Atomic Annie was in Fresno last month to hype building a nuclear power plant in our backyard.

Nuclear Power in the Valley: Energy Reality or Speculative Myth?

Local proponents of nuclear power are leading a campaign to create a new generation of energy production based in the San Joaquin Valley. This effort seeks to build, somewhere in the west side of the valley, an “energy park” comprising two, 1600-megawatt nuclear reactors and a solar panel array that would generate electricity for half a million homes and create thousands of local jobs.

They tried to make a big splash in Fresno last month with a high-profile business luncheon featuring Anne Lauvergeon, CEO of the French nuclear power developer Areva. This articulate scientist is a powerhouse in her own right. Forbes magazine lists her as one of the world’s 10 most powerful women, while anti-nuclear activists refer to her as “Nuclear Annie.” In her presentation and during an interview with Fresno Bee columnist Bill McEwen, Lauvergeon insisted that in the global reality of unacceptable carbon emissions and politically unstable energy sources, nuclear power has to be part of the energy future.

“In this new world,” she asserted, “we cannot afford any more old-fashioned and ideological battles over energy sources, playing one against the others. Let’s qualify reality as it is. We are facing a revolution, a global energy revolution.”

While acknowledging that nukes are only one part of the solution, Areva executives insist that nuclear power has to be included in the energy mix. They also are hedging their bets and trying to sweeten the deal by including solar power as part of their grand plan. Areva recently acquired a solar cell manufacturing company.

Such a nuclear slam dunk isn’t as straightforward as Lauvergeon and her colleagues would have it. In Finland, Areva’s current nuclear power project has experienced years of delays and cost overruns that she explained are due to problems with suppliers and mixed signals from the Finnish government. It is also reported that the French government has been unhappy with “Nuclear Annie” because Areva has been on the losing end of competitions on projects with South Korean nuclear reactor builders. Is Fresno now considered ripe for the picking?

This power surge is the brainchild of Fresno Nuclear Energy Group LLC, led by president and CEO John Hutson, whose board of directors includes local Chamber of Commerce head Al Smith, real estate player Richard Caglia and agribusiness mogul Robert E. Smittcamp. Their major institutional backer is the Fresno Economic Development Council (EDC), a private/public nonprofit whose task is to promote industrial development. Promoting nukes as “clean and cheap energy,” Fresno EDC leader Steve Geil seeks to make this nuclear power play a self-fulfilling reality.

“Right now, California has the highest energy costs in the country. That’s hurting us economically. This is one of those solutions that if put on the table we open it up for discussion, and that’s the important thing we’re talking about, discussions start changing minds,” says Geil. But in the same breath he confidently stated, “It’s not if it’s going to happen, but when it’s going to happen.” So much for the dialogue — local power brokers are spinning this project as a fait accompli.

John Hutson is equally confident about the prospect of raising the entire $5.5 billion estimated price tag of the project from the private sector. ”Fresno Nuclear plans, at this point, to raise the entire amount from the private sector without any federal loan guarantees — none.” He confidently insists that they can pull it off without any help from the public and without selling stocks or bonds. Five and a half billion bucks is not chump change. Over the past three decades, even high-rolling Wall Street investors have not risked a dime on nuclear power plants, so that claim remains questionable.

Money is not the only question mark. California currently has a moratorium on building nuclear power plants, and even though Hutson is betting that the state’s “archaic” law will be swept away, it is a steep uphill climb. The moratorium would have to be overturned by the state legislature and approved by the Energy Commission. Most observers of energy issues think that’s not probable given the political climate.

There are other issues that would need to be resolved before the project can move forward. Physical challenges such as adequate water will be one of them. The valley is already in the throes of war over adequate water supplies for farming, cities and environmental quality. Nuclear reactors require millions of gallons every day to operate. Where would it come from? John Hutson thinks it’s already there, “There is enough wastewater in the valley to cool two 1,600-megawatt nuclear reactors.” But the answers get vague when he is asked where this wastewater is, and whether there is enough to supply the thousands of gallons for each minute the reactors are operating.

Yet another problem to be resolved is what to do with the radioactive waste generated by the reactors. As it now stands, nuclear reactors operating in the United States have to store their waste on site. The development of a national radioactive waste storage site is in gridlock. Attempts to develop underground storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada are in check. The federal government is trying to look elsewhere, but locating a new site is likely to be many years off into the future if one is ever found. Mike Rencheck is the director of North American operations for Areva. He claims, “In France, about 95% of the fuel assembly is recycled and reused for future nuclear reactors, and as we go forward new technologies are being developed that take the used fuel and regenerate it into new fuel.” Be that as it may, even experts at the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency have questioned the efficiency of that technology.

The location of the nuclear energy park is also in question. The area mentioned most often is on the west side of the valley. Really? The western edge of the San Joaquin Valley and the Coast Range are fractured with active earthquake faults like the San Andreas. In 1983, the west-side city of Coalinga was devastated by a magnitude 6.7 earthquake. A brief look at the USGS Web site reveals an ongoing pattern of geological activity. Despite that caveat, Hutson is certain they will find the right place, perhaps somewhere in the domain of the Westlands Water District. “When the testing is done, the holes are drilled and the seismic is finished, somewhere not too far away is Fresno Nuclear’s home.”

The entire conception of this project seems to beg the question: Why nuclear? Just in the past few months, several plans for clean alternative power have been proposed around the valley. Even in the Westlands Water District, there is a proposal to build a large-scale solar array on land where farming is no longer viable. Both Westlands farmers and Sierra Club support that idea.

Another energy park project involving solar and wind power on the west side of the valley is in the planning stages. In Silicon Valley, a promising new type of fuel cell called “bloom energy” has been developed and is already being used by business giants like Google and Bank of America. It uses natural gas, but far less than conventional power plants, to generate cheap and relatively clean energy available from domestic sources. Still, another technology being developed by a Santa Cruz company would take all the carbon emitted from coal-fired plants and use a chemical process to convert it into building materials, resulting in zero net emissions. So with these promising technologies as well as other methods of renewable energy being researched, why is nuclear, with all of its potential problems and costs, even being considered? The answer, some critics say, is “Follow the money.”

Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at vicbedoian@gmail.com.

  • 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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