Areva, the French nuclear, giant, has signed a letter of intent to build up to two nuclear plants near Fresno, California. California has a ban on new nuclear plants in the state but Areva believes the law will fade away under the state's demand for more clean power. Each plant could produce 1.6 gigawatts and the whole thing could cost between $5 and $8 billion.

Sez the Los Angeles Times:

The agreement with Areva is expected to be finalized in March, said John Hutson, chief executive of the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group, a partnership of local business executives and farmers. Once that's done, the two potential partners would begin a site selection and evaluation process that could take as long as two years, he said.

Will it happen? Hard to say. Nuclear advocates say that the U.S. will need 25 to 30 new nuclear plants by 2030 to just keep nuclear at 20 percent of the energy budget. The U.S. could ultimately need 187 new reactors by 2050 to meet its climate goals, they add, although nuclear advocates admit that's unlikely. Public opinion has begun to soften toward nuclear. Additionally, academics like MIT's Ernie Moniz and UC Berkeley's Dan Kammen have stated that nuclear needs to be part of the future energy diet. (Eric Wesoff and I also recently wrote a report on modular nuclear reactors--it makes a great gift.)

Nuclear could also produce jobs, both construction jobs and high-end, high-tech jobs. France and Japan have become the centers of nuclear engineering since the U.S. stopped building power plants in the 70s.

Still, waste, proliferation and other grave issues remain. On the same day that Areva announced its plans, a report came out that Iran has been trying to buy uranium from Kazakhstan. A new nuclear renaissance will mean more widespread knowledge of how to process uranium, and with that will come more opportunities for bribing and cajoling said individuals for that information. It's not an easy debate.

Californians are also prickly when it comes to the environment. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein continues to move ahead with a plan that would prevent solar thermal power plants, one of the more cost-effective forms of alternative enrgy, from going up in the Mojave. A thermal plant is one heck of a lot cleaner than a nuclear plant when you consider the construction materials and nuclear waste. And, unlike PV panels or wind, solar thermal plants produce power in steady, large quantities.