China Syndrome or Chinatown?

Conflict and Contradiction for Fresno’s Nuclear Ambitions

Fresnans looking for some cozy holiday movie watching might consider curling up with two classic California films from the 1970s—The China Syndrome and Chinatown. Both are stunningly relevant now that Fresno Nuclear Energy’s plans for bringing atomic power to the San Joaquin Valley have taken an unexpected turn.

At the outset, the proposed nuclear project was going to generate electric power to help reduce greenhouse gases and meet growing electric demand. To some in the community, this immediately brought to mind the inherent safety dangers of nuclear power, which first garnered national attention after the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. That national drama unfolded (coincidentally) within weeks of the release of The China Syndrome, a fictional film depicting a similar event in California.

In December 2010, four years after announcing the project, Fresno Nuclear Energy has turned 180 degrees. According to CEO John Hutson, the reactors will not use nuclear power to create electricity but rather to desalinate water for agricultural interests in the Central Valley.

According to the Fresno Bee of December 12, 2010, “Most of Fresno Nuclear’s board members ‘are not as interested in electricity as we are water, farming and food,’ Hutson added. ‘When we start up, if the opportunity comes along to sell electricity later, that’s fine and dandy.’”

That brings to mind the film Chinatown, in which a complex plot of murder and intrigue hinges around a fictionalized version of the life of utility pioneer William Mulholland and the battles to bring water to a growing and thirsty Los Angeles.

In the four years since he announced this project, Hutson’s motives have ricocheted like a pinball. Throughout, he has been big on pronouncements but short on specifics.

In December 2006 Hutson told the press, “The plan is to build a $4 billion, 1,600-megawatt nuclear reactor that would be cooled with water from the city’s waste-water treatment plant west of downtown.” This was a novel concept because one of the first concerns of operating a nuclear power plant is keeping them cool, in order to avoid the “China syndrome,” an overheating of the reactor that leads to a nuclear core meltdown. Recycling wastewater has only been tried at one working reactor in the United States, in Palo Verde, Arizona, a facility with a troubled history that has consistently ranked low in efficiency and operation.

It was not until a year later that issues began to emerge that raised some eyebrows as to the possible true intent of the company. In September 2007, the Bee reported:

“Tuesday night, the Fresno City Council passed a request from a group of Fresno businessmen to study whether a new nuclear plant could be cooled with wastewater from the city’s treatment plant. The decision gives Fresno Nuclear Energy Group LLC access to the plant to conduct the tests which are expected to take four years and cost as much as $4 million in private funds to complete.”

With exclusive rights to study the use of the city’s wastewater, were it not found to be suitable for nuclear cooling, might it have other commercial and agricultural applications? Why were four years of testing necessary? And why were “exclusive” rights needed to do so? While this was the subject of speculation, it provided a first glimpse into the politics of water and nuclear power.

Nevertheless, Hutson soon developed another reason for building a nuclear plant in Fresno. At a state hearing on the future of nuclear power in December 2007, he said, “I have two words about why we want to build a nuclear power plant in Fresno:

Domestic violence.” He went on to say that “in Fresno County domestic violence has gone up by 60 percent. And when you ask the Center for Domestic Violence why that is, it’s because of lack of job opportunities in Fresno.” Thus, he reasoned, the new jobs created by the nuclear plant would help reduce domestic violence.

Although domestic violence is a serious and troubling issue, Hutson was unclear as to whether those who had been involved in

domestic violence would in fact be the beneficiaries of employment at the new reactor or whether any studies could link employment at a nuclear reactor to reducing domestic violence.

As he searches for a reason to build a nuclear power plant in Fresno, Hutson and his colleagues face one major hurdle: California’s moratorium on nuclear power plants, which goes back to the 1970s. The language is clear that, with the exception of the existing reactors (San Onofre and Diablo Canyon), “no nuclear fission thermal powerplant…shall be [a] permitted land use in the state” unless the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has approved “a demonstrated technology or means for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste.”

Since then, reprocessing has been abandoned (with its own federal moratorium) and after 30 years of trying to site and build a high-level dump, the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada has been de-funded. At one point, Hutson suggested the waste would be shipped to France, but sadly for him a federal law prohibits that as well.

