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The Case for a Nuclear Renaissance

Retiring existing plants, especially a problem-free facility like Diablo Canyon in California, will aggravate the real problems: energy dependence and climate change.

By Jeff Wheelwright

The fate of Diablo Canyon is still shrouded in fog. Credit: Getty Images.

In the mid 1990s my beat as a science writer was nuclear energy and radiological health issues. For the Los Angeles Times I visited the Trinity site in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was detonated. For Smithsonian I wrote about nuclear waste disposal. After studying the voluminous research on the health effects of plutonium, I did an article for The Atlantic titled “Atomic Overreaction.” The article pushed back against overheated reporting about plutonium, “the most toxic substance known to man,” according to Ralph Nader.

Closer to home—less than five miles from my house as the crow flies—I visited the radioactive interior of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Diablo sits above a pretty ocean cove near Avila Beach in the central part of California. Although construction had begun on its two generating units in the late 1960s, it was not until 1985 that the first megawatts of electricity flowed into the grid. Diablo’s commissioning was drawn out, on the one hand, by environmental opposition and public protests, which included mass arrests, and, on the other hand, by the discovery of an offshore geological fault, which prompted seismic reinforcements.

Nestled in the coastal hills, the plant operated for a decade without a hitch, yet many residents distrusted it and wished it weren’t there. I visited Unit 1 during an outage for scheduled maintenance. A photographer took my picture before I went into the containment dome: Draped head to toe in protective white fabric, I looked like a deer in the headlights. The full-body suit was meant to guard me from spot contamination by radioactive substances but not from the ambient radiation, which a dosimeter on my chest kept note of.

Jeff Wheelwright reporting on nuclear reactors
Reporter Jeff Wheelwright waiting to report on Diablo Canyon in 1994.

The plant’s safety director escorted me around. The reactor, its lid pulled off, ran at a low boil. We stood 100 feet from the open core. I remember the safety director pointing a Geiger counter at a jumble of pipes next to us. “Entirely gamma,” he said, glancing at the counter, referring to the type of radiation. “The rate here isn’t that high, really, but there’s no point in standing around.” We moved away.

“Officially”—so I boasted at the end of my article—“I got a total of six millirems of radiation from my visit to Diablo Canyon, which is on the order of a chest X-ray.” In those days I was the sort of reporter who didn’t mind having an unnecessary X-ray.

Which source of power, nuclear or fossil fuels, kills more people? It’s not close. Thousands die each year from breathing carbon particles in the air.

Fast forward to the present. My wife and I live in the same house. I’ve had a few chest X-rays over the years, but my health remains good. A second geologic fault was found, but scientists for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calculated that the power plant could withstand a quake if the fault broke. That is, no additional structural modifications were required. Diablo Canyon hums along, providing 8 to 9 percent of California’s electricity while emitting almost no greenhouse gases. Yet the plant is a dead man walking, because in just three years it is scheduled to close permanently—the first unit in 2024, the second in 2025. In 2015 the owner, Pacific Gas and Electric, working with state and local authorities and environmental groups, decided not to renew the 40-year operating licenses for the twin units.

Nationally, the outlook for nuclear power is not any brighter. Even as it provides about 20 percent of America’s electricity, the atom is fizzling out. Older plants sporadically have closed, and just one new facility has come online since 1996. In Georgia two additional plants are slogging through cost overruns toward completion, but when they open in a year or two they will be the exceptions that prove the rule.

Why is there a rule? Nuclear energy in its civilian garb is innocent of any crime. People may question whether nukes ought to be expanded given the high cost of construction and the nagging matter of waste disposal. Yet to retire existing plants, especially a problem-free facility like Diablo, is sure to aggravate the real crime, the crying shame of climate change. Decarbonize has become the energy watchword of the century, but if you think climate change is really that important, you cannot use the word denuclearize in the same sentence with decarbonize.

Hello, California? With each heat-driven blackout, wildfire conflagration, and doomsday prediction from climatologists, the argument for keeping Diablo open becomes louder. This summer the Sacramento Bee, a statewide newspaper, suggested that closing Diablo would be a mistake. Four of five of my local county supervisors have come out against a shutdown, joining one of my state senators. The state’s Republican delegation in the U.S. Congress is opposed as well.

At the same time, the easing of the pandemic has revived economic activity and demand for electricity. Burning of fossil fuels has surged, not only in California but across the United States and abroad. In Germany and Japan, both of which have resolved to phase out nuclear power, carbon emissions have accelerated and second thoughts about the shutdowns are rumbling, if not yet rife. Even dirty coal is looking good again to stock market investors. And all that was before the war in Ukraine, which has disrupted energy markets worldwide. Germany is now reconsidering the shutdown of its last few plants, and even before the war France decided to double down on nuclear power.

To retire existing plants, especially a problem-free facility like Diablo, is sure to aggravate the real crime, the crying shame of climate change.

To be sure, my fiercely blue Golden State has been ramping up solar and wind, but no analyst claims that renewable energy will be able to take over Diablo’s contribution by 2025. California has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2045; that means it will offset its greenhouse gas emissions with an equivalent reduction of CO2 pollution by sequestration or other means. However, the state can deliver on the promise only if it establishes a carbon-free electrical grid. Right now the antiquated grid is maxed out and depends more than ever on plants that run on oil and natural gas.

