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Global Warming Serious Enough To Lift Ban On Nukes?
by Chuck DeVore [legislator, novelist] 9/5/07

Global warming has become a lot like the weather: Everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

In environmentally conscious California, a poll found that 54% of residents believe "global warming poses a very serious threat to the state's future economy and quality of life." But only 13% claim to carpool and 7% use mass transit.In other words: Do as I want you to do, not as I do.

Meanwhile the California legislature, reflecting the conventional wisdom, has passed a sweeping new greenhouse gas law that calls for a 25% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 - while the state's population is projected to grow 20% to 44 million people.

Passing the law was the easy part. Now we implement.

Perhaps this is where the majority of Californians were right - but not for the right reason - when they agreed that "global warming poses a very serious threat to the state's future economy.

Chuck DeVore

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore represents 450,000 residents of Orange County California’s 70th Assembly District.. He served as a Reagan White House appointee in the Pentagon from 1986 to 1988 and was Senior Assistant to Cong. Chris Cox. He is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. Chuck’s novel, CHINA ATTACKS, sells internationally and has been translated into Chinese for sales in Taiwan. [go to DeVore index]

"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25% in 13 years while growing the economy to support 7 million more people will, to put it mildly, be a challenge. Thirteen years is not a long time to dramatically change the way California uses energy.

Electrical generation accounts for 20% of the state's greenhouse gas emissions. More than half of these emissions come from burning natural gas that powers 42% of the grid. Coal contributes 16% of California's power, yet accounts for about 36% of its greenhouse gas emissions. A separate California law passed last year will phase out the use of conventional coal power over 20 years. Most of this power will be replaced by far more expensive natural gas, assuming adequate supplies can be secured.

Wind and solar power are being increased, but grid reliability is a problem. The wind in California has this unfortunate habit of peaking when its power is not needed and vanishing when it is. The sun in sunny California has its off days too. This requires both technologies to be backed up by additional natural gas plants that have to remain on costly standby. Solar power also continues to be very expensive.

California is already the most electrically efficient state in the U.S., so large additional conservation savings will be hard to achieve. A little over half the state's man-made greenhouse gases come from the tailpipe. But there aren't a lot of ways to significantly reduce these emissions while the state is growing so rapidly, though small cars could be mandated or favored through the tax code.

Burning corn as ethanol instead of eating it may be an attractive solution for a politician angling to win the Iowa presidential caucuses. But in the real world, the balance sheet of carbon combustion is unmoved by massive federal subsidies. Further, switching to corn-based fuel is already causing unintended inflationary pressures, as corn shortages have increased feedstock prices that in turn have driven up the price of milk, poultry, beef and pork.A fleet of hydrogen-electric cars could make a major impact on the problem - but only if we doubled our electricity production using low greenhouse gas technology such as solar, wind or nuclear. Of these, nuclear is the only reliable way to make electricity that could be affordable for anyone other than a San Francisco hedge fund manager.

That leaves four possible outcomes with California's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006:

1. The regulations to reduce greenhouse emissions pose such a serious threat to the state's economy that politicians decide to delay the reduction mandate or simply rescind it, letting greenhouse gas emissions grow.

2. A carbon cap-and-trade scheme is implemented, enriching a few traders on the floor of the Chicago Climate Exchange and serving as a massive fossil-fuel tax, leading to economic harm and reversal of the law.

3. Politicians and regulators ignore the economic consequences and wring a 25% carbon emissions reduction out of the California economy that causes havoc and misery. Then they get thrown out of office by mobs of angry unemployed people, whereupon their successors reverse the law.

4. California gets serious about greenhouse gases, lifts its ban on new nuclear power plants, constructs four new reactors and, as a result, enjoys a large reduction in carbon emissions from the electrical sector and a small reduction overall. Additional reactors would yield further greenhouse gas reductions.

