When I was a young reporter in San Diego, we had a contest: “I can alienate that reader in the least number of words.” The winner was three: Otay Water District.
Stories about the utility were dreadfully boring. But today I’ve got it beat. I can alienate that reader in two words: nuclear power.
This time the source of estrangement isn’t boredom but anger and fear, especially in the environmental activist (and heavily hydropowered) Pacific Northwest.
The outrage goes along the lines of: How could nuclear power even be considered as an alternative to fossil fuels and a tool to help decarbonize the economy, whatever the dangers of climate change? Nuclear stations bring their own risks, not least the unsolved problem of safely storing spent fuel.
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, respondents were evenly divided on nuclear, compared with 92% favoring expansion of solar and 85% favoring wind.
The 2011 tsunami-triggered Fukushima meltdown in Japan reinforced anxiety going back to Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. So did pop culture, such as 1979’s movie “The China Syndrome” and the green-oozing, rat-infested nuclear station on “The Simpsons.”
Germany recently closed three of its six nuclear stations, with the remainder to be shut by the end of this year. In 2000, the country’s parliament voted to end reliance on uranium-powered plants. Chancellor Angela Merkle — a physicist — wanted to extend the lives of existing stations. But it was not to be.
The trick now is to continue Germany’s decarbonization with nuclear off the table. Renewables such as solar and wind are growing and getting cheaper (in some cases less pricey than fossil fuels, especially with Berlin’s heavy subsidies for solar power) but still not enough to replace lost reactors. France, by contrast, depends on nuclear for about 70% of electricity and is building more plants.
But can we avoid the conversation in a country such as the United States, where nuclear accounts for 20% of total electricity?
It comes from 55 commercially operated plants in 28 states (including the Columbia Generating Station near Richland; Oregon’s trouble-plagued Trojan plant was decommissioned in 1992). The largest is the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station near Phoenix. They contribute zero carbon emissions into the atmosphere and are critical to decarbonizing the economy.
Columbia is the only remnant of the Washington Public Power Supply System. In the 1970s, WPPSS, with 17 public utilities as members, anticipated a surge in electricity demand that could only be met with nuclear plants. Five generating stations were planned but factors from inflation to local opposition doomed the others. “Whoops” resulted in the largest municipal default in U.S. history up to that time.
Emissions increased 6.2% this past year, according to the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm. The biggest cause was a 17% jump in burning the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal. It was the first rise in coal generation since 2014. That puts President Joe Biden’s ambitious climate goals at further risk.
America burns a billion tons of coal annually, which may contribute to the direct and indirect deaths of 100,000 people a year from the pollution. No deaths in the United States or Western Europe have ever resulted from nuclear power and only two directly died in Japan (31 died at Chernobyl because of an inferior reactor design and poor handling of the disaster).
Even so, such environmental activists as Bill McKibben found new reasons to question the safety of nuclear power after the 9/11 attacks, that plants are vulnerable to terrorist attacks including an airplane strike (not everyone agrees).
To be sure, not all environmentalists are opposed to nuclear energy. For example, NASA’s James Hansen, credited with bringing climate change to the public arena, has long favored using nuclear energy.
A 2021 New Yorker article profiled Heather Hoff, who went to work at California’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Her proximity to the operation caused her to change her anti-nuclear stance.
“Hoff was especially struck by the fact that nuclear-power generation does not emit carbon dioxide or the other air pollutants associated with fossil fuels,” the article says. “Eventually, she began to think that fears of nuclear energy were not just misguided but dangerous. Her job no longer seemed to be in tension with her environmentalist views. Instead, it felt like an expression of her deepest values.”
Along with Kristin Zaitz, a civil engineer and another anti-nuke person who changed her mind, she founded a nonprofit called Mothers for Nuclear.
Meanwhile, the Breakthrough Institute was founded in the Bay Area by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, among a number of pro-nuclear environmental think tanks.
The New Yorker article describes “the pro-nuclear community [as] small and fractious. There are debates about how large a role renewables should play and about whether to focus on preserving existing plants or developing advanced reactors, which have the potential to shut down automatically in the event of overheating and to run on spent fuel.”
With the abandonment of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a tomb for spent fuel, this remains a challenge for nuclear power. So does the age of U.S. plants and reluctance of Wall Street to finance new reactors.
My colleague Hal Bernton wrote about Maryland-based X-energy, which is pioneering a new generation of highly efficient small reactors. The first would be near the Hanford nuclear reservation and is seeded by money from the federal Department of Energy.
X-energy, plus Bill Gates’ Bellevue-based TerraPower and Portland-based NuScale “proposes reactors that can ramp up and down their electrical output much more rapidly than the large reactors now operating. This agility could help keep electrical grids in balance as more wind and solar power comes online.”
Whether these efforts produce breakthroughs that reduce the anxiety about nuclear power remains to be seen.
But taking nuclear entirely off the table at a time when decarbonizing the economy is paramount seems self-destructive.