By David M. Greenwald
It caught my attention yesterday when Max Szabo, a PR consultant associated largely with progressive prosecutors tweeted, “A formal effort was launched today to stop closure of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.”
“The plant is CA’s largest source of clean energy,” he wrote. “Closing it will significantly increase emissions & undermine CA’s ambitious clean energy goals.”
A formal effort was launched today to stop closure of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant⚡️
The plant is CA's largest source of clean energy.
— Maxwell Szabo (@maxxszabo) December 4, 2021
Local San Luis Obispo news station KSBY reported, “Plans to shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant near Avila beach are still underway. It is the last nuclear plant left in California, and clean energy activists are fighting against the closure.”
The regulatory licenses of the 40 year old plant are set to expire in 2024 and 2025 and plans have been made to shut it down.
But in an ironic twist, the station reported, “Environmental activists, scientists, and elected officials made their voices heard today against the closure of Diablo Canyon.”
“California’s climate future matters a lot and Diablo Canyon is the single largest source of clean energy in California,” said Dr. Seaver Wang, senior climate and energy analyst. “Most importantly, if the Diablo Canyon is closed as scheduled, it will throw a major wrench into California’s decarbonization plans.”
“We again are in a climate and energy crisis,” said Isabelle Boemeke, founder and executive director of the Save Clean Energy organization. “The state needs more energy not less and we need more clean energy not less of it.”
Not everyone agrees. Some believe that “nuclear energy leaves a hidden carbon footprint when looking at the production behind it.”
“When you think of the mining of uranium, the milling, the enrichment, the building of the nuclear plant with hundreds of tons of cement and concrete,” said Linda Seeley, the spokesperson for Mothers for Peace organization (who I have known for about 40 years and whose organization was formed to oppose Diablo Canyon).
Still it’s an interesting debate now. I was a small child in the late 1970s when Diablo Canyon was first proposed. I remember marching against it. I remember Governor Jerry Brown in his first go round coming to speak. And I remember countless people being arrested for blockading the power plant, and then released and coming to our home to shower up and go back to the front.
Of concern at the time, what to do about nuclear waste, the potential for a radioactive leak – Three Mile Island had just occurred, Chernobyl was in the near future – and then there were California specific concerns about the proximity to an earthquake fault.
Despite the protests the issue of nuclear power seems to divide both the environmental and scientific community.
Daniel B. Poneman is a Senior Fellow with the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School argued in a 2019 article in Scientific American that we can’t solve climate change without nuclear power.
“Nuclear energy is the largest source of carbon-free energy in the U.S. by a huge margin and it has a major role to play in confronting the global climate challenge,” he wrote warning about the need for vigilance about the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue regimes. “
He said, “The threat of nuclear proliferation abroad should not lead us to abandon nuclear energy at home. Indeed, American nuclear leadership has always been critical to guiding the safe, responsible use of civilian nuclear energy around the world.”
Not everyone agrees with that.
Consumed fuel rods remain a problem with “hundreds of radioactive waste sites in many countries that must be maintained and funded for at least 200,000 years, far beyond the lifetimes of any nuclear power plant.”
Mark Jacobson in research from Cambridge University published by the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation argues, “new nuclear power costs about 5 times more than onshore wind power per kWh (between 2.3 to 7.4 times depending upon location and integration issues). Nuclear takes 5 to 17 years longer between planning and operation and produces on average 23 times the emissions per unit electricity generated (between 9 to 37 times depending upon plant size and construction schedule).”
In addition, he argues, “it creates risk and cost associated with weapons proliferation, meltdown, mining lung cancer, and waste risks. Clean, renewables avoid all such risks.”
BBC summed it up in a 2019 analysis: “Nuclear is good for the environment. Nuclear is bad for the environment. Both statements are true.”
The issue of waste storage is not insignificant with the BBC pointing out, that in Great Britain for instance, “contaminated material has been held in a temporary store at the Sellafield site in Cumbria.”
“The government has been trying for years to secure a site with the right geology,” they write. “So far no permanent dump has been agreed – that is after 70 years of nuclear power in the UK.”
The big question: can we get by without new nuclear?
“The UK policy identifying the need for nuclear to play a role alongside renewables has been supported by numerous independent studies,” said a spokesperson for EDF. “Nuclear provides low-carbon electricity when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.”
“The issue has caused a bitter divide between environmentalists, with some arguing that the risk from climate change is so severe that it’s worth supping nuclear fuel, albeit with a long spoon,” the BBC continues. “Others argue that the technology is dead and that renewables and other options can supply the UK’s needs without the danger of nuclear accidents and waste.”
Prof Jim Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre, told BBC News: “Most analysts now have accepted that we don’t need 30% of energy from nuclear – renewables can take a substantially bigger share.
“But taking any option off the table makes the job of meeting essential carbon targets even harder. It would certainly be hard to do without nuclear altogether.”
I have tended to oppose nuclear power throughout my lifetime in part between the cost and problematic nature of the waste. But the climate emergency needs to make all of us re-think our calculations and that probably means that nuclear at least has to be in consideration as a potential piece of the solution.