They are partnered with a French nuclear power company, Areva. They want to make the reactors part of an "energy park" that would also tap the underground aquifer for up the 30 million gallons of water per day. They claim energy from the reactors would be used to de-salinate the water and divert it to farms.
Director John Hutson asked the Board of Supervisors for a letter, endorsing their research efforts. "We would appreciate a letter from those elected representatives that said please further the investigation." Hutson told the board.
Fresno Chamber of Commerce President Al Smith is on the board of the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group and also asked the Supervisors for their help. "I would hope you support this very bold effort." He told the board.
And why do they want this letter?
Steve Geil who is the director of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation is also on the board of the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group and says he is an investor. He explained a letter would look good to companies that might buy into the project. "The first question out of the companies coming here are do you have community and political support." He said.
But Supervisor Susan Anderson said she would not participate in anything that looked like an official endorsement that the group could use to attract investors. Both she and Supervisor Henry Perea, said the recent nuclear accidents in Japan show the dangers of nuclear power.
"I think it's too scary really and I think the public would feel that way too." Anderson said.
Perea noted that the Japanese disaster contaminated crops for miles around the stricken reactors and said a nuclear accident would threaten the Central Valley's farms and dairies. "Is it worth for us to be a part of a risk of the entire food supply of this country?" He asked.
Geologist Dr. Stephen Lewis, of California State University Fresno warned the board the area near Mendota was not seismically stable enough for a nuclear plant. "We do have to worry about earthquakes, particularly in Western Fresno County."
Lewis also noted that the plans to pump water from the underground aquifer would be a disaster. He noted some lands in the area have already sunk more than 30 feet as the result of excessive extraction of ground water. He said pumping on the scale envisioned by the nuclear group would likely cause the California Aqueduct to sink.
The City manager of Coalinga a nearby city devastated by an earthquake in 1983 expressed concern, as did the City manager of San Joaquin a town just 11 miles from the site. Members of the public said they were worried about the possibility of nuclear accidents.
Jackie McCoy told the board an accident in the stagnant air of the geologic bowl that is the Valley would be devastating. "It's going to be you can't live here anymore. It's just not a chance to take."
Another concerned resident, Sally Lyon told the board, "It's my understanding we have a moratorium on local power plants and this is trying to slip underneath the radar, nobody believes this is even going on."
California does have a moratorium on building nuclear plants, but the backers of this project think they can get around it. They claim the nuclear reactors would be part of an industrial complex involved in of pumping and desalinating water, and therefore not just power plants and not subject to the moratorium.
While Anderson and Perea were outspoken in their concerns, the 3 members of the board majority all said they were being open minded. Supervisors Judy Case, Phil Larson and Debbie Poochigian, all Republicans, were eager to give the nuclear group what they wanted. Poochigian said she would even write the letter herself. "I'm willing to do that to say we are willing to reaffirm our commitment to clean safe energy in our county, including nuclear."
The board will consider the letter of endorsement at their next meeting on June 7th.
In an unexpected development, Hutson acknowledged that there are concerns about the seismic risks in Western Fresno County. He told the board the group could be looking for a site further East. He said "The further East, the better off we will be."
But that would move the plant closer to the more than one million people living in the Fresno Metropolitan area. Before announcing plans for their energy park near Mendota the group had proposed building their nuclear project near the wastewater treatment plant shared by the cities of Fresno and Clovis, just West of Fresno. That plan remains on the table.