Sunday, July 15, 2007

Chuck DeVore launches nuclear ballot initiative

California State Assemblyman isn't just tilting at windmills

A California republican state law maker isn't taking "no" for an answer from the state's Energy Commission nor from his Democratic colleagues who shut him down in a committee vote earlier this year. Rep. Chuck DeVore thinks the future of energy in California is driven with nuclear reactors and he's signed up with a group of Fresno businessmen to put the issue on the July 2008 ballot. If he's successful, it will lift the 31-year old ban on nuclear power plants, and possibly pave the way for a new nuclear plant in the heart of the state's farm belt.

DeVore has the backing of a group of Fresno business leaders who are seeking to build a $4 billion, 1,600-megawatt nuclear reactor in Fresno. There's only one nuclear firm in the global market building a plant of that size, and that's AREVA's EPR which the firm is aggressively marketing to the U.S. nuclear industry. The Fresno Nuclear Energy Group LLC signed a letter of intent earlier this year with UniStar Nuclear Development LLC, a subsidiary of Constellation Energy in Baltimore, to design, build and operate a plant.

The Fresno group says its proposal could bring thousands of well-paying jobs to the region. For the plant location, the group has targeted about 3,000 city-owned acres south of Fresno. They've also hired a top nuclear expert from Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL).

Chuck DeVore, who is from Irvine, CA, 259 miles south of Fresno, has filed the initiative with the State Attorney General. He is shooting for the July 2008 ballot, but will first need to collect about a half-million signatures, an effort that will cost at least $2 million according to election experts. The Fresno Nuclear Energy Group has not determined how much they might spend on what could be an expensive ballot campaign.

In April 2007 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "skepticism abounds" about nuclear power among environmentalists and in the Democrat-controlled state Legislature. However, the Chronicle reported that polls show that California voters are quickly changing their views on nuclear power in light of global warming. The numbers from the poll offer encouragement to DeVore and his team. The Chronicle reported . . .

Some public opinion polls indicate the focus on saving the environment has had an impact on the public's perception of nuclear power. In a July poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 39 percent of Californians surveyed said they supported the building of additional nuclear power plants, while 52 percent opposed the idea. A year earlier, the results were 33 percent in support and 59 percent opposed. Opinions have shifted even more dramatically among likely voters. Last summer, that group was split down the middle at 46 percent on each side of the issue. In 2005, the result was 37 percent in support and 55 percent opposed.

John Hutson, the Fresno group's leader, told the Sacramento news media that election spending decisions will be made based on the results of a voter opinion poll the group expects to complete later this summer. "At that point see how aggressive we'll become," he said. Members of Fresno Nuclear Energy include Al Smith, president and chief executive of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, and Bob Smittcamp, president of a Fresno-based beverage and canned-fruit company.

The Fresno business group and DeVore hopes to lure some environmental support, though most groups, like the Sierra Club, favor alternative energy like solar power. Support from environmental groups, even with the threat of global warming, is unlikely. DeVore also hopes to get the backing of organized labor, which could benefit from construction jobs if new plants are built. That's more likely.

In the 1970s then Senator Ed Muskie cobbled together a national coalition of building trades unions and environmental groups to pass the Clean Water Act on the premis that thousands of sewage treatment plants would be built with billions in new funding under the new law. The law was passed and billions were spent. It remains one of the great examples of how to get very different groups to come to the same table.

Opposition doesn't stop with grass roots groups. In April 2007, the California Assembly's Natural Resources Committee killed the DeVore bill to lift the nuclear plant moratorium. Major environmental groups were not convinced by his argument that nuclear plants will reduce greenhouse gases.

"DeVore's bill is completely unrealistic," said Bill Magavern at the time. He's a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "Nuclear power is too expensive and too dangerous, and we'd be much better off investing our resources in safer, cleaner and cheaper technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a much lesser cost."

Environmental groups in California say they will be ready for the election initiative. Dan Hearst, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a California-based anti-nuclear watchdog group, said using the environment as an argument for nuclear power is simply "shameful." "These are people who have been on the dark side on everything and are now callously trying to drown us in radioactive waste,"

Neither DeVore nor the Fresno group are like to see themselves as Darth Vader type minions of the evil nuclear empire. To DeVore, nuclear power is a necessity to meet the state's energy needs and also its ambitious environmental goals. In 2006, Gov. Schwarzenegger pledged to cut the state's carbon emissions by 25% by 2020. DeVorse says nuclear plants are better designed and safer than the past.

"We need to move beyond fear and we need to move into fact, and the fact is that we will not have the energy to power the California grid and meet the very aggressive carbon dioxide reduction targets. We cannot do both without nuclear power being part of the equation. The only thing that will stop us will be if the voters say we don't want nuclear power in California."

These are brave words, but DeVore will need more than the passion of Don Quixote to win a ballot initiative even if it is a year and $2 million in the future. The election papers have to be complete by November 2007. In the 1990 movie Hunt for Red October Captain Marko Ramius asks his chief engineer about getting more power to propel the submarine faster to its destination. The engineer answers, "105 percent of the reactor is possible, but not recommended."

DeVore's real problem is the improbability of his initiative. With 31-years of political history against him, his situation is similar to that of Seaman Jones on the fictional submarine Dallas in the same movie. The Chief of the Boat tells Jones he's hearing things when he reports an ultra-quiet Russian sub. "Y'know, I seen me a mermaid once. I even seen me a shark eat an octopus. But I ain't never seen no phantom Russian submarine. "

If anything the Fresno group, DeVore, and, the possible influence of reactor groups in the background, are not phantoms. Still, Chuck my advice is you'd better start moving those political fuel rods now if you want to be on the ballot next summer.

1 comment:

Rod Adams said...

Minor correction - UniStar is actually a joint venture company that includes Areva, Bechtel, and Constellation Energy as the principal partners in the venture. It is not a Constellation subsidiary.

You are correct that the 1600 MW plant would be Areva's EPR.

Several years ago, during the California energy crisis, California state senator Tom McClintock wrote a number of articles favoring nuclear power. I wonder if he is still interested in the issue.

I also hope that large energy consumers and high growth companies in the state get behind the initiative. The high tech industry should be a great partner that can use its technical knowledge and media savvy to help the voters understand the issue.

There was a time in the Sierra Club history when they actually fought for the development of a nuclear plant - they were on the right side during the licensing of Diablo Canyon. Then the club leadership underwent a coup led by a man who had deep ties to a major California company named Chevron.