The nuclear energy dilemma, by Maxime Robin (Le Monde diplomatique

Underinvestment: a fire caused by ageing energy infrastructure devastated the California town of Paradise, killing 85 people, in 2018

Justin Sullivan · Getty

Can you be an environmentalist and also pro-nuclear energy? Heather Hoff is certain you can. To her, they go hand in hand. The 43-year-old mother of two is a keen cyclist and hiker who drives a second-hand electric car and works as a reactor operator and procedure writer at Diablo Canyon, California’s last operational nuclear power plant, which the state legislature has committed to shutting down in 2025. Diablo is on the Pacific coast, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, set in a vast, rolling landscape where cattle graze. In this picturesque setting, its two reactors generate 10% of California’s electricity and more than half its carbon-free energy, on a footprint the size of a large farm.

Hoff says she’s the ‘ultimate environmentalist’, though her campaign to save her workplace — against the advice of her employer Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) — and to revive nuclear power in the United States, runs counter to a 50-year-old founding principle of the environmental movement. ‘It’s the most useful thing I could do for the environment. And it’s funny because I grew up always wanting to be saving the whales or [involved in] wildlife conservation. But nuclear leads to all those things,’ she told me in a bar in downtown San Luis Obispo, the nearest town to the plant. Hoff, who was wearing a pendant around her neck containing thorium, a weakly radioactive, fluorescent metal, always carries homemade stickers for laptops and water bottles with the slogan ‘I ♡ U 235’ and a drawing of a heart orbited by tiny electrons. ‘When nuclear plants close, they’re replaced by fossil fuels. It took me a long time to come to this conclusion.’

Diablo Canyon’s operating license came up for review in 2016 — normal practice for any plant approaching 40 years of operation. There was widespread surprise when PG&E and the California legislature agreed it would close. Regulations in California give renewable energy priority as a power source, meaning Diablo Canyon could only operate at half-capacity, compromising its profitability, said PG&E, a private company traded on the stock market, which nonetheless has a public service mission.

Diablo will be California’s second and final nuclear plant closure after San Onofre shut down in 2013. By 2025, the share of nuclear power in the state’s electricity mix is expected to fall from around 10% today to zero; to compensate, the state hopes to triple its renewable capacity. Despite being the home of the highly polluting tech industry (1) (Apple, Google, Facebook, Uber), California likes to think of itself as in the vanguard of the ecological battle. For several years, it has been trumpeting its intention to withdraw from nuclear power and has set the goal of decarbonising its electricity supply by 2045 — as required by a 2018 California Senate bill — and banning the sale of new vehicles with internal combustion engines from 2035, which will automatically lead to huge additional demand for electricity.

Hoff’s conviction that closing the plant was ridiculous, given the need to decarbonise and the rising electricity demand, led her to co-found Mothers for Nuclear with Kristin Zaitz, an engineering manager at the plant, on Earth Day in 2016. The homepage of their website, which they manage in their spare time, shows a gallery of women who share their belief that nuclear energy is essential to fighting global warming and to ensuring a viable future for their children. The website lists nuclear power’s benefits — it’s a carbon-free, dense and controllable energy source with a tiny footprint — and insists they far outweigh the risks.

‘Hardly anyone’s fighting to keep the power plants running, least of all environmentalists like us. And yet it’s the environmentalists who should care most,’ Hoff told me. She sees solar and wind power as allies of nuclear, but on their own they cannot meet present, let alone future, demand because of their low energy density and intermittent supply. ‘Wind and solar are great,’ acknowledges Jennifer Klay, a group member and physics professor at Cal Poly Tech, ‘but they only reduce fossil fuel use when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Nuclear power can replace fossil fuels 24/7.’ Klay says that closing Diablo Canyon and promising to replace it in the short to medium term with entirely renewable energy is magical thinking. Hoff, for her part, favours a ‘strong nuclear base’ for California’s electricity mix, which could cover all off-peak demand as a minimum. The rest could come from renewables: hydro, solar, wind and geothermal.

Mothers for Nuclear attracted little attention when it was set up; it didn’t even receive financial backing from the nuclear industry. But since then, global warming and the resulting hazards of drought and fire have become the number-one threat in California. This has shaken confidence that closing Diablo is the right decision, and the group now has strong support.

Hardly anyone’s fighting to keep the power plants running, least of all environmentalists like us. And yet it’s people like us who should care most

Heather Hoff

A joint study published last November by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University was the first major challenge to the closure decision. Its authors suggested that extending Diablo’s life by 10 years would reduce carbon emissions by 10%, and thus California’s gas dependence (2). Keeping it running until 2045 could save up to $21bn in grid costs and spare 364 sq km of land that would otherwise be needed for renewable energy production. The study also recommended using Diablo’s energy to power a desalination plant to alleviate California’s chronic drinking water shortage.