Overturning the moratorium is Hutson’s biggest legal challenge. For several years, he had an alliance with Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R–Irvine). DeVore tried several times to introduce legislation to overturn the moratorium, all of which never left committee. Then they floated the idea of a voter initiative, but unfavorable polling led them to withdraw it. After his unsuccessful bid to defeat Barbara Boxer for the U.S. Senate, DeVore is out of the game.

Perhaps desperate with no results to show for four years of investment, Fresno Nuclear pulls this new rabbit out of the hat: The reactors are to desalinate water. Thus, they are not subject to the moratorium because they will not be used to create electric power.

In a recent Bee article, Hutson claims he is “not looking for a loophole or trying to get around anything,” and he may very well not be able to get around the moratorium. In the same article, he asserts that either heat from the reactors or electric power will run the desalination plants. Either choice qualifies as requiring a “nuclear fission thermal powerplant” to boil, distill or power pumps to force water through reverse osmosis. Fresno Nuclear was not specific about the actual desalination technique to be used. And there remains no solution for the waste.

The sloppy parsing of semantics will not pass muster, though Hutson and his colleagues vow to take the issue to the Supreme Court if they need to. Of course, the issue has already been to the Supreme Court, back in 1983, when it ruled in the case of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission that the moratorium was valid because 1) states and not the NRC have jurisdiction over the economics and reliability of their power supplies, and 2) the uncertainties associated with waste and handling costs were a valid economic concern to state regulators.

Ultimately, economics will be the undoing of this project, as it has been for many of the nuclear proposals that have surfaced throughout the United States during the recent and seemingly stillborn nuclear “renaissance.” Cost overruns have forced the cancellation of projects in Texas, Florida, Louisiana and an AREVA (Hutson’s French partner) project in Maryland. In 2006, Hutson presented a budget of $4 billion; he is currently using $5.5 billion. The abandoned projects all saw costs for similar reactors escalate to $12 billion–$18 billion before the plugs were pulled.

Of 26 new nuclear reactor license applications submitted to the NRC since 2007, nine have been canceled or suspended indefinitely in the last 10 months. Ten more have been delayed by one to five years. The Tennessee Valley Authority has canceled plans to revive a partially built unit.

The proposed federal loan guarantee program has been on life support, and even the recent amount of $18.5 billion, to be shared by the four projects that are the most advanced in the process, has not encouraged private investors to emerge. Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s are still giving nuclear investments low ratings.

AREVA, the French nuclear conglomerate with which Fresno Nuclear has signed a memorandum of agreement, is having its own troubles. Its new flagship reactor in Finland is nearly three years behind schedule and the budget has doubled. AREVA is also involved in lawsuits with the Finnish utility, and its “EPR” design reactor slated for the United States has yet to be approved by the NRC.

Whether generating electricity or desalinating water, former NRC commissioner and public utilities director Peter Bradford writes of the economic folly of nuclear energy: “The urgency of world hunger doesn’t compel us to fight it with caviar, no matter how nourishing fish eggs might be. Spending large sums on elegant solutions (especially those with side effects) that provide little relief will diminish what we can spend on more promising approaches.”

Beyond revocation of the moratorium, Fresno Nuclear’s water desalination program raises many unanswered questions:

• How much “contaminated” groundwater is available to pull from the aquifers beneath the San Joaquin Valley? What would be the impact of subsidence and other environmental consequences?

• What price would have to be established per acre-foot for water created using nuclear power?

• Where would the salt and other impurities—including toxics like selenium—be disposed of after removal during the desalination process?

Four years into the saga of Fresno Nuclear, the plot has taken as many twists as the mystery Chinatown. Water or power, which is it?

Fresno Nuclear’s Web site, which had not been updated since 2008, disappeared after the Bee article in December. Fresno Nuclear’s Board of Directors was drawn heavily from the large agricultural producers in the Central Valley. Was it water they were after all along? Or cheap electricity? And where are the results from their study of the wastewater treatment facility in Fresno? We may never know.

Maybe it is best just to rely on the hardboiled advice from the movie of the same name, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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