NEWS The Activists Who Embrace Nuclear Power

For the orig­i­nal in The New Yorker (Feb­ru­ary 19, 2021), click here.

In 2004, Heather Hoff was work­ing at a cloth­ing store and liv­ing with her hus­band in San Luis Obispo, a small, laid-​​back city in the Cen­tral Coast region of Cal­i­for­nia. A few years ear­lier, she had earned a B.S. in mate­ri­als engi­neer­ing from the nearby Cal­i­for­nia Poly­tech­nic State Uni­ver­sity. But she’d so far found work only in a series of eclec­tic entry-​​level positions—shovelling grapes at a win­ery, assem­bling rec­tal ther­mome­ters for cows. She was twenty-​​four years old and eager to start a career.

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One of the county’s major employ­ers was the Dia­blo Canyon Power Plant, sit­u­ated on the coast­line out­side the city. Jobs there were sta­ble and well-​​paying. But Dia­blo Canyon is a nuclear facility—it con­sists of two reac­tors, each con­tained inside a giant con­crete dome—and Hoff, like many peo­ple, was sus­pi­cious of nuclear power. Her mother had been preg­nant with her in March, 1979, when the melt­down at a nuclear plant on Three Mile Island, in Penn­syl­va­nia, trans­fixed the nation. Hoff grew up in Ari­zona, in an uncon­ven­tional fam­ily that lived in a trailer with a com­post­ing toi­let. She con­sid­ered her­self an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, and took it for granted that envi­ron­men­tal­ism and nuclear power were at odds.

Nonethe­less, Hoff decided to give Dia­blo Canyon a try. She was hired as a plant oper­a­tor. The work took her on daily rounds of the facil­ity, check­ing equip­ment performance—oil flows, tem­per­a­tures, vibrations—and hunt­ing for signs of mal­func­tion. Still skep­ti­cal, she asked con­stant ques­tions about the safety of the tech­nol­ogy. “When four-​​thirty on Fri­day came, my co-​​workers were, like, ‘Shut up, Heather, we want to go home,’ ” she recalled. “When I finally asked enough ques­tions to under­stand the details, it wasn’t that scary.”

In the course of years, Hoff grew increas­ingly com­fort­able at the plant. She switched roles, work­ing in the con­trol room and then as a pro­ce­dure writer, and got to know the workforce—mostly older, avun­cu­lar men. She began to believe that nuclear power was a safe, potent source of clean energy with numer­ous advan­tages over other sources. For instance, nuclear reac­tors gen­er­ate huge amounts of energy on a small foot­print: Dia­blo Canyon, which accounts for roughly nine per cent of the elec­tric­ity pro­duced in Cal­i­for­nia, occu­pies fewer than six hun­dred acres. It can gen­er­ate energy at all hours and, unlike solar and wind power, does not depend on par­tic­u­lar weather con­di­tions to oper­ate. 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. 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.

In late 2015, Hoff and her col­leagues began to hear reports that wor­ried them. P.G. & E., the util­ity that owns Dia­blo Canyon, was in the process of apply­ing to renew its oper­at­ing licenses—which expire in the mid-twenty-twenties—with the fed­eral Nuclear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion. Because its cool­ing sys­tem takes in and spits out about 2.5 bil­lion gal­lons of ocean water each day, the plant also needs a lease from the Cal­i­for­nia State Lands Com­mis­sion in order to oper­ate, and P.G. & E. was apply­ing to renew that as well. Envi­ron­men­tal groups had come to the com­mis­sion with long-​​standing con­cerns about the effects of the cool­ing sys­tem on marine life and about the plant’s prox­im­ity to sev­eral geo­logic faults. The com­mis­sion, chaired by Gavin New­som, then the lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, had agreed to take those issues into account. At a meet­ing that Decem­ber, New­som said, “I just don’t see that this plant is going to sur­vive beyond ’24–2025.”

Around this time, Hoff dis­cov­ered a Web site called Save Dia­blo Canyon. The site had been launched by a man named Michael Shel­len­berger, who ran an orga­ni­za­tion called Envi­ron­men­tal Progress, in the Bay Area. Shel­len­berger was a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure, known for his pugilis­tic defense of nuclear power and his acer­bic crit­i­cism of main­stream envi­ron­men­tal­ists. Hoff had seen “Pandora’s Promise,” a 2013 doc­u­men­tary about nuclear power, in which Shel­len­berger had been fea­tured. She e-​​mailed him to ask about get­ting involved, and he offered to give a talk to plant employ­ees. Hoff pub­li­cized the event among her col­leagues, and baked about two hun­dred chocolate-​​chip cook­ies for the audience.

