The outcome of this year's race for Arizona Corporation Commission could determine the future of nuclear power in Arizona.
At a debate Monday night, the two Republicans said they support the ability of utilities to build a second nuclear power plant in the state.
The only other one, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station about 50 miles west of Phoenix, is the last nuclear plant built in this country. There is renewed interest in power from that source, however, with even President Obama promising loan guarantees to jump-start the process.
But the two Democrats running for the two open seats on the commission, which regulates investor-owned utilities, are loath to go down that road.
"I'm not sold on the safety of nuclear,'' said Jorge Garcia. He specifically questioned what happens with all the spent fuel rods -- rods that currently must continue to be stored on site, as they are at Palo Verde.
David Bradley said his concern is more financial.
He said the cost estimates for planned nuclear plants continue to escalate. And that additional cost, Bradley said, ultimately will be paid by ratepayers -- or taxpayers.
Republicans, however, don't see those problems.
Gary Pierce, the lone incumbent in the race, called the waste safety question "kind of a red herring.''
Ideally, he said, all waste would go to a central storage facility in Nevada. That, however, is not yet an option, at least partly out of political considerations.
In the meantime, he said all the spent waste from Palo Verde, which began operating in 1986, is stored on site.
"So that issue is really handled,'' Pierce said. "We're dealing with it.''
He also rejected the idea that nuclear power is too expensive.
Pierce conceded there are large up-front costs of such power plants. But he said they can last for half a century or more and have low maintenance costs.
Brenda Burns said nuclear is simply a matter of practicality.
She said Arizona Public Service, the state's largest electric utility, already has a nuclear power plant in its long-term plans. Burns said that while she supports a "diversified portfolio'' of power sources, including solar and wind, the state also will need a stable "base load'' source that can operate around the clock.
Libertarian Rick Fowlkes took an even more strident stand on nuclear.
He pointed out that utilities are now under a mandate to generate 15 percent of their power from "renewable'' sources by 2025. That list, by commission regulations, includes solar, wind, geothermal.
Fowlkes would add nuclear to that list of acceptable ways to meet that 15 percent goal.
That idea proved too much for the Republicans attending the televised debate at KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate. They said if nuclear becomes part of the mix, it should be over and above that 15 percent renewable mandate.
Adding nuclear to the list of acceptable renewable sources also is an idea that was considered -- and rejected -- by the Legislature earlier this year.
The question of where Arizona will get its electricity will become crucial once the economy recovers and the state needs more power.
While coal-fired plants are relatively inexpensive, most utilities are unwilling to build new ones. Fears range from environmental to financial, with the possibility of Congress imposing some sort of "carbon emission tax.''
The problems of wind and solar are different.
While Arizona has no shortage of sunshine, there is not yet a commercially viable way to store the power generated for nighttime use. Wind is subject to the vagaries of the weather.
Geothermal is more reliable on a 24/7 basis but has not yet caught fire.
Two seats are up for grabs this year on the five-member commission. Pierce, elected four years ago, wants another term; Kris Mayes, a Republican who chairs the commission, cannot seek reelection.
The commission is currently 3-2 Republican.
On a separate subject, Fowlkes said he wants the commission to deregulate electricity to promote competition.
Now, virtually all consumers -- major industries being the key exception -- must buy their power from the utility that serves where they are located. In exchange, the commission regulates rates but guarantees the companies a "reasonable rate of return.''
"When monopolists have a monopoly status and they're guaranteed a rate of return on their business operations, they're rewarded for being inefficient.''
Bradley had a one-word reason for his opposition: Enron. He said that now-bankrupt company took advantage of deregulation in California to run up the rates to its own advantage.
Fowlkes rejected that comparison.
"That wasn't competition,'' he said. "That was illegal activities, that was price fixing.''
Pierce said while the idea of competition sounds good, there are unresolved issues, including who pays the utilities for the power plants they already built. He said Fowlkes "oversimplified it.''