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Advocates of Nuclear Power Plants Keep Their Hopes on Back Burner

August 17, 1986|ANN BANCROFT | United Press International

SACRAMENTO — Critics of maverick former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. were outraged when the Brown-appointed California Energy Commission scrapped a proposed nuclear power plant after backers had put $100 million into it.

But the "rolling blackouts" predicted that year by Brown's unsuccessful reelection opponent, Evelle Younger, never materialized.

And just try to find a California lawmaker today to say publicly that nuclear power is the best way to meet the state's future energy needs.

Caused an Uproar

Less than a decade ago, legislators were in an uproar over the commission's refusal to approve San Diego Gas & Electric Co.'s proposed Sundesert nuclear power plant near Blythe in the Southern California desert.

The commission's 1978 decision to scrap Sundesert's two 950-megawatt reactors--after the utility had spent $100 million planning to build them--caused what San Diego Gas & Electric scientist Dr. Lou Bernath recalled as a "lynch mob" mentality in the Legislature. Some lawmakers unsuccessfully urged abolition of the commission.

All five commissioners had been appointed by Brown, a Democrat who frequently outraged members of his own party--including the co-author of the bill that had created the commission.

The Sundesert decision made apparent that the nuclear boom foreseen in California in the early 1970s was a definite bust. In 1972, the state's major utilities' expectations for nuclear power were so grand, according to a Rand Corp. study, that if all the nuclear power plants envisioned by the utilities were actually built along the coast, by the year 2000 there would be cooling towers every eight miles up and down the state.

Ended an Era

Public concern over nuclear safety, and legislation requiring that nuclear waste disposal sites be available before any new plants could be built, led to the decision to block Sundesert's approval. The decision amounted to the end of nuclear power plant siting in California.

State Sen. Newton R. Russell (R-Glendale) immediately proposed legislation to overturn the commission's decision. State Sen. Alfred E. Alquist (D-San Jose) co-author of the 1974 law that created the commission, told reporters at the time, "I feel like a Dr. Frankenstein who has created a monster--that its decisions are made to serve the governor's political ambitions rather than the people of this state."

Assemblyman Alister McAlister (D-Fremont) complained at the time that the commission had made "a very bad and totally political decision."

Today, public sentiment, cheap oil and the disaster at Chernobyl have tempered those views. It is widely acknowledged that to promote nuclear power plants would be political suicide.

'On the Back Burner'

Russell, one of the Legislature's most outspoken proponents of nuclear power at the time of the Sundesert decision, said in a recent interview: "Given the frailties of mankind, of human error . . . maybe the use of nuclear power for generating electricity should be put on the back burner.

"At the time (Sundesert was debated), we were looking just past the Arab embargo, and all were scared to death about not having enough energy reserves," Russell recalled.

Nuclear power was viewed as a clean, inexpensive source of energy, and the breakdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl had not yet raised widespread concerns for safety, he said.

"Now I think any utility board member that proposes to build a nuclear power plant ought to be fired," Russell said.

Not that Russell has turned completely against nuclear energy. He does acknowledge that "there seem to be legitimate concerns about the safe operation of these plants." But he believes public "hysteria" over the issue--the "mentality that equates nuclear power with atomic bombs"--has created an impossible climate for what is still "a legitimate source of energy."

Still an Advocate

But McAlister continues to describe himself as an advocate of nuclear energy.

"My feelings about its validity haven't changed. . . . It's a very sound, efficient source of energy," the assemblyman said. "That's not to say that you shouldn't treat (nuclear power) with the utmost of care, as you should anything else."

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