I, for one, would like my lights to turn on when I flip the light switch. I remember the failed legislation in California over 10 years ago which promised plentiful generation along with lower electric rates, but instead led to gaming of the system by big operators like Enron that made millions while consumers had to suffer rolling blackouts.
Now we are faced with another debate about the kind of generation that we Californians will rely upon in the future. The recent earthquake in Japan has potentially altered the terms of that debate because several reactors at a Japanese nuclear power plant have been severely challenged by the tsunami and, to a lesser extent, the earthquake that spawned it.
The legislature has decided that we need to generate one third of our electricity from renewable energy sources such as geo-thermal, solar and wind yet solar and wind do not generate electricity unless the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. We therefore need some base load generation which hydro, natural gas fired, and nuclear power plants can provide.
The Tribune, along with many others, has argued that the current relicensing effort for the Diablo Canyon Power Plant should be suspended while PG&E conducts additional studies on the ability of the plant to withstand the largest potential earthquakes and tsunamis.
However, their argument somehow ties the safe operation of the plant with the relicensing effort. While it sounds fine in concept, I believe it is better to separate the two. If the plant is not safe, it should be shut down immediately, and I am confident the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would issue that order upon such a finding.
The relicensing effort is really part of a long-term planning effort to make sure we have the long-term base load generation to keep our lights on. If not nuclear, we need to build several natural gas-fired plants to make up the difference. There is a long lead time for construction of any new electric generation facility in California largely due to its extensive permitting processes. If we need new generation, we need to start planning it right now.
As for those Japanese nuclear power plants, the headlines have overstated the problems. While the accident has posed significant challenges to the plant’s operators, the public and the government, they are not as severe as portrayed.
I have been following the accident at the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria (www.iaea.org). The IAEA is an independent United Nations agency charged with disseminating information about large-scale nuclear accidents.
I worked at the IAEA during 2005 in emergency preparedness. I helped with training and planning along with designing a new emergency operations center. The IAEA has been staffed around the clock in that center since the accident began and the information they provide has been reviewed by experts before it is released.
The latest information from the IAEA suggests that the reactor pressure vessels appear to be intact which, if true, would lessen the chance of any further degradation of the situation. Radiation levels appear to be decreasing. The IAEA terms the situation as “very serious,” but it is apparently getting more stable. The IAEA is also leading an international effort to assist the Japanese.
There may well be lessons for U.S. nuclear power plants from the Japanese experience, and the NRC has already indicated it will conduct the necessary investigations. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (which regulates nuclear power) can also learn from our own NRC, which has evolved over time into a very effective regulatory organization.
In the meantime, let’s continue the Diablo Canyon relicensing process so we can prudently plan for the future and make sure our lights turn on.
Ed Waage is a Pismo Beach City Council member who worked in nuclear power plant emergency preparedness for the state of Illinois, PG&E and the IAEA.