits are long-lived.

Nuclear power easily beats fossil fuels in price on an ongoing operating basis, which is the best way to measure whether energy investments are worth it. In 2007, U.S. utilities spent an average of only 1.76 cents to produce each kilowatt-hour from nuclear energy. By comparison, it cost 6.78 cents for each kilowatt-hour from natural gas and 10.26 cents for petroleum. It is clear that nuclear is the most cost-competitive base load power source, and the financial advantage will only increase if federal constraints on greenhouse gases are imposed, as Obama’s administration has committed to do. And because nuclear plants refuel every 18 to 24 months, they help guard consumers against rate shocks triggered by gyrating natural gas and oil prices.

In this way, building a nuclear plant involves the same sort of calculation that goes into buying an energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulb — it costs more at the counter, but it more than pays for itself over the life of the bulb.
Communities where reactors are built realize a more immediate boost. Each new reactor requires as many as 2,400 workers in peak construction periods, according to the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which I chair with Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. This would be welcome news to the skilled tradesmen who have been made idle by California’s decision to halt public works projects.

Once operable, 400 to 700 full-time positions would need to be filled. These jobs pay substantially more than average salaries in areas where plants are located, and they cannot be sent offshore. All told, each nuclear plant generates an estimated $430 million in a year in total output for the local community.

With that combination of economic growth and environmental responsibility, it’s no wonder a majority of Californians support lifting the ban on new nuclear plants. It’s an opportune time for California’s elected leaders to heed the call and take steps now to head off potential energy and environment headaches down the road.
Problems ignored never go away. They just come back bigger and costlier.