There have been many comments, both spoken and written, in the last few months about the future of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. I attended the public meeting that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held in Dana Point last month and heard a lot of facts and a lot of fiction. Most of what I heard from activists and concerned citizens was just plain misinformation. It was frustrating because it was not a balanced discussion. I strongly feel the need to offer some of that balance right now.

There is something critically important about San Onofre that I seldom hear anyone talk about. That is, the nuclear plant’s central role in helping California meet its clean energy goals and reducing air pollution.

I had the pleasure of serving the citizens of Southern California while representing them on the board of governors of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Many of you are old enough to remember the 1970s. You surely recall the dirty, smoggy air here. The pollution was so bad there were many days you couldn’t even see the magnificent mountain ranges that surround our region. On particularly bad days, stinging eyes and burning lungs drove people indoors.

Today, Southern California is a very different place. Although the population has grown tremendously since the ’70s, as has the number of cars on the road, the air here is much cleaner. We have a long way to go before our air is truly clean, but the mountains are visible again and days of stinging eyes are rare.

Cleaner-burning gasoline and more fuel-efficient cars have helped us get here, although transportation remains the largest source of pollution in Southern California. Phasing out coal-burning power plants is another factor, along with the tremendous growth in California of clean energy sources.

One of the single biggest sources of this clean energy is San Onofre. Since starting up in the late 1960s, San Onofre has produced billions of watts of electricity, while emitting virtually no air pollution. It saves about 6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually that would have been produced by comparable fossil fuel-burning plants.

In addition, the plant has spared us all from breathing millions of tons of nitrous oxides and particulate matter, both of which contribute to smog.

Proceed cautiously

Today, San Onofre is the target of antinuclear activists who want it shut down permanently. Clearly, public safety trumps clean energy. San Onofre and the NRC have said the plant will not start up again unless it is safe, and they must proceed cautiously.

But to those who question the safety of San Onofre should consider this: There is no way in the world that a reputable company like Southern California Edison, with its stockholders to answer to as well as the general public, would ever operate an unsafe nuclear plant. I’ve been in business and government in California for decades, and I’ve never heard of any company that wanted to harm its own customers or the public. It makes no business sense.

If San Onofre is given the green light by the NRC for safe operation, we need it restarted to make sure we don’t backslide and lose ground in the fight for clean air.

Opponents say we don’t need San Onofre and that its output can be easily replaced by new energy sources such as wind and solar, or natural gas-burning power plants. It’s not that simple.

Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, but it still emits greenhouse gases and other pollutants. In any case, building gas-fired power plants in the L.A. basin is next to impossible due to air emissions regulations.

What about wind and solar? Certainly they are both an important and growing part of California’s clean energy mix. But there is just no way they can replace San Onofre’s 2,000-plus megawatts of peak power.

Large-scale solar power stations and wind farms must be built far away, in deserts and mountain passes where sun and wind are strongest. Environmental impact reviews and legal challenges mean it takes years to get such power stations built.

And because they are so far from the cities, new long-distance transmission lines must be built to bring that power to market, which is itself another five- to eight-year process costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even if building enough renewables any time soon were feasible, wind and solar are not continuous, around-the-clock power generators like nuclear. Because wind and sunshine come and go, they cannot be relied on to feed the grid at all times.

The only large-scale, clean energy sources that provide continuous, reliable power today are hydroelectric and nuclear plants. Building hydro plants seems unlikely. Most of the major rivers in the West have already been dammed, and the environmental impact of new dams today likely would be a deal breaker.

That brings us back to nuclear energy. San Onofre is already here, able to generate clean energy 24-7 with no new plant construction or transmission infrastructure needed. If San Onofre can be safely returned to service, how can we justify not doing so? The future of our air quality in Southern California depends on it.

William Craycraft is a former mayor of Mission Viejo and a former member of the board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

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