Then, in early February, 75 scientists (including Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, Obama’s energy secretary) signed a joint letter calling on Democratic governor Gavin Newsom to extend the plant’s life: ‘The threat of climate change is too real and too pressing to leap before we look,’ they wrote; closing Diablo ‘will increase greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and make reaching the goal of 100% clean electricity by 2045 much harder and more expensive.’ The shutdown of San Onofre increased the state’s power plant emissions by 35%, according to the California Air Resources Board. Since hydroelectric power could not make up the shortfall because of chronic drought, the slack was largely taken up by gas-fired plants (3).

Unconventional nuclear lobby

In Washington DC there is an official nuclear lobby, the Nuclear Energy Institute; its members are utilities that own nuclear power plants. But these companies also run gas- and coal-fired plants, ‘so they’re sometimes a bit ambivalent about being highly focused on nuclear,’ says Ed Kee, an expert on the economics of nuclear energy, consultant to governments and private companies, and author of the book Market Failure (4). Rather than a conventional lobby, the US nuclear sector is a group of companies with a variety of different and sometimes conflicting agendas.

Mothers for Nuclear is trying to fill the gap, carving out its own, admittedly modest, patch: six years after its creation, the group has 5,600 Twitter followers. It caught the attention of German environmental activist Britta Augustin, who in September 2020 contacted MFN to propose setting up a European branch. In July 2022, European Mothers for Nuclear went to Strasbourg to support the European Parliament’s decision to include nuclear (and gas) activities in the list of ‘environmentally sustainable activities’ — much to the dismay of most other environmental activists.

Surprisingly, California’s green movement has not always been anti-nuclear. In the 1960s it favoured nuclear power over hydroelectric, which was accused of destroying aquatic wildlife and flooding valleys, and considered coal the least bad source of power. But attitudes to nuclear power have varied according to perceived threats at any one time. However, once the case against nuclear power became established, from the 1970s, the support of Californian greens played a decisive role in reducing the size of the sector. (Diablo was originally to have had six reactors, for example.)

In 1981, two years after the accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, 2,000 people were arrested during a huge demonstration to block the construction of Diablo. It remains the US’s largest ever anti-nuclear protest; Buddhist monks came on foot from Santa Barbara. But hard-core anti-nuclear activists are now ageing, as was clear from those who attended an anti-Diablo public meeting at Cal Poly Tech in early April.

California’s Central Coast has long been blessed with the kind of Mediterranean microclimate in which lemon trees thrive. In the first half of the 20th century, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, an inspiration for Citizen Kane, built his legendary Xanadu Palace here, well away from the sprawl of Los Angeles. But now, in 2022, California is again experiencing a summer drought. The stifling heat has led to spikes in electricity consumption (because of the widespread use of air conditioning), overloading the grid, especially in the evenings, when solar energy does not produce power. This leaves the state with no choice but to burn more fossil fuels to avoid massive power cuts (5).

America's ageing nuclear facilities

America’s ageing nuclear facilities

Unprecedented water restrictions have been introduced to deal with the ‘drought of the millennium’, which has in fact been going on for years. The under-maintained power grid, which is ill-suited to such conditions, is starting to cause huge fires. PG&E has admitted responsibility for the so-called Camp Fire, which in 2018 devastated the town of Paradise, killing 85 and destroying 19,000 buildings. In January 2019 the company sought bankruptcy protection after accumulating around $30bn in liability for fires started by its poorly maintained equipment (6).

The electricity grid has also proved completely unsuited to diversification of production caused by the development of solar and wind power. Hydropower — ‘the backbone of low-carbon electricity generation’ along with nuclear, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) — will not be much help in the future, despite the California legislature’s stated intention of relying on it post-Diablo in just three years’ time. Throughout the American West, rivers and dams are drying up. Hydropower output will probably be cut in half this summer, a taste of things to come.

Climate activists often view support for nuclear power as a betrayal, even sacrilege. There is no shortage of arguments against this energy source (7) in campaigning organisations’ literature in the US and elsewhere, including the difficulty of managing nuclear waste, the risk of accidents, poor maintenance, ageing infrastructure and problems securing a fuel supply. However, in the absence of viable alternatives, there are more and more ‘heretics’, such as Zion Lights, former spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, the degrowth movement founded in the UK. Lights gradually found herself out of step with the movement, which she felt ‘peddled messages of doomsday gloom’ and offered ‘little in the way of positive solutions’. She now believes that ‘any rational, evidence-based approach shows that a strategy including nuclear energy is the only realistic solution to driving down emissions at the scale and speed required’ (8).

