The nuclear option


That’s the best word to describe the 10 minutes I spent touring the Humboldt Bay nuclear power plant back in 1998. PG&E shut the facility in 1976 after a graduate student at Humboldt State University discovered an earthquake fault perilously close to its perch on the edge of the bay.

More than eight years later, I still remember how the 55-degree air felt against my flesh inside the dimly lit sarcophagus that day. I remember the chill I felt on learning that it’d taken two decades to cool to that temperature from the 100-degree temperatures that existed inside the facility just two years after its shutdown.

I still haven’t forgotten how I stood without protective gear less than a dozen feet from the pool where spent nuclear fuel had remained suspended for 22 years and walked beneath the reactor core—something that even then gave the plant’s operator pause: “I never thought I’d see it.”

It still spooks me.

Fear of nuclear power is deeply entrenched in California’s history. Anti-nuclear protests kept plants from being built at Bodega Bay and Malibu in the 1960s, and that activism set the parameters for the national debate long before the near disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979. California led the nation again 30 years ago—the same year PG&E closed its Humboldt Bay plant—with its moratorium on new-plant construction until a solution to the nuclear-waste problem is found. And in 1989, Sacramento voters closed Rancho Seco.

Today, only two nuclear power plants operate in California: Diablo Canyon and San Onofre. They, together with small contributions from the Palo Verde plant in Arizona, supply 13 percent of California’s electricity. Though the state’s ban means new plants are not proposed, opposition to nuclear energy may be waning.

A March 2006 report prepared for the California Energy Commission discussed nuclear power—which produces no greenhouse gases—as a partial solution to global warming. And as R.V. Scheide reports in “The new nukes”, even some prominent environmentalists are jumping on the nuclear bandwagon for that same reason.

Don’t miss Scheide’s provocative analysis.