Supporters said the vote wasn't an endorsement for building a nuclear power plant in Fresno. The testing will simply determine whether a plant can be cooled with effluent from the city's waste-water treatment plant in southwest Fresno, they said.
The council voted 4-2 to allow the testing, which will give the nuclear plant's backers access to the waste-water treatment plant to conduct tests. The tests are expected to take four years and will cost up to $4 million, said John Hutson, who heads Fresno Nuclear Energy Group LLC, the project's backers. The group is paying for the tests. Council Members Cynthia Sterling and Henry T. Perea voted against the agreement.
Sterling, who represents the proposed location on West Jensen Avenue, said every constituent who has called about the proposal is opposed. Perea and Sterling also said it doesn't make sense to support the tests when plant construction is banned under state law.
California has two active nuclear plants: Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, and San Onofre, between San Diego and Los Angeles. State law bans any new nuclear power plants until the federal government approves a process for the permanent disposal of spent fuel from the plants, according to the California Energy Commission's Web site.
A nuclear plant also would have to clear a number of federal legal hurdles, most notably from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Hutson said he may try to use a ballot initiative to overcome the state ban on new nuclear plants. But he wants to find out whether the project can be done from an engineering standpoint before asking voters to give the project a green light. Council Member Jerry Duncan said the approach makes sense. The testing will provide more information for future debates about nuclear energy in California. Improved safety in the industry, along with the country's energy crisis, might broaden public support for nuclear plants, Duncan said. Using waste water to cool a nuclear plant would significantly reduce costs, Hutson said.
That would mean lower energy costs to consumers, making Fresno more attractive to new business, Hutson said. Palo Verde, a nuclear generation plant near Phoenix, uses waste water from nearby cities as a cooling agent. As a result, it's the only nuclear power plant in the country that doesn't sit on a large body of water, according to its operator.