An Uncertain Future For the Generation of Nuclear Energy in California

Clara Druzgalski
March 17, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2012

Although reports of high unemployment and state budget shortfalls have plagued California in recent years, the state is still an economic powerhouse. [1] Yet, according to official energy statistics from the US government, energy consumption per person in California is among the lowest in the US, ranking 47th out of 51. [2] Despite the low energy use per person, California's high population makes it the 2nd largest consumer of energy in the US. California produces 70% of its own electricity and in order to meet energy demands, 17% of which comes from nuclear energy. [3] With nuclear energy as the second largest source in California, it is important to understand the current and future state of this technology in California.

California currently has four commercial nuclear power reactors operating: Diablo Canyon 1 and 2, located in Avila Beach, CA and San Onofre 2 and 3, located in San Clemente, CA. There are also four additional operational reactors of much smaller scale which are not used for generating power for the grid, but instead are used for research and testing purposes only. They are located in San Ramon, Sunol, Sacramento, and Irvine. [4]

The four commercial nuclear power reactors, which are all pressurized water reactors, each have an electrical output of slightly over 1000 MW. [4] This is equivalent to each reactor producing about 86 terajoules of energy per day. The grand total of energy production from nuclear fission in California is around 345 terajoules of energy per day. The operating licenses for all four reactors are scheduled to expire between the years 2022 to 2025. [4] This means that in a three year time span California will lose all of its nuclear power generation capabilities, and must find other energy sources to make up for what is currently 15% of energy production in California.

The building of additional nuclear reactors in time for the decommissioning of the current ones seems unlikely. California has banned the construction of nuclear reactors until progress on the issue of nuclear waste storage has made significant progress. [5] Considering the politically sensitive nature of nuclear waste storage and fuel recycling, it is unlikely that this ban will be repealed anytime soon. Furthermore, fears over the recent nuclear power plant disasters at Fukushima have made the public weary of nuclear energy, particularly in seismically active regions such as California.

However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently approved a license to build and operate two nuclear reactors for the first time since 1978. [6] More plans for nuclear reactors across the US have also been proposed, and could mark a turning point in public and political attitude over nuclear power. Nuclear energy is also receiving positive attention as a means for reaching emission reduction goals that could be difficult to meet otherwise. [6] Despite these recent developments for nuclear energy nationally, it still seems unlikely that California will change course in time for the decommissioning of all of its commercial reactors.

© Clara Druzgalski. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. Lifsher, "California Still Has Second-Highest Unemployment in U.S.," Los Angeles Times, 24 Jan 12.

[2] "Annual Energy Review 2010," U.S. Energy Information Administration, DOE/EIA-0384(2010), October 2011.

[3] K. H. Jansen, T. M. Brown and G. S. Samuelsen, "Emissions Impacts of Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle Deployment on the U.S. Western Grid," J. Power Sources 195, 5409 (2010).

[4] "2011-2012 Information Digest," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NUREG-1350, Vol. 23, August 2011.

[5] M. L. Wald, "Revamped Search Urged for a Nuclear Waste Site," New York Times. January 26, 2012.

[6] M. L. Wald, "Federal Regulators Approve Two Nuclear Reactors in Georgia," New York Times, 9 Feb 12.