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Fresno Nuclear Plan Moves Forward, Despite Crisis

Disaster in Japan has not deterred local politicians from supporting a project that promises jobs and fresh water

Fresno Nuclear Reactor Desalination Rendering

Despite the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan, plans to build California's first new nuclear reactors in a quarter century less than 150 miles from the East Bay moved forward this week.

The reactors are planned near Fresno as part of an ambitious industry-led effort to overcome the state's water crisis. If built, they would be the closest nuclear facilities to the Bay Area and the first constructed in California since the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s second reactor began generating electricity in San Luis Obispo, in spite of protests and widespread opposition, in 1986.

Controversy and fears about the use of nuclear fuel flared worldwide this week as emergency officials battled to prevent a full-blown nuclear meltdown in northeastern Japan. On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the detction of "minuscule quantities," not expected to affect human health, of the radioactive isotope xenon-133 in Sacramento believed to have drifted 5,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

But the disaster was not enough to dampen emerging support for the Fresno project, which is dubbed the Clean Energy Park.

The Central Valley county of Madera's Board of Supervisors affirmed its support for the proposal in a unanimous vote Tuesday after receiving safety assurances from the project's backers. 

The hearing was contentious, though, with one lawmaker pointing to the crisis in Japan as evidence that safety assurances can be catastrophically misleading.

“An earthquake is an earthquake,” Supervisor Supervisor Max Rodriguez said. “You can build the plant as strong as you want, but it’s going to be affected.”

In conjunction with solar thermal arrays, the 1,600-megawatt reactors would power an energy-hungry desalination operation to convert salty and tainted wastewater and groundwater into clean water for agricultural irrigation.

Electricity could be produced by the reactors and sold to power customers, but John Hutson, president of the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group, which was formed to develop the energy park, said the company might propose a non-electricity-generating facility in an effort to sidestep a California ban on new nuclear power plants.

The facility would provide desperately needed irrigation water for the many farms in the area, which is naturally arid and relies upon fresh-water imports that are being cut back to protect wildlife in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta system. The region produces most of California's produce.

Clean Energy Park backers say technological advances since the early 1970s, when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station was built, have dramatically improved the safety of new nuclear power plants, reducing the risks of a radiation-spewing meltdown at the proposed Central Valley reactors.

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