In its four main scenarios for limiting global warming to 1.5ºC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) envisages a huge increase in renewable energy, as well as a significant increase in the world’s nuclear capacity. Lights denies that this is a U-turn and instead calls it a ‘logical next step’ in the quest for climate change solutions. In Germany the Greens are engaged in an internal battle over their energy choices of the past 20 years. Historian Anna Veronika Wendland, a leading figure in the German environmentalist movement who once campaigned against nuclear power, now accuses German Greens of an ‘irrational fear of the atom’. Although they remain a small minority, these nuclear converts have upset the previous consensus. And a growing number of Californians, including those concerned about climate change, now wonder whether it’s right to close nuclear power plants if they are only going to be replaced by fossil fuels with high CO2 emissions.

Going soon? Diablo Canyon, California’s only operational nuclear power plant, is due to close in 2024

George Rose · Getty

The fracking revolution

The US has no lack of fossil fuels. The fracking revolution boosted production in the late 2000s, making the country the world’s largest oil and gas producer. It also made many planned nuclear power plants obsolete over the past 20 years. ‘Natural gas is fairly cheap in the US and plentiful,’ Kee says, ‘and [a natural gas plant] ends up being the easier thing to build … We basically met our Paris Accord greenhouse gas emissions targets by doing nothing … Natural gas plants replace coal plants. That causes a big reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without doing anything on the part of the federal government. We’ve become a bit complacent because of that,’ he says. Even in pro-nuclear states, the availability and cheapness of shale gas is discouraging new nuclear plant construction.

With 93 nuclear reactors in operation, the US still has the world’s largest nuclear sector, but it’s in poor shape. In terms of its share of national electricity production (20%), American nuclear power is still far behind the world leader, France (over 70%). The brutal deregulation of the energy market in much of the country has weakened the nuclear sector and expertise is disappearing as reactors are decommissioned and engineers retire. Costs and delays mount daily on the only two reactors currently under construction, Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 in Georgia.

The only exception is Washington State, which in 2019 passed an environmental law, the Clean Energy Transformation Act, requiring power companies to be carbon neutral by 2030 or face hefty fines. With hydropower output almost at capacity, the state is trying to develop new types of Small Modular Reactors (SMR), though these come with the known problem of a very high price tag. The first four will be built by the Columbia River. A start-up owned by Bill Gates also plans to build a state-of-the-art power plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, on the site of a coal-fired plant.

While building a new nuclear power plant is very expensive in the West (it’s much less so in Asia), the initial investment in old plants such as Diablo has long since been absorbed. Even factoring in maintenance costs, established nuclear remains the cheapest source of carbon-free electricity in the US, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which includes construction as well as running costs in its calculations. Next cheapest are solar and onshore wind, then new nuclear, which is significantly more expensive, but still cheaper than offshore wind, the most expensive of all carbon-free sources, according to the IEA (9). The Biden administration has clearly taken these statistics to heart: in April it offered $6bn in aid to extend the life of ageing nuclear plants. Ten days later, California’s Democratic governor Gavin Newsom said it would be ‘remiss’ not to reconsider the closure of Diablo if some of the money was awarded to his state (10).

Earthquake zone

While the US nuclear sector is largely privatised, managing nuclear waste is the responsibility of the state and managed from Washington. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act required federal government to provide disposal solutions to private operators of nuclear reactors. In fact, almost no waste has been removed from nuclear plants. For a time, the government considered using an underground facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but the site, a two-hour drive northwest of Las Vegas, has been beset by practical and political problems. So the waste has continued to accumulate at some 60 sites for the past 40 years and the federal government has paid the companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually for breaching its contract, money that the operators are not obliged to spend on storage.

The problem of what to do with the waste is a perennial one, with no obvious long-term solution, but Mothers for Nuclear is blithely optimistic. ‘Diablo Canyon stores its own spent fuel on site in dry casks outside and you can stand right next to the canisters and not have any effects of radiation, and you can sleep on top of them, if you wanted to’, says Klay. ‘They’re not dangerous, right?’

Natural gas is fairly cheap in the US, and plentiful, and a natural gas plant ends up being the easier thing to build … We basically met our Paris Accord greenhouse gas emissions targets by doing nothing

Ed Kee

The Diablo plant’s location, near an earthquake zone, alarms opponents of nuclear power. One of the three fault lines near the plant was not discovered till after it was built. Originally designed to withstand a magnitude 6.5 earthquake, Diablo plant was retrospectively upgraded to withstand a magnitude 7.5 shock. During the last earthquake in the region in San Simeon in 2003 (magnitude 6.5), the plant did not experience problems. But what if there were an earthquake of magnitude 9.1 (as in Fukushima) that precipitated a tsunami? That question remains unanswered.

