In 1976, the California Public Resource Code (PRC) was amended to mandate that certain requirements be met before any new nuclear power plants could be licensed and built in California. Specifically, new sections prohibited the California Energy Commission from granting a license to build a nuclear power plant until the Federal government “approved a technology for disposal of high-level nuclear wastes.” As a result, no new nuclear plants have been built in California since the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was completed in the mid-1980s.View Video Here
Now, however, California has been reconsidering the benefits of nuclear power. Although it was not adopted, Assembly Bill 65 (AB-65), proposed that the PRC exempt “small modular reactors,” (SMRs) defined as nuclear reactors with an electrical generating capacity of up to 300 MW per unit, from the specified requirements. AB-65 would have also directed the California Public Utilities Commission to “adopt a plan to increase the procurement of electricity generated from nuclear facilities and to phase out the procurement of electricity generated from natural gas facilities.”
On April 10, AB-65 went through the California Assembly Committee review process. Among the proponents at the hearing: Dr. Kevin Hickerson; Jim Hopf, Generation Atomic; Alex Trembath, The Breakthrough Institute; representatives from Californians for Green Nuclear Power, Kyler Joaquin, California State Electrical Workers Association]; and representatives from Anthropocene Institute.
Proponents made the case for SMRs, which require less land than renewables, are much more advanced than today’s fleet of legacy fission reactors, and are easier to manufacture due to their small size. They can be used for power generation, process heat, desalination, or other industrial uses. SMRs also offer distinct safeguards, security, and nonproliferation advantages. Support for nuclear power has grown in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, the IPCC concluded that worldwide nuclear power generation will have to increase by a factor of three or more to meet the 1.5° C climate goal. They added that advanced SMRs produce less waste and nuclear has the lowest environmental footprint of any energy technology.
Opponents argued that nuclear power is still too unsafe, and that the nuclear waste problem is still not solved. They also believe California can meet its climate goals using solar, wind, and geothermal energy. Assemblymember Christopher M. Ward noted that his constituents do not want nuclear waste “in their backyards,” and asked for more information about how nuclear waste is stored.
One of the proponents stated: “Technologically, we have solved the problem. We use casks to store the spent fuel for as long as we need. The technology for waste recycling for decades has been used in Russia, France, and other countries. There are many countries that are trying to build more capacity. In the United States, we are choosing a permanent disposal location using a consent-based siting approach but even without a final disposal, current methods of storage and management of spent fuel are safe.”
Proponents added that SMRs would still have to go through the procedures, safety measures, regulation, and oversight of the California Energy Commission. In the end, AB-65 garnered three votes in favor, one vote abstained and seven voted against. The bill was passed along for reconsideration. Although it did not pass in the first hearing, the bill made SMRs a broader topic of public conversation and helped educate policymakers about the advancements in nuclear technologies that hold promise for tackling climate disruption.