October 22, 2020 at 11:42 am

California was an early proponent of nuclear energy, opening the first civilian nuclear plant in 1957

By Sandesh Ilhe

California’s tech industry has long faced criticism for emphasizing vapid innovations that ultimately bring harm to society. In 2011, data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher observed, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” The ethos of this criticism can be applied to other California-centric industries, including the film industry, the music industry, and the weed industry. Even the energy industry in California has become increasingly vapid. The brightest minds in the energy sector — including Elon Musk — are focusing on wind and solar technology while gleefully abandoning nuclear energy, which is arguably the substantive answer to California’s energy problems.

California was an early proponent of nuclear energy, opening the first civilian nuclear plant in 1957. In the 1960s, the nuclear power industry expanded rapidly in the U.S., as power companies championed the new energy source as clean, safe, and economical. But then nuclear energy began to fall out of favor over the next few decades. The early designs weren’t great, and problems arose in several plants. California’s first plant, for example, suffered a partial meltdown and was ultimately shuttered in 1966. Today, California is on the brink of fully abandoning nuclear. The state’s final nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, is set to be decommissioned in 2025.

The downsides to nuclear energy are widely known, at least in part due to the many films and documentaries that have exploited fears of nuclear catastrophes. The movie website IMDb features a seemingly endless list of films in the genre “Nuclear Accident,” with enticing subgenres such as “Radiation,” “Evacuation,” and “Death.” But while the downsides to nuclear are certainly cinematic, they’re also — like many things casually associated with Hollywood — overblown.

Studies have shown that nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of energy. For example, a study that looked at deaths from energy production in European found that nuclear energy “results in more than 442 times fewer deaths than the ‘dirtiest’ forms of coal; 330 times fewer than coal; 250 times less than oil; and 38 times fewer than gas.” This data also shows nuclear being marginally safer than wind and solar. Additionally, according to an article by Jordan Wilkerson at Harvard University, “with the advent of modern reactors such as the pebble-bed reactor and careful selection of plant sites, nuclear accidents like the one in Fukushima are actually not possible.”

Meanwhile, the benefits of green energy come with serious caveats. Both wind and solar require massive swaths of land, which is a far cry from the environmentalist ideal of land preservation. According to environmental activist Michael Shellenberger, “Human civilization would have to occupy one hundred to one thousand times more space if it were to rely solely on renewables.” And as Michael Moore points out in Planet of the Humans, every solar panel requires fossil fuels to create. But more to the point: Wind and solar simply cannot reasonably produce enough energy to power metropolises like Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. Again to quote Shellenberger: “Renewables are low-power densities, which inevitably means they can’t power a high-energy industrial civilization.”

If all of this is true, or even mostly on point, then why doesn’t California embrace nuclear? I’m tempted to agree with Shellenberger’s cynical view: “The ‘problem’ with nuclear is that it solves environmental problems. … Nuclear has always threatened the people who want to take control of food and energy.” This would explain why the fossil fuel industry is in favor of the Green New Deal. As Vox and many others have observed: when nuclear power plants are shut down, they are replaced by coal and gas.

Many green-energy advocates are confident that Diablo Canyon, which makes up nearly 10% of California’s energy portfolio, will be replaced by renewables, but that is far from a certainty. We may just have to wait to find out. But in the meantime, right now is the perfect moment to consider what it would take for California to once again embrace nuclear.

What Would It Take for California to Embrace Nuclear?

In practical terms, California could start embracing tomorrow if the shift came from the top of government. If Gov. Gavin Newsom had a sudden epiphany about nuclear energy, he could quickly get the state back into the nuclear energy game by re-licensing Diablo Canyon. Although Diablo is expected to be shut down in 2025, it’s not too late for the state to re-license the power plant for another 40 years. The California State Legislature could also take direct action to keep nuclear alive in the state. In fact, in February 2020, Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham introduced AB 2898 to add nuclear energy to the California Renewables Portfolio Standard Program. The bill was introduced specifically as an effort to save Diablo Canyon.

But then there is the issue of public opinion. What would it take for Californians to demand the state to embrace nuclear energy? There are a number of factors currently at play that could potentially cause this to happen. The first: rolling energy blackouts during hot days at the end of summer. Californians instinctively blame PG&E, the energy company, for the blackouts, yet it’s also clear that the state’s policies and energy priorities underly the backouts. As Shellenberger writes in Forbes, California had to impose rolling blackouts “because it had failed to maintain sufficient reliable power from natural gas and nuclear plants, or pay in advance for enough guaranteed electricity imports from other states.” If nuclear advocates could make a clear case why nuclear energy would help stop future blackouts, this could lead to a shift in public favor toward nuclear.

Another relevant factor is cost of energy. Energy is expensive in California. In recent years, electricity prices in the state rose nearly seven times more than the U.S. on average. It’s not clear that renewable energy causes energy prices to increase. But it is clear that nuclear energy is cheap — generally competitive with fossil fuels — once the power plants are built. Keeping Diablo Canyon running as a reliable source of cheap energy should sound appealing to any Californian concerned with their high energy bills.


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Sandesh Ilhe

With an Engineers degree in Advanced Database Management and Information Security, Sandesh brings the deep understanding of the digital world to the table. His articles reflect the challenges and the complexities that come along with every disruption in the industry. He carries over six years of experience on working with websites and ensuring that the right article reaches the right reader.

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