Construction of nuclear plants, however, has been banned in California since 1976. But the four reactors under construction then were allowed to be finished. Today, those reactors furnish about 13% of state's electricity.The four reactors save $2.6 billion a year in natural gas (a nuclear reactor can run on about $30 million of fuel for almost two years) while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 22 million metric tons. Adding four modern reactors would let the electrical sector reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40%, returning the sector to 1990 levels.Nuclear power has the lowest total life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of any energy source, including solar and wind. In spite of this, the California legislature shows no interest in nuclear power.

Due to fears about global warming, public opinion about nuclear power has improved nationwide. California polls show likely voters closely divided on the question. Bypassing the legislature with a ballot initiative to overturn the state's obsolete 31-year ban on nuclear power might succeed following a serious public education campaign.

Unfortunately, California's risk-averse investor-owned utilities fear provoking the anger of environmentally liberal lawmakers by supporting such a ballot initiative. Instead, the utilities may try to build reliable and safe nuclear power plants out of state. But this means spending billions to build long-distance power transmission lines as well as billions more in fees to buy approval from the states over which the lines traverse.California ratepayers will pay for this in higher electrical bills. In addition, 15% of the power would be lost through long-distance line resistance. These added expenses mean that two reactors could be built in California for the cost of a single reactor built in New Mexico or Utah.

A total of 104 reactors now produce about 19% of America's electricity. By comparison, France's 59 reactors produce 78% of its electricity while environmentally conscious Sweden has 10 reactors that provide 48% of its power. Still, environmentalists fiercely oppose any new plants.

Their opposition is deeply rooted in our Cold War past and focuses on a single isotope created during the nuclear fission process: plutonium-239. With a half-life of 24,110 years, plutonium-239 would have to be stored for almost 200,000 years for its radioactivity to be rendered safe.

Each commercial nuclear power reactor makes about 500 pounds of plutonium a year. This plutonium is embedded in the fuel rods that in the U.S. are simply set aside and stored, with the plan being to store about a football field's volume of spent fuel rods at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Environmentalists oppose this, arguing that Yucca Mountain cannot keep nuclear material safe for 2,000 centuries.

The issue of storing plutonium-239 for 200,000 years can be solved by extracting the plutonium and using it to produce electricity. The French do this, reducing the volume of used nuclear material by about 96% by recycling usable fuel, including plutonium, back into their reactors. This slightly increases the cost of electricity, but it eliminates the need to safely store plutonium-239, saving money on the back end.Unfortunately, many environmentalists oppose reprocessing spent nuclear fuel because reprocessing extracts plutonium that could be diverted for nuclear-bomb making. It was this rationale that caused President Jimmy Carter to ban U.S. reprocessing in 1977 in the hopes of inspiring other nations to do the same. (It didn't work.)

Environmental opponents speak darkly of "plutonium-in-commerce," as if a U.S. utility would sell 100 pounds of extracted plutonium to al-Qaida to boost its profits. The net result is that it gives the American environmental left a perfect and unassailable circular argument: Reprocessing is bad because plutonium can be made into bombs, but storing unreprocessed spent fuel rods with plutonium in them for 200,000 years is problematic.Ironically, nuclear power plants can be operated with plutonium recovered from nuclear bombs, turning nuclear swords into electrical ploughshares and using up the plutonium in the process.

For better or for worse, California often leads the way in American trends. What if Californians considered the relative risks and rewards of nuclear power vs. global warming, increased use of imported fossil fuels and massive electricity rate hikes, and decided in favor of nuclear power?

The California Energy Independence and Zero Carbon Dioxide Emission Electrical Generation Act slated for the June 2008 ballot will give Californians that choice. The proposed initiative overturns California's nuclear ban, enacts seismic and environmental restrictions that place about 40% of the state off limits to nuclear power, and approves on-site dry-cask storage of spent fuel as an acceptable storage method for 100 years.

California can get serious about meeting its ambitious global warming goals while providing economic opportunity, or it can try to power its economy on good intentions. CRO

first appeared in Investors Business Daily

Chuck DeVore is a California State Assemblyman and a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard.  His website is: www.ChuckDeVore.com

copyright 2007Chuck DeVore




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