Nukes May Look Greener Amid Hazy Power Options

Mark A.R. Kleiman knew he was challenging liberal orthodoxy last week when he posted an item on his weblog headlined “Bring back the nukes!”

The UCLA professor of public policy, an avowed liberal, braced himself for an onslaught of e-mail from a readership sure to be outraged at his call for an end to the nation’s “anti-nuclear superstition.” But the wave never broke.

“I’ve gotten a little critical mail and no hysterical mail,” he told me the other day, still sounding slightly dazed. “I’m a little surprised at the support I got and the opposition I didn’t get. I think it’s the case that you can now restart the conversation.”


Talking about nuclear energy as “green” power -- especially in comparison with coal-fueled generation -- is still a step that liberals take cautiously, especially with the Bush administration promoting a nuclear resurgence. Any Democratic politician going near the subject should probably keep a lead suit handy.

“Would I advise the [John F.] Kerry campaign to say something about it?” Kleiman says. “Probably not. But if I were advising President Kerry, that might be different.”

Nuclear energy, of course, has been a pariah in this country for roughly three decades. This stems partially from how it was originally oversold as safe, clean and “too cheap to meter.” Instead, we got multibillion-dollar cost overruns, horrifying price projections for safely disposing of radioactive waste and Three Mile Island.

All in all, nukes seemed to be a terrible bet in comparison with fossil-fueled power plants, which at least spewed pollutants that people could actually see and didn’t carry the potential for blowing up or melting down. Concerns about the diversion of fissionable material from nuclear plants to weapons programs didn’t help. The political obstacles to licensing plants turned off the financial community. Even now, most serious studies of the world’s energy future start by dismissing nuclear energy out of hand, then move on to the (scanty) alternatives.

California’s experience with nuclear power may not be uniquely discouraging, but it’s hardly bright. The state launched the country’s first civilian nuclear plant at Santa Susana in 1957. Its proud distinction as a pioneer lasted until the plant suffered a partial meltdown in 1959. (It was later dismantled.)

PG&E; Corp.'s Humboldt Bay Nuclear Plant operated from 1963 until 1976, when it was closed upon the discovery nearby of an offshore earthquake fault. Another plant outside Sacramento was closed in 1989 by public referendum. The state’s two currently operating plants -- San Onofre, jointly owned by Edison International and Sempra Energy’s San Diego Gas & Electric, and PG&E;'s Diablo Canyon -- were plagued by big cost overruns and poor design.

Thanks to this record, along with the state’s geography -- seismic and political -- California is today a nuclear also-ran. Less than 15% of in-state power generation comes from nukes, well below the nationwide average of 20%. (The percentage will fall further if two unfinished gas-fired plants in San Diego County come on line.) California isn’t likely to make it onto any short list of sites for a next-generation nuclear power station.

But now that the drawbacks of fossil-fueled power plants are getting their own public reckoning, perhaps that should change, particularly in a state so sensitive to hydrocarbon pollution. Dwindling oil reserves, record natural gas prices, 9/11, the Iraq war and global warming all contribute to the recognition that generating electricity from coal, gas and oil has its own steep social and economic costs.

No one suggests ignoring the potential of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. But they’re not panaceas: They require vast amounts of real estate, are unsuited to many geographical regions and can’t provide reliable 24-hour base-load generation. It’s doubtful that they can serve the growth in electricity demand bound to emerge over the next few decades, much less replace the capacity of mothballed gas and coal plants.

In that light, nuclear energy may start to look, if not like a generating method of choice, at least no worse than fossil-fuel alternatives. It’s worth noting that America’s hostility to nuclear power isn’t shared globally.

Finland, which takes the reduction of greenhouse gases very seriously, this year broke ground for what will be the largest nuclear station ever built. In France, which relies on state-owned nuclear plants for 80% of its electricity, the government has endorsed construction of a new generation of such facilities.

Meanwhile, a consortium of 10 U.S. utilities and industry suppliers has asked for government funding to promote the construction of a plant based on the European design. The group hopes to receive approval by 2010 from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which hasn’t licensed a new nuke since the 1970s.

Consortium executives know it won’t be easy to convince people that their new technology is cleaner and more cost-effective than the old. “I’m not naive enough to think the public might ever embrace nuclear,” says Marilyn Kray, a utility executive who is the consortium president.

She’s probably right about that. Even those favorably disposed to nuclear power can’t overlook the industry’s dismal long-term operating record, littered as it is with safety problems and utility bankruptcies. Says Kleiman, wryly, “I predict the U.S. power industry will manage to blow this opportunity, no matter how good it is.”


Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at