How grassroots activism saved California’s only remaining nuclear power plant
Last week, California governor Gavin Newsom announced a plan to roll back the planned retirement of Diablo Canyon, the state’s only surviving nuclear power plant. For several months, Newsom had been tentatively exploring options to keep the San Luis Obispo plant running. Nonetheless, the announcement was something of a shock. After all, not so long ago, the governor had helped lead the political movement demanding that the plant be closed. And until quite recently, California’s elite class—lawmakers, journalists, entertainers—were almost unanimously opposed to the very idea of nuclear power, seeing it as a risky and unnecessary distraction on the road to bounteous wind and solar power.
How did this rapid change in public opinion come about? In some ways, California’s sudden embrace of nuclear power recalls the famous quotation attributed to Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Though the quotation is probably apocryphal, it captures the way a tiny cohort of pro-nuclear advocates made their case, plugging away year after year, gradually winning both policymakers and the public to their side.
“It was very lonely at first,” recalls Michael Shellenberger. In 2016, when California’s Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) announced plans to retire Diablo Canyon, he was one of the handful of environmentalists to speak up in defense of the plant. Their viewpoint wasn’t popular. “We were demonized and accused of all sorts of terrible things,” he told me. Diablo Canyon had always been a lightning rod for criticism. Thousands protested the plant’s construction in the early 1980s; singer Jackson Browne was among the many arrested trying to block the gates. The Los Angeles Times called the demonstration “the Normandy Invasion of civil protests.” Even after the plant opened in 1985, environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council, kept fighting to shut it down.
In 2013, Senator Barbara Boxer, Friends of the Earth, and other anti-nuclear advocates forced the early retirement of California’s San Onofre nuclear plant near San Clemente. By 2016, environmentalists were successfully running the same playbook on Diablo Canyon. Legal activists tied up PG&E with lawsuits, while state officials—including then-lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom—looked for bureaucratic maneuvers that would force the company to close the plant. They knew that by 2025 PG&E would need to get the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) approval to extend Diablo Canyon’s operating license. They vowed to do everything they could to block that process. (New York governor Andrew Cuomo, working with Riverkeeper and other anti-nuclear activists, used similar tactics to force the closure of the Hudson Valley’s Indian Point power plant in 2021.) Finally, PG&E threw in the towel, announcing it would not seek a license extension. The embattled power company promised it would replace the plant’s 2,200 megawatts (nearly 9 percent of California’s electricity) with renewable energy projects.
At first, almost everyone agreed that California was better off without Diablo Canyon. Friends of the Earth said closing the state’s last remaining nuclear plant would help “make California a global leader in fighting climate change.” Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill mandating that Diablo’s power be replaced with lower-cost, zero-carbon alternatives. Nuclear was the past; wind and solar were the future. Nuclear plants are “cheaper to close than to run,” declared environmental guru Amory Lovins. Even Elon Musk joined in; lawyers for Tesla (which just happened to own a solar-panel company) filed a legal brief supporting the planned shutdown. For the most part, conservatives didn’t object either. Many had become convinced that cheap natural gas was making nuclear energy obsolete. Taxpayers for Common Sense recently described nuclear power as a “failing industry,” propped up by government subsidies.
But not everyone went along with this consensus. As Robert Bryce wrote in City Journal at the time, the old-guard, anti-nuclear environmentalists—groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council—were suddenly challenged by the “pro-nuclear New Guard Greens.” Shellenberger, who co-founded the eco-modernist Breakthrough Institute and later launched the wide-ranging advocacy group Environmental Progress, began lobbying then-governor Jerry Brown to keep Diablo Canyon open. A few contrarian environmentalists, including Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand and climate scientist James Hansen, joined him in the quixotic quest.
These pro-nuclear greens picked apart the rosy forecasts made by renewable-only advocates: adding more wind and solar to the grid can help bring down carbon emissions, they argued, but the unpredictable swings in power production from those sources make managing the grid more challenging. To balance out intermittent wind and solar power, utilities typically turn to natural-gas-fired power plants, which can quickly fill the gaps when renewables flag. While renewable-energy supporters glossed over these problems, eco-modernists argued that the numbers don’t lie. By 2021, wind and solar were providing an impressive 25 percent of California’s electricity production. But natural gas use had surged even more, accounting for 50 percent of the state’s power. The strategy of closing nuclear plants while building wind and solar was leading to what Breakthrough Institute analyst Adam Stein calls “treadmill decarbonization”: despite billions in clean-energy investments, the state’s carbon emissions were barely creeping down. Meantime, California’s electricity prices were the nation’s highest, and the state was becoming dangerously prone to blackouts. Just as Germany has done in Europe with its disastrous Energiewende program, California was providing a case study in how not to decarbonize an economy.
