California’s Moratorium on Nuclear Energy
Today, nearly 440 nuclear reactors produce electricity around the world. More than 15 countries rely on nuclear power for 25% or more of their electricity.
In Europe and Japan, nuclear power accounts for more than 30% of total electricity production. France, with 60 million people, obtains over 75% of its electricity from nuclear power and is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity. Currently, the U.S. has 104 nuclear power reactors operating in 31 states, which account for 20% of the country’s total power generation.
Proponents of nuclear power production often argue that nuclear power is economical when measured in real terms over a nuclear power plant’s useful life, and nuclear power avoids many byproducts from fossil fuel power sources that are environmentally harmful. However, nuclear power generation does produce nuclear waste that remains chemically and radiologically hazardous for thousands of years. In addition, nuclear fissile materials produced either in the process of power generation in a reactor core, or in spent fuel reprocessing could, without appropriate safeguards in place, be diverted and used for nuclear weapons production.
In 1976, the California legislature enacted a moratorium on new nuclear power construction, in part because of concerns over an absence of clear long-term nuclear waste disposal solutions and concerns with the historically poor cost management associated with building nuclear power reactors of the past and the consequent burden imposed upon ratepayers.
In the more than three decades since California’s elected leaders actively discussed new nuclear power generation in California, there have been advances in knowledge and technology in the field of nuclear power.
This Handbook aims to provide readers with basic and balanced background knowledge in nuclear power technology and financing. Benefits associated with nuclear power include carbon-free, large-scale, base-load power production that, when properly developed and deployed, can be economical, safe, sustainable for the long-term:
- A single kilogram of natural uranium can produce more energy than 85 barrels of oil. The power generation potential from even a small amount of uranium is so great—and uranium is sufficiently abundant—that nuclear fuel can provide sufficient carbon-free energy to meet our new electricity needs for the foreseeable future.
- Despite their enormous upfront capital cost, the operating cost requirements of nuclear power plants are among the lowest of all forms of power production. A reasonable range for the expected levelized electricity cost of a nuclear power plant built today should be between 8 and 11 cents per kilowatt-hour delivered to the grid.
- Statistics show that, owing to the rigorous safety oriented regulatory environment governing the nuclear power industry and the emphasis on culture of safety required of nuclear utilities, industrial safety records for nuclear power plants are far superior to other power sectors.
- Technological advancements associated with newer light water reactors yield safety features and enhancements designed to reduce incidents of core meltdown and large radiological release rates to between 100 and 1000 times lower than the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s mandated frequencies. On the other hand, nuclear power generation poses some unique risks associated with spent fuel handling and storage, nuclear material proliferation, and financial considerations:
- As of 2007, the U.S. had accumulated more than 50,000 metric tons of radioactively hazardous spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power reactors. A large nuclear power reactor produces three cubic meters (25 to 30 tons) of spent nuclear fuel each year. Radioactivity decay rates leave spent nuclear fuel hazardous for as long as 10,000 years. At the present time, there is no permanent geological storage site for spent nuclear fuel in the U.S.
- Recycling spent nuclear fuel for re-use in power generation is called reprocessing. While reprocessing is viable and used in other countries around the world (for example, France), reprocessing involves isolation of nuclear fission byproducts in heavy concentrations, including plutonium, which creates proliferation concerns because those isolated and concentrated byproducts can be used to build nuclear weapons. For example, the reprocessing of all spent fuel generated in the U.S. to date would increase world plutonium stocks by more than 500 metric tons, equivalent to about 80,000 nuclear weapons. If reprocessing were pursued in the U.S., it would be imperative to develop a viable safeguards policy and inspection system to ensure adequate physical protection and material verification against nuclear proliferation.
- There are financial risks associated with nuclear power that relate to technology, to regulation and legal proceedings, and to size. In order to attract the massive amounts of upfront capital required to develop nuclear power reactors, government programs must be developed to help mitigate these risks while ensuring that stakeholders in the private sector (developers, contractors, suppliers, and financiers) bear appropriate risks.
This Handbook is a product of a team including nuclear scientists, engineers, and finance experts from national laboratories, academia, finance legal practices and nuclear utilities currently developing, financing and constructing nuclear power plants internationally.