When the decision to close Diablo was made, critics warned that electrical generation would fall short and that rising greenhouse gas emissions would disrupt the region’s weather. With drought perpetually threatening the state, yesterday’s Cassandras look conservative. “In a cruel twist,” notes the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee, “California needed to burn excess fossil fuels to meet the electricity demand caused by extreme heat that experts say would have been impossible without climate change. That’s right—we need fossil fuels to protect us from the environmental dangers that grew more severe because of our over-reliance on them.”

The crunch that’s looming on the energy horizon is sparking uncomfortable calculations regarding land use. According to a 2021 report by engineers at Stanford and MIT, California’s one remaining nuclear plant, which is fully paid for, occupies just 140 acres. How many acres of new solar panels will be needed to match Diablo’s output? The answer, they approximate, is 90,000.

Or this brainteaser: Which source of power, nuclear or fossil fuels, kills more people? It’s not close. Thousands die each year from breathing carbon particles in the air.

The best spin that can be put on the situation is that the economy has to rob Peter (burn more carbon) in order to make Paul sustainable in the future. President Biden, addressing the awakened appetite for fossil fuels even as his administration promises to go green, acknowledged that it seems “inconsistent.” But will Paul, to mix metaphors, be able to pull a rabbit out of his hat when the time arrives? Right now Paul has nothing up his sleeve but nuclear. The president’s climate plan actually calls for boosting nuclear power, but he doesn’t like to say that in public.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and radioactive fallout from weapons testing during the 1950s overshadowed the bounties promised by “the peaceful atom.”

The keep-Diablo argument is so strong that I am more interested in the source of the antipathy on the other side, the revulsion even, that many Americans feel about nuclear energy. It all comes down to fear, of course: the regularly refreshed fear that started with the bomb in 1945.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and radioactive fallout from weapons testing during the 1950s overshadowed the bounties promised by “the peaceful atom.” Struggling with the stigma, civilian nuclear power took hold in the 1960s, but then came Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011). Each succeeding accident was perceived by the news media as a disaster, reigniting the fear. Popular movies, their fingers on the pulse, have played on public anxiety ever since Godzilla, a Japanese monster, emerged from a radioactive nimbus. The China Syndrome, about a scary meltdown at a power plant, uncannily came out at the same time as the Three Mile Island accident. Silkwood (1983) enlisted Meryl Streep as a nuclear whistleblower, a woman contaminated with plutonium, doomed as she does her duty.

Richard Rhodes, author of the Pulitzer-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, makes a better case than I for the rehabilitation of nuclear power. In his 2018 book, Energy: A Human History, Rhodes reviews the toll of the three accidents. The meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania hurt no one, as radioactive releases were minor. Chernobyl, a primitive reactor without a containment dome, killed the Russian responders who tried to put out the burning core and caused additional deaths from cancers in Ukraine, in part because of radioisotopes that got into the milk supply. Fukushima’s toll of destruction came almost exclusively from the tsunami that knocked out the reactors. The radioactive releases in Japan were on the order of those from Three Mile Island. It does seem there was slightly more radioactive release with Fukushima compared with Three Mile Island, according to the World Nuclear Association, but still not enough to cause harm to human health. None of this is to say that the accidents were not alarming. Yet Rhodes concludes: “Nuclear power’s public health record more than compensates for its few occupational accidents. Its limited air pollution combined with its extremely low greenhouse gas emissions and its 24/7 availability more than 90 percent of the time make it easily the most promising single energy source available to cope with twenty-first-century energy challenges.”

Psychologists talk about “availability bias,” the illogical focus on the thing nearest or highest in mind as the basis for making a decision. That nuclear energy, and by extension Diablo Canyon, is unacceptably dangerous is an irrational belief, but it may be insurmountable. In Sacramento, new legislation and environmental waivers would be necessary to keep Diablo open —and would be challenged in court. In San Luis Obispo County, where I live, the bureaucratic forces working to shut the plant have acquired great momentum, like an ocean liner that won’t be turned around. I’ve attended meetings on Zoom of the citizens’ panel that is advising the utility on decommissioning the plant. We are at the “PSDAR stage,” i.e., discussion of the post-shutdown decommissioning activities report. I have to pinch myself when I hear plans to repurpose Diablo Cove in 2040 after the spent fuel rods and radioactive concrete are magically whisked away. A resort hotel is proposed . . . opportunities to rent kayaks . . . a “glamping” business. Yes, why not? No health concerns for families there!

When preparing this essay, I looked at the Wikipedia page for the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. It’s a journalistic no-no to rely on Wikipedia as a sole or even partial source. You must go to the citations at the bottom of the page, and determine if those sources are good, and review them for accuracy yourself. However, there was one citation I didn’t have to check because I had written it myself for Life magazine in 1979. My article was about Three Mile Island and the implications of the accident. I’d gone to the area of the plant with a Life photographer. Naturally, we did not get very close. The perimeter was off-limits. The photographer had to shoot pictures of the cooling towers from the misty-morning distance.

My mention of Diablo in the article was about the seismic risks and construction delays at the site. There was a possibility that Diablo would never open. Of course, I had no idea I would move to the coast of California in 1992 and would live near the plant for 30 years. Recently I looked again at Life’s spooky blue cover. I probably wrote the headline. It was: Judgment Day for Nuclear Power: Is public confidence gone forever? As a journalist, my finger was always on the pulse.

March 23, 2022

Jeff Wheelwright

is a science writer whose work has appeared in Discover, Smithsonian, and The His latest book is The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess (2012).

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