All of the above vs. none of the above
In a letter published in the April 1 edition of the Index-Tribune ("Close California nuke reactors"), Craig Browne writes of his surprise that California has two nuclear reactors and suggests thoughtfully that they be closed due to the public risk associated with seismic damage. Actually, California is home to at least four active commercial nuclear reactors, two each in the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon power plants. Together the two plants provide 16.5 percent of California's electricity, virtually carbon-free, an important consideration since California is the second highest carbon polluting state in the union. Since approximately 40 percent of California's carbon footprint comes from the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, Mr. Browne's suggestion would likely propel California to first place in the carbon pollution sweepstakes if the lost electrical capacity were replaced with a fossil fuel equivalent.
Mr. Browne has legitimate concerns regarding the safety of nuclear power generation, as do we all. I only suggest that he consider the following: 48 U.S. coal miners died in 2010; eight residents of San Bruno died in the 2010 gas pipeline explosion, and 35 homes were leveled; 11 operators aboard Deepwater Horizon died in 2010, and 206 million gallons of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Apart from Chernobyl, no nuclear workers or members of the public have ever died as a result of exposure to radiation due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident. That is, until March 2011 in Japan.
The 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Sendai is already prompting critical review of the criteria used in nuclear plant design. But rather than knee-jerk suggestions to close nuclear plants in California, I would ask Mr. Browne to instead thoughtfully consider the following: What is your vision of California in the 21st century in terms of industry, agriculture, resource management, public safety, and overall quality of life? If you believe your vision can be achieved with 16.5 percent less power in California, and if you are willing to scale back your energy footprint, which includes turning off every sixth street light and consuming 16.5 percent less water since it takes electricity to transport water, then write a letter.
I would suggest instead a drive to have state government challenge the over-fed U.C. Board of Regents to marshal the engineering schools at the six largest U.C. campuses to design a top-down California energy strategy for the 21st century, based on all technologies and generation modalities, that (1) maximizes public safety, (2) minimizes California's carbon pollution, (3) delivers electric power at the absolute lowest carbon-weighted cost per KW-hour, and (4) can be implemented within 10 years. This "all of the above" approach could position California as a world leader in clean energy and home to the agriculture, business, and technology innovation interests needed to revive and drive a dynamic state economy.
I fear instead that California will continue down the path of "none of the above", which brings me to the NIMBY's (not in my backyard). The next nuclear power source to come online in the U.S. is the Watts Bar facility in Tennessee. Construction started in 1973 and the plant is tentatively scheduled for commissioning sometime in 2012, maybe.
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Richard Powers lives in Sonoma and is director of engineering for an international medical device manufacturer.