Last weekend, a crowd of more than one hundred people filled the courtyard in front of the San Luis Obispo Superior Court in vocal support of keeping the neighboring Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant open. Protestors called upon leaders in Sacramento and at PG&E to reconsider current plans to retire the plant’s 2200 megawatts worth of clean energy capacity by 2025, further emphasizing Diablo Canyon’s importance for California’s net-zero goals in its fight against climate change.
Climate change, however, isn’t the only reason to keep the plant open. Good union jobs are at risk as pointed out by Heather Hoff, one of the rally’s partnering organizers and a current employee at the plant. The facility’s importance for local employment and revenue is undeniable, but so is its role in keeping California’s power generation resilient against increasingly worsening fire seasons and drought, as pointed out by activist and organizer Isabelle Boemeke.
The rally’s overall emphasis on climate action was undeniable. Focus on climate priorities is emblematic of a wider shift in the climate and environmental movement that increasingly recognizes the need for clean, firm energy sources like nuclear power. Supporters are pointing out we should prioritize the retirement of fossil fuels, rather than engaging in treadmill decarbonization, by shutting down nuclear plants and erasing much of the progress made by deploying more renewable energy like wind and solar.
A more productive path for California and for the nation at large would be to use existing and new clean nuclear capacity to support the accelerated deployment of clean energy from all sources. Under current California energy policies, however, estimates by researchers at MIT and Stanford in a recent study project that retiring Diablo Canyon will increase statewide emissions, with new procurement of renewables failing to make up for the lost clean power production. Removing nuclear power from California’s energy portfolio before fossil fuels isn’t just nonsensical, it is an affront to the state’s own 2030 SB100 goals.
In an attempt to bring all parties to the table, rally activists invited organizations such as Greenpeace — well-known opponents of nuclear energy — to the protest. Representatives for either organization did not ultimately attend and therefore did not have to address false claims justifying their opposition to Diablo Canyon. When asked by a local reporter covering the rally, a Mothers for Peace representative falsely claimed nuclear power produces significant carbon dioxide emissions. In reality, an overwhelming body of research shows that nuclear energy produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than even solar energy.
Meanwhile, as the Diablo Canyon rally demonstrated, the boldness of this younger generation of environmentalists willing to challenge traditional anti-nuclear environmental positions is strengthening. Historically, environmental and climate activists focused upon building awareness and pushing society towards stronger commitments to climate action. They submerged any diverging opinions on which solutions were preferable, in favor of a big-tent effort to promote the importance of climate issues first and foremost.
But now we are entering a new phase of the climate challenge, in which governments and industries must commit to real plans and solutions. Now that we’re getting down to the hands-on business of decarbonizing society, more environmentalists are realizing nuclear power plays an essential role in cutting carbon emissions as quickly as possible. Vestigial prejudices in favor of shutting down any and all nuclear plants are now clearly an obstacle to climate goals.
Moving forwards, the value of clean nuclear power will only increase further as new advanced technologies offer vastly improved safety factors, novel potential to help decarbonize key industrial processes, and versatile scalability for communities large and small. The list of advantages to nuclear technology will continue to grow, while ideological opposition will become irrational and irrelevant.
As such, environmentalists must choose between a gradually more and more outdated commitment to oppose nuclear energy and an ongoing commitment to maximize climate progress. To a growing number of younger, nuclear energy-supporting environmentalists like those who gathered before the Superior Court building in San Luis Obispo this Saturday, the right choice is obvious.