The lights will stay on

Nuclear power is making a comeback, and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop it

illustration by don button

Last week, with great fanfare, most of the major players behind the campaign to close the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant 20 years ago gathered at the Capitol to give themselves and the voters of Sacramento a well-earned pat on the back. Indeed, as was expressed many times, Sacramento remains the only city in the world where the people have voted to permanently shut down an operating nuclear reactor.

Of course, we’re also the only city in the world that has elected Robbie Waters to the city council three times running. Which is to say, we don’t always get the results we want from elections. Nevertheless, thanks to SMUD’s woefully inept management of Rancho Seco, shuttering the plant 20 years ago was arguably the best choice.

However, that was then and this is now. If the plant was still running today, I’d wager that nobody in their right mind would even consider closing it down, for one simple reason. We need the electricity to keep the grid hot, and in order to do that, you’ve got to meet the demand.

When I say “grid,” I’m referring to the Western Interconnection, a vast, sprawling system of power plants, transmission lines, substations and transformers that 24-seven delivers electricity to homes, businesses and industries in 11 western states, including California. If we can’t keep up with growing electrical demand, the grid could shut down, and then civilization as we know it ceases to exist.

According to the California Energy Commission’s latest forecast, peak demand will increase an average of 1.4 percent annually between now and 2018. That’s a total increase of 14 percent over 10 years, and it will take 8,900 megawatts of electricity to meet that demand.

To put that 8,900 MW in perspective, consider this: It would take 18 500 MW natural-gas power plants of the type SMUD brought online in 2006 to offset the loss of Rancho Seco. You can make the same amount of juice with just four-and-a-half 2,000 MW nuke plants.

Nevertheless, compared to nukes, people love natural gas, even though it’s a far more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In fact, we depend on natural gas to generate 45 percent of the state’s electricity. More than half of SMUD’s power mix, 59 percent, is generated with natural gas.

Trouble is, the North American domestic supply of natural gas has peaked, which means the only way we’ll be able to get enough in the future is to import it. The only way to import it is to liquefy it, load it onto special ships and deliver it to enormous liquefied natural-gas terminals that every once in a while have a tendency to violently explode.

You can ask the voters of Vallejo, who recently turned back an effort to site an LNG terminal there, how much they like that idea.

How about that 3.5 MW solar array Aerojet is going to build on its site in Folsom? It will be one of the largest industrial solar installations in the world, containing 18,000 solar panels covering 20 acres. To meet the state’s electrical demand by 2018, we’d have to construct an astounding 2,543 solar arrays of the same size, covering 50,860 acres, or 78 square miles. Where the hell are you gonna put all those mirrors?

Before you say “out in the desert,” consider the brouhaha that’s flared up between north state residents and the Transmission Agency of Northern California over a proposed 500-kilowatt transmission line running 600 miles from Redding to the San Joaquin Valley. Such transmission lines are essential for the switch to alternative-energy sources, since projects frequently must be sited in remote areas. Everybody says they want green energy, but every single transmission project is fought tooth and nail by the local NIMBYs.

What’s that leave, clean coal? We’re going to meet our future energy and environmental needs with an oxymoron?

Perhaps in California, but not the rest of country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently reviewing 18 applications for new nuke plants, from Texas to Virginia to New York. There will be protests, but there’s no other good choice.

Correction. There is one good choice. California continues to lead the nation in energy efficiency per capita. Since the energy crisis in the 1970s, the state has focused heavily on conservation. However, energy use per capita has remained stable for the past 15 years, suggesting that further savings will be hard-fought.

That brings us to the state’s burgeoning population, which the increase in electrical demand closely parallels. You want the lights to come on in the future? Stop having sex and making babies.

What’s that? Nuclear power doesn’t sound like a bad idea after all?