To make matters worse, analysts predicted that, if Diablo Canyon closed as scheduled, the state’s carbon emissions would jump 11 percent and ratepayers would be on the hook for billions of dollars. Despite these looming disasters, the anti-nuclear elite remained unmoved. There are “better ways to fight climate change,” a Los Angeles Times editorial sniffed. Any hardships imposed by closing the plant should “serve as an impetus for California to accelerate the shift to renewable energy.” From the lofty perspective of the Times editorial board, huge burdens on California consumers—and massive increases in emissions—somehow constituted a win for the climate. Shellenberger, the Breakthrough Institute, and others relentlessly challenged this kind of economic and environmental innumeracy.
These nuclear supporters didn’t just crunch the numbers; they also built a network of grassroots advocates. In 2016, Shellenberger visited the Diablo Canyon plant and got to know some of the workers there. He encouraged them to fight for their plant and their jobs. “Many workers gave up right away,” he recalls. Two who didn’t were Kristin Zaitz and Heather Hoff, both young mothers who had never planned to work in the nuclear industry but who came to love it. He encouraged them to start a nonprofit, Mothers for Nuclear, and they turned their experiences, both as parents and as nuclear professionals, into powerful advocacy.
“Nuclear is our best hope in combating climate change and protecting the future for our children,” Hoff’s Twitter bio reads. Both women talk about their outdoorsy upbringings and how they want to pass that love of nature on to their children. And both discuss their worries about climate change and its potential impact on the state. Long before Newsom’s announcement, Zaitz described plans to close the plant as a looming disaster she was powerless to stop. “Out of misunderstanding and fear,” she wrote, “California may close the best-run nuclear plant in the world and replace it with fossil fuels.” For many, such intimate advocacy is more persuasive than white papers and statistics.
Today, Mothers for Nuclear has branches in several countries around the world and is one of many grassroots advocacy groups trying to win over ordinary civilians. I recently wrote about Zion Lights, a British environmentalist who left the radical Extinction Rebellion and founded the pro-nuclear advocacy group Emergency Reactor (“The Green War on Clean Energy,” Summer 2022). The group holds cheerful street rallies promoting nuclear energy in London and other cities. In the U.S., Madi Hilly, the young founder of the Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal, writes entertaining Twitter threads explaining why fears of nuclear waste are unfounded. There are many similar examples.
In 2016, even the nuclear industry seemed apologetic about advocating for nuclear power. “But we held the line and worked to persuade people,” Shellenberger says. “Over time it became safer for people to come out in support of nuclear, and eventually in favor of Diablo.” While only a handful of experts spoke out on behalf of Diablo Canyon when its eventual retirement was first announced, by 2022, a growing chorus was calling for the plant to be saved. This past February, some 79 leading scientists—including Obama administration energy secretary Steven Chu—signed a letter urging Newsom to save the plant. A May 2022 poll showed that 58 percent of California voters support keeping Diablo Canyon open.
Newsom’s proposal calls for the state to issue a forgivable $1.4 billion loan to help keep the plant operating until 2035. (Free-market advocates are right to be galled that PG&E requires a subsidy to support a plant that ought to be quite profitable in today’s market. But in contrast to the billions the state spends subsidizing wind and solar, Newsom’s offer will save money for ratepayers.) The plan still needs to be approved by the state legislature, and the NRC must begin the long process of approving an extension of the plant’s operating license. Alex Trembath, deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, warns against premature celebration. “I’ll feel better when they actually approve the loan and extend the operating license,” he told me.
Still, nuclear advocates are optimistic that the measure will pass and the NRC will support the extension. In pro-nuclear social media circles, the reaction to Newsom’s announcement was ecstatic. Even a year ago, almost no one would have predicted this stunning turnaround. “Good news for California & the world,” Zion Lights tweeted. “Advocacy works!”
Photo by Christopher J. Morris/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
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