The operators of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Station and the nuclear waste reservation at Hanford, Wash., could not be doing more if they actually wanted to promote a prospective ballot initiative aimed at keeping San Onofre offline and also shutting down Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon power plant.
Together, the two big generating stations produce about 16 percent of California’s electricity when they’re operating at full blast. And Hanford is the country’s largest and most contaminated nuclear site.
But San Onofre has been shuttered for about 15 months while its operator, the Southern California Edison Co., tries to replace steam generator tubes that degraded much more radically than expected and leaked small amounts of radioactive steam in January of last year.
Meanwhile, at Hanford, a radioactive tank leaked through much of February, causing Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to worry publicly about other tanks on the reservation beside the Columbia River.
Nothing could be better for the sponsors of the California Nuclear Power initiative that has been circulating since early February.
San Onofre, says Santa Cruz resident Ben Davis, the measure’s prime author, “has proved our biggest local asset as far as showing that nuclear energy is undesirable. It has helped to keep our drive alive.”
Davis’ proposal, aimed for the November 2014 general election ballot, would ban further electricity production at both San Onofre and Diablo Canyon, which features twin 1,100-megawatt reactors set along the coast in San Luis Obispo County.
Among other things, the initiative would demand a formal finding from the state Energy Commission that the federal government has approved technology for disposal of high-level nuclear waste “before further electricity production at these plants.”
No such technology exists, with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducting a decades-long search for secure waste disposal sites and some reactors — such as San Onofre and Diablo Canyon — storing waste on-site. For nuclear opponents, the Hanford leak demonstrates the unreliability of waste disposal and storage methods.
So far, the anti-nuclear initiative has little financing, causing Davis to suggest that at some point he may scrub the current petition campaign and re-submit a similar initiative to stretch out the July 8 deadline for gathering the 504,760 voter signatures needed to place this measure on the ballot.
Even if it gets to the ballot, there is no guarantee this measure will pass. A similar effort in 1975 lost by a large margin, even though it came less than two years after exposure of vast cost overruns at Diablo Canyon, caused in part by a “mirror image” problem. Some key reactor components were essentially installed backward, causing delays until 1985 for the first power from the plant.
Even though the 1975 proposition lost, state legislators the next year slapped a moratorium on new nuclear plants, one that still stands.
The current measure also faces some problems with the description the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst hung on it: “Potentially major impacts on state and local finances … in the form of decreased revenues and increased costs due to near-term disruptions in the state’s electricity system and electricity price increases.” No actual price tag was placed on this.
Negative as that description may be, it’s still better than what the analyst said about an abortive similar measure proposed two years ago. At that time, the analyst’s description promised immediate rolling blackouts with billions of dollars in economic consequences if the measure passed.
That was changed, though, after Davis and other backers cited a state Public Utilities Commission chart indicating California would have excess power until 2020, even without its two nuclear plants.
Things definitely worked out that way last summer as San Onofre was shut down through the summer, when power use is heaviest, and there were no brownouts.
Says the California Nuclear Initiative website: “The emergency actions taken by the state (during last year’s San Onofre shutdown) have led the California Independent System Operator to predict the state will enjoy a comfortable, blackout-free summer in 2013 (without San Onofre’s two units) and that the potential for blackouts will lessen in the future.”
Despite all this, passage of the anti-nuclear initiative would be far from certain even if it makes the ballot next year in this environmentally conscious state. As in 1975, the national nuclear industry would pour massive funds into a “no” campaign, using the legislative analyst’s pessimistic description to stir fears.
The central question in such a campaign would be one of fear, with trepidation about possible blackouts pitted against worries about a possible California version of Japan’s March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster and its ongoing consequences.
Elias is author of “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” available in an updated third edition. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org