California is missing a vital, non-carbon power source by disregarding nuclear energy.

The state’s commitment to reduce fossil fuel emissions by 40 percent by 2030 combined with the recent bill to extend its cap-and-trade program sends a strong signal that California legislators are willing to defy the current administration’s anti climate change actions.

However, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions by relying solely on wind and solar power to replace fossil fuels will be difficult at best.

Nuclear energy supplied 15 percent of California’s electric power; that dropped to 9 percent after the San Onofre nuclear power plant shut down in 2013.  The Diablo Canyon plant is scheduled for shut down by 2025. 

The abundant and relatively cheap availability of natural gas seems to be a major driver behind those shutdowns. The question is what will replace that 15 percent.

Renewables are beginning to take on a significant portion, but have not met California electrical needs. In fact, the use of natural gas has increased over the past five years; hence California’s carbon footprint continues to grow.

Sun and wind technologies are improving, but are not always available to provide continuous power. In addition, renewable power sources cannot effectively provide concentrated power needed to supply high population density cities and high-energy industrial requirements.

In the US, reactors have reliably and safely produced power at more that 90 percent of their capacity for the past 15 years, and the industry has developed advanced reactor designs that are safer, smaller, and more economical.  

While nuclear power may appear to be dangerous, analysis shows that the U.S. nuclear industry has a stellar safety record; no one has died or received a harmful dose of radiation in over 50 years of operation of over 100 commercial power reactors.

Nevertheless, a persistent fear of radiation influences public opinion. The strategy of the nuclear community is not to ignore radiation effects, but to eliminate public exposure.

Robust reactor designs with multiple layers of containment prevent leakage, detailed operating standards reduce human error, and redundant safety systems mitigate unlikely accidents. Furthermore, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires meticulous licensing standards and provides continuous oversight of reactor operations.  

Accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima heightened public concern about safety.

The Chernobyl reactor was designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium then retrofitted to produce electricity. It was run by poorly trained operators, had no primary containment, and operated under secrecy in a weakly regulated industry.

This type of reactor would not have been licensed under a public regulatory environment, and the accident could not happen to a commercial reactor.

Fukushima is different; a gigantic earthquake struck 10 U.S. designed nuclear power plants. The reactors were designed to be seismically robust, and all operating units shutdown safely.

Shortly after the earthquake, three units succumbed to the subsequent tsunami, resulting in core damage, loss of containment, and release of radioactive material.

Fortunately, nobody died or got sick from radiation, and continuing monitoring has not found any radiation-related health effects.

A root cause seems to be that Japan’s regulations did not require adequate tidal-wave protection, and the industry had become complacent. The worldwide nuclear industry reacted aggressively to the accident and implemented rigorous inspections, analyses, operating standards, and safety systems that assure extremely unlikely accidents are mitigated.

Finding a publicly and politically acceptable way to deal with nuclear waste is the most frustrating challenge to the future use of nuclear energy.

Technically viable solutions such as underground storage, recycling used fuel, and even transmutation in advanced reactors have been developed in the U.S. and other countries. The dilemma is fear of radiation and the “not in my backyard” syndrome.

Unlike industrial toxic wastes, the volume of nuclear waste is small, and the toxicity of the waste decreases with time. Immobilization of nuclear waste and carefully engineered repositories such as Yucca Mountain are at advanced stages of demonstration, and safe disposal of nuclear waste is entirely feasible.

If California is serious about reducing green house pollutants while assuring a strong economic future, Diablo Canyon should be licensed to operate, and nuclear energy should be a component of California’s future electrical power mix.

Bruce Matthews is retired in Goleta after a 45-year career in nuclear materials science and nuclear facilities safety.