Former journalist David Weisman is familiar with these issues. For many years he has been the outreach coordinator for the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, an organisation campaigning for Diablo Canyon’s closure. He lives inside the plant’s evacuation zone. In addition to obsolescence and safety issues, Weisman flags up an economic problem: nuclear power is ‘too expensive. PG&E says so, not me.’ California can get by, he says, with ‘energy sobriety’ (an idea rarely mentioned in San Luis Obispo) and with new electricity imports from outside the state. He places a lot of hope in wind power from Wyoming, maintaining it could in the future feed into California’s grid via a new 1,500-km high-voltage line. The project is being funded by the investor Warren Buffet, the world’s eighth richest man, and billionaire Philip Anschutz, an oil and sports events magnate, neither of whom personifies ‘energy sobriety’…

‘Californians will lose both ways’

Gene Nelson, legal counsel for Californians for Green Nuclear Power (CGNP), says his fellow Californians must believe in Santa Claus if they imagine that this new electricity from Wyoming will be clean. Wind farms are being built on the windy uplands of this sparsely populated state, encouraged by the tax credits introduced by the Obama administration to guarantee a good return on investment, but their total output is small compared to the vast amount of coal Wyoming produces (coal still provides a quarter of total US energy consumed).

While states such as Washington have banned the import of ‘dirty’ electricity generated from coal, California has not, says Nelson, a retired professor who has made the fighting for the environment and saving nuclear power his life’s work. In 2009 the California legislature created a legal loophole, ‘unspecified imports’, which allows the state to exclude imported energy from its carbon footprint calculations. It’s obvious, Nelson thinks, since electricity has no smell, that promises of clean power from Wyoming are just greenwashing. ‘Californians will lose both ways: by losing Diablo, they’ll pay more for more polluted electricity.’

The problem of storage

Underlying the debate about the future electricity mix in California, the world’s fifth largest economy, are the difficult trade-offs faced by advanced economies that have invested in intermittent renewables such as solar and wind, but ignored the problem of storage. Surplus electricity produced by the California sun in the middle of the day is frequently sold at a loss to neighbouring states, which are equipping themselves with solar and in turn experiencing the same problems. This is because the expensive lithium storage batteries last only a few hours and have a lifespan of only five to ten years.

There is the option of pumped-storage facilities, which use excess power to create a temporary artificial lake upstream, which later flows downstream, driving turbines and (re)generating power. California already has two such facilities, at Helms and Castaic, but building more would be huge projects, requiring a large amount of land for relatively modest gains. Other storage options are still on an experimental scale: the sector is in its infancy and suffers from under-investment (11).

However, California doesn’t lack ambition when it comes to renewable energy. A wind farm project was presented to the press and residents of San Luis Obispo this spring. The planned installation would be located about 40km offshore, opposite Diablo, in order to reuse the existing power grid after it is retired. The project is part of the US’s first national offshore wind plan. It is huge in every way, with an eventual maximum theoretical capacity of 3GW by 2030 (with actual power delivery estimated at half that amount due to wind being an intermittent source), almost three times larger than Hornsea 1 in the North Sea, currently the world’s largest installation, which has 174 turbines.

A lithium storage plant is also planned, likewise the world’s largest, according to its builder, the Texas-based Vistra Corporation. The plant will be at Morro Bay on the Pacific, replacing an old coal-fired power station. With a capacity of 600MW, it is projected to house 180,000 lithium-ion batteries in three huge buildings. The local press is enthusiastic: the project promises jobs and income for a county that will be hard hit by Diablo’s closure.

PG&E meanwhile plans to hand the protected natural area around Diablo over to the indigenous Northern Chumash people. Though Diablo’s closure sounds like a boon for the community, some here are sceptical. Scott Lathrop, a tribal leader, is in favour of extending the plant’s life until something better comes along. He’s not impressed by the offshore wind plan.

He says, ‘It’s a lot cheaper to extend Diablo than to create a whole new industry. The Morro Bay Area is off the coast of our homeland. We’re talking like 400 square miles of field and in order to put the turbines together, they have to build a wind port, essentially 100 acres on the waterfront. We would be replacing our cheapest energy source with our most expensive. You realise the amount of area that you need for wind farms and solar and batteries for backup? And it wouldn’t even replace all of the power. Why is that a good idea?’ He believes the main beneficiary from a nuclear-free California will be the gas industry. The nuclear energy dilemma, by Maxime Robin (Le Monde diplomatique

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