- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001


You can't say Californians have been scared straight. But the shocking news about the shortage of kilowatts in California has diverted attention from the usual sun, sand and self-absorption for which the state is famous.

Some Californians are even talking about nuclear-generated electric power again.

The Los Angeles Times, usually a reliable guide to the temperature of the body politic, ran a Page One story the other day that was downright respectful of the politically incorrect heresy that nuclear energy might be a benign and efficient way to produce electricity, after all.

Several captains of the electric-power industry in the United States met in New Orleans last week and declared themselves in the midst of a nuclear-power renaissance, and heard the happy news that there's a seller's market in secondhand nuclear power plants.

And if California, the harbinger of all things new, is suddenly respectful of the way a large part of the rest of the developed world generates electric power, the radical environmentalists might as well start digging up their basements, searching for a place to hide with their fears.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age, 131 commercial nuclear plants have been built, 28 of those have been shut down and the remaining 103 plants generate 20 percent of the nation's electric power. Not so long ago the prospects for more nuclear electric power were remote.

Jay Brister, an executive at Entergy, the New Orleans-based regional utility that provides most of the electricity for Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi (even if it can't properly spell its name), told the Los Angeles Times that as recently as three years ago nuclear power plants were such headaches that the act of shutting down a plant was "the ultimate nuclear Advil." So eager were utilities to get rid of the plants that they often sold them for pennies on the dollar. "Do whatever you have to," one utility executive told his officers, "just get rid of the beast."

The great horror story that threatened to kill nuclear power graveyard-dead, naturally, was Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The only people who were hurt by the meltdown at Three Mile Island were the utility's stockholders, but a hysterical media persuaded millions of Americans that Pennsylvania was glowing in the dark and about to sink all the way to Shanghai.

Since the disaster that didn't happen at Three Mile Island in 1979, no American utility has built a nuclear power plant, even though the industry regards them as safe, efficient and a more economical way of generating electricity than either the coal-fired and water-powered plants that are the American norm.

The owners of old nuclear plants can, and do, thank California for sending the price of these secondhand plants soaring. Rising fuel prices and the global warming fright so carefully nurtured by the media has helped, too.

But this is all talk, and talk is all that anyone seems to be doing to solve the power shortage on the ground in California. The Democrats who control the state legislature are moving toward a state re-regulation of the power facilities in return for the billions that would enable the utility companies to escape bankruptcy. Another solution would authorize Gov. Gray Davis to negotiate a price for the 32,000 miles of electric wires in California. The silence that has greeted this is the sound of one hand clapping.

Says Rep. Chris Cox, a California Republican: "We witnessed in spades how that didn't work in the Soviet Union." Lawrence J. Makovich of Cambridge Energy Research Associates told the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday: "California's current response appears to be too little too late."

Californians are painfully aware of the derision in which California is now held in the rest of the country, the perception that the tree-huggers and friends of the snail darter are finally getting the reward they deserve and should have expected. In fact, many residents of Southern California, which has been affected least, and particularly of Los Angeles, which has not been affected at all, share the fun of heaping ridicule on their fellow citizens in the north.

But mostly there's incredulity that California the largest, richest and most self-assured state could get itself in a pickle of this size and flavor. Gray Davis insists that he has made "great progress" toward a solution in recent weeks, but that won't help anyone, least of all Gray Davis, when the lights go out again. Republicans here have put a second wave of radio commercials into play, blaming the governor. Maybe he didn't do it, but he's the man who gets to take the heat. Gas heat, of course. The plug's been pulled on the electric stuff.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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