California Assemblyman Taking Nuclear Power to the People

Published September 1, 2007

Frustrated by obstructionism in the California Assembly, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) is taking the issue of nuclear power directly to the people. DeVore in July announced he has begun gathering signatures necessary for placing a nuclear power ballot initiative before voters next June.

A state law passed in 1976 prohibits the construction of new nuclear power plants in California until the national government begins accepting spent fuel at a central depository. With the proposed Yucca Mountain facility unlikely to begin accepting spent fuel for at least another decade, the 1976 law effectively serves as a moratorium against new nuclear power plant construction in the state.

Assembly Leaders Say No

Viewing nuclear power as a more cost-effective means than solar or wind power to meet California’s stringent greenhouse gas reduction laws, DeVore has tried in vain during the past year to have the California Assembly readdress the 1976 law.

Although the Public Policy Institute of California reports the state’s voters are evenly split on the construction of new nuclear power plants, Assembly leadership has thwarted any serious consideration of revising the moratorium.

“I came to the conclusion that the Legislature doesn’t want an honest discussion about nuclear power,” said DeVore in the July 17 San Luis Obispo Tribune.

DeVore added, “I’m confident we can embark on a vigorous debate about this.”

Taking it to the People

DeVore has begun taking his case straight to the people.

California law requires approximately 500,000 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. DeVore vows to meet the requirement and let voters decide the future of the state’s energy choices.

“We have a myriad of legislation and mandates in this state,” DeVore said in an interview for this article. “We have renewable energy mandates that are not close to being met right now. The same applies for greenhouse gas mandates.

“If you look at the mandates for renewable energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and the mandate to eliminate coal-based power by 2027, you find that the only way to meet these requirements without shutting off the power for California citizens and bankrupting them in the process is to allow for the construction of nuclear power plants,” DeVore continued.

Lower Cost, Emissions

DeVore is quick to answer arguments that nuclear power plants are prohibitively expensive. While real-world data show nuclear power is more expensive than coal-fired power, the current energy mix in California is more expensive than both coal and nuclear.

“Nuclear power is slightly cost-positive relative to California’s current energy mix. If we went all nuclear, we would actually reduce energy costs for California citizens. Even now, California’s energy costs are increasing due to expensive natural gas and solar power comprising more and more of the state’s energy portfolio,” DeVore said.

Tom Tanton, vice president of the Institute for Energy Research, agrees nuclear energy would lower the price of California power. “Nuclear technology is cost-competitive even compared to new coal plants, especially with California’s greenhouse gas statutes,” Tanton said.

“While solar is nice, it remains the single highest cost [source] and cannot supply enough to meet California’s growing demand. Natural gas is also expensive, with potential continued price increases. Nuclear has known costs once the plants are built, adding further to the economically rational choice of nuclear,” Tanton added.

“The great irony in this debate is that had America continued to build nuclear power plants over the past 30 years instead of switching to coal-fired plants, we’d be meeting our Kyoto Treaty limits for carbon dioxide emissions,” Tanton noted. “Thankfully, California voters are now evenly divided on the question of more nuclear power.”

Optimistic About Success

DeVore realizes he faces an arduous task, but he is eager directly to take his case to the people of California.

“You may see this become the most high-profile fight in the country in the mid-year political battles next year,” DeVore said.

“We are getting support from organized labor. I am encouraged by some of the public comments from Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi regarding nuclear power. That has not yet translated into support at the local California level, but I am expecting that you will see some legislators from working-class districts come around and support this when they see that support is more widespread and less partisan than people may think,” DeVore added.

James Hoare ([email protected]) is an attorney practicing in Rochester, New York.