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Why even environmentalists are supporting nuclear power today

The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was scheduled to be shuttered in 2025. But California Governor Gavin Newsom now wants to expand its lifespan.
Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was scheduled to be shuttered in 2025. But California Governor Gavin Newsom now wants to expand its lifespan.

Resistance to nuclear power is starting to ebb around the world with support from a surprising group: environmentalists.

This change of heart spans the globe, and is being prompted by climate change, unreliable electrical grids and fears about national security in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In California, the state's last remaining power plant — Diablo Canyon, situated on the Pacific Coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles — long scheduled to be scrapped, may now remain open. Governor Gavin Newsom, a longtime opponent of the plant, is seeking to extend its lifespan through at least 2029.

It's a remarkable turnaround in a state where anti-nuclear activists and progressive Democratic lawmakers have fought with great success to rid the state of nuclear power.

Last week, Japan's prime minister said the country is restarting idled nuclear plants and considering building new ones. This is a sharp reversal for the country that largely abandoned nuclear after the tsunami-led disaster at the Fukushima plant in 2011.

Germany pulled the plug on nuclear after Fukushima, too. But this summer there's been an intense debate in Germany over whether to restart three plants in response to the country's severe energy crisis prompted by the Russia-Ukraine war.

Backers of nuclear power note that it is a source of emissions-free reliable power. And they believe their case has been strengthened due to the threat of climate change and the need to stabilize unreliable electrical grids.

In California the moment of truth came in 2020 when residents had to endure a series of rolling power outages, said Michael Shellenberger, an environmentalist and author who supports nuclear.

"The state is constantly on the verge of blackouts," Shellenberger said.

Environmentalists for nuclear power

The turnabout on Diablo Canyon is noteworthy because California is the birthplace of America's anti-nuclear movement. The case against nuclear power stems primarily from fears about nuclear waste and potential accidents as well as its association with nuclear weapons.

The two operating generators at Diablo Canyon had been set to shut down by 2025. And for years the momentum to shutter the plant seemed inevitable, with anti-nuclear sentiment in California remaining high. Even the utility that operates Diablo Canyon, PG&E, wanted to pull the plug.

So it is striking that the most vehement arguments to keep Diablo Canyon running haven't come the nuclear industry. Instead, they have been put forward by a most unlikely collection of pro-nuclear advocates.

It seemed quixotic, even hopeless, in 2016, when Shellenberger along with the pioneering climate scientist James Hansen and Stewart Brand, founder of the crunchy Whole Earth Catalog, began advocating to save Diablo Canyon.

"We were basically excluded from polite conversation for even talking about keeping the plant open," recalled Shellenberger. Promoting nuclear as an important tool in fighting climate change would get him dismissed by fellow environmentalists as a conspiracy theorist or, falsely, as a corporate shill, he added.

Two moms — a scientist and an engineer — join hands to save nuclear

At the same time, Kristin Zaitz and Heather Hoff were forming an advocacy group called Mothers for Nuclear, a local grassroots effort to keep Diablo Canyon operating. To say their views were not widely embraced would be a serious understatement.

"We felt like we were on an island all by ourselves," said Zaitz. "We had people wishing that we would die, wishing we would get cancer...making weird videos about us that made me feel like, am I unsafe, is my family unsafe?"

In many ways Zaitz and Hoff are also the most unlikely of nuclear advocates. They both describe themselves as eco-friendly liberals, moms concerned about preserving wild spaces, recycling and climate change.

At Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, not far from Diablo Canyon, they both studied engineering and both took jobs at the plant – Hoff is a materials scientist and Zaitz is a civil engineer – despite misgivings about nuclear energy.

"I was nervous about nuclear before I started working there," said Hoff. "And it took a lot of years to change my mind...and eventually realize that nuclear really aligned with my environmental and humanitarian goals."

To promote those goals Zaitz and Hoff talk to community groups and professional societies, they promote nuclear power on social media and generate conversations walking around their hometowns wearing t-shirts that say, "Why nuclear? Ask me."

They see their role as going beyond just facts to make an emotional connection to people suspicious of nuclear, especially fellow environmentalists.

"It's the largest source of carbon free electricity in the United States," said Zaitz. "Most people don't know that it produces a lot of electricity on a relatively tiny land footprint."

Overcoming the stigma of "The Simpsons"

It's only reasonable to push back and say it's not surprising that Zaitz and Hoff support Diablo Canyon – after all, they work there. And, yes, they acknowledge they want to keep their jobs. But they say with their skills and experience they could find similar jobs elsewhere.

"This is how we feel we can contribute as environmentalists," said Hoff of their advocacy.

A lot of their work involves trying to combat a longstanding stigma against nuclear power, especially in popular culture, where its image is abysmal. Like on "The Simpsons," where Homer Simpson works in a slipshod plant and nuclear waste is dumped in a children's playground.

"We need to point people to accurate information so they can make up their own minds," said Zaitz.

Nuclear power has a safer track record than coal or natural gas

They don't shy away from the fact that for many people nuclear power is scary. "We say we were scared too," said Hoff. "It's okay to be scared. But that doesn't mean it's dangerous."

In terms of deaths from accidents or pollution, nuclear is far safer than coal or natural gas - the largest sources of electricity in the U.S.

Diablo Canyon got a boost last year when researchers from MIT and Stanford said keeping the plant open until 2035 would cut carbon emissions from California's power sector by more than 10% and save $2.6 billion in electricity costs.

The most important reason to keep the plant running is to help assure the reliability of the state's power grid, said John Parsons of MIT's Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research and one of the study's co-authors. "And it's a zero carbon source of power so it can keep emissions low while also providing low cost power and reliable power."

Diablo's storied history of arrests & more

Despite recent gains by the plant's backers, opposition to Diablo Canyon remains stout and has a storied history dating back decades. In 1981 singer-songwriter Jackson Browne was arrested at the plant with some four dozen anti-nuclear protestors.

Governor Newsom's plan to keep Diablo Canyon operating still faces a number of obstacles, including opposition from some of his fellow Democrats in the state legislature. It must clear state and federal funding and regulatory obstacles. And diehard grass roots opponents of the plant are not giving up.

"Diablo Canyon is not safe and it's old, too. It's almost 40 years old," said Linda Seeley, a spokesperson for San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, a watchdog group that has opposed the plant for decades.

She said that it's especially risky because of its location in an earthquake prone area. Critics like Seeley also also call Governor Newsom's plan to keep the plant operating a corporate giveaway, noting that it includes a $1.4 billion forgivable loan to the plant's operator, PG&E.

And finally she said it's unwise to forget the nuclear disasters of the past. While Japan just announced it is restarting idled nuclear plants, Naoto Kan, the prime minister at the time of the Fukushima accident, has a different perspective, she said. In May, he wrote to Governor Newsom advising him to shut down Diablo Canyon as soon as possible.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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As Senior Business Editor at NPR, Uri Berliner edits and reports on economics, technology and finance. He provides analysis, context and clarity to breaking news and complex issues.