On the evening of Feb­ru­ary 16, 2016, a cou­ple hun­dred peo­ple filed into a con­fer­ence room at a local Court­yard Mar­riott hotel. Shel­len­berger told the audi­ence that Dia­blo Canyon was essen­tial to meet­ing California’s cli­mate goals, and that it could oper­ate safely for at least another twenty years. He said that it was at risk of being closed for polit­i­cal rea­sons, and urged the work­ers to orga­nize to save their plant, for the sake of their jobs and the planet.

Kristin Zaitz, one of Hoff’s co-​​workers, was also in atten­dance. A Cal­i­for­nia native and civil engi­neer, she had worked at Dia­blo Canyon since 2001, first con­duct­ing struc­tural analyses—including some meant to for­tify the plant against earthquakes—and then man­ag­ing projects. Zaitz, too, came from a back­ground that pre­dis­posed her to dis­trust nuclear power—in her case, an envi­ron­men­tally minded fam­ily and a left-​​leaning social cir­cle. When she first con­tem­plated work­ing at Dia­blo Canyon, she imag­ined the rat-​​infested Spring­field Nuclear Power Plant on “The Simp­sons,” where green liq­uid oozes out of tanks. Even­tu­ally, like Hoff, she changed her think­ing. “What we were doing actu­ally aligned with my envi­ron­men­tal val­ues,” she told me. “That was shock­ing to me.”

Zaitz and Hoff some­times bumped into each other at state parks, where both vol­un­teered on week­ends with their chil­dren. After Shellenberger’s talk, they lin­gered, fold­ing up chairs and talk­ing. Before long, they decided to team up. Using the name of Shellenberger’s site Save Dia­blo Canyon, they orga­nized a series of meet­ings at a local pipe-​​fitters’ union hall. They served pizza for dozens of employ­ees and their fam­ily mem­bers, who wrote let­ters to the State Lands Com­mis­sion and other Cal­i­for­nia offi­cials. Other nuclear plants across the coun­try were also at risk of clos­ing, and soon they decided that their mis­sion was big­ger than res­cu­ing their own plant. They wanted to cor­rect what they saw as false impres­sions about nuclear power—impressions that they had once had themselves—and to try to shift pub­lic opin­ion. They would show that “it’s O.K. to be in favor of nuclear,” Zaitz said—that, in fact, if you’re an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, “you should be out there root­ing for it.”

Hoff and Zaitz formed a non­profit. Like the lead­ers of many other move­ments led by women—protests against war, drunk dri­ving, and, of course, nuclear power—they sought to cap­i­tal­ize on their sta­tus as moth­ers. They toyed with a few generic names—Mothers for Cli­mate, Moth­ers for Sustainability—because they wor­ried that the word “nuclear” would scare some peo­ple off. But they ulti­mately dis­carded those more innocu­ous options. “We wanted to be really clear that we think nuclear needs to be part of the solu­tion,” Zaitz said. They now run a small activist orga­ni­za­tion, Moth­ers for Nuclear, which argues that nuclear power is an indis­pens­able tool in the quest for a decar­bonized society.

On Decem­ber 8, 1953, Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower deliv­ered his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations Gen­eral Assem­bly. He described the dan­gers of atomic weapons, but also declared that “this great­est of destruc­tive forces can be devel­oped into a great boon, for the ben­e­fit of all mankind.” Eisen­hower pro­posed that gov­ern­ments make con­tri­bu­tions from their stock­piles of ura­nium and fis­sion­able mate­ri­als to an inter­na­tional atomic-​​energy agency. One pur­pose of such an agency, he sug­gested, would be “to pro­vide abun­dant elec­tri­cal energy in the power-​​starved areas of the world.”

The first com­mer­cial nuclear power plant in the United States opened four years later, in Beaver County, Penn­syl­va­nia. In the fol­low­ing decades, dozens more were con­structed. There are cur­rently fifty-​​six nuclear power plants oper­at­ing in the U.S. They pro­vide the coun­try with roughly twenty per cent of its elec­tric­ity sup­ply— more than half of its low-​​carbon elec­tric­ity.

The plants were not always pre­sumed to be envi­ron­men­tally unfriendly. At the dawn of the nuclear age, some con­ser­va­tion­ists, includ­ing David Brower, the long­time leader of the Sierra Club, sup­ported nuclear power because it seemed prefer­able to hydro­elec­tric dams, the con­struc­tion of which destroyed scenery and wildlife by flood­ing val­leys and other ecosys­tems. But Brower changed his mind in the late nineteen-​​sixties and, after a bit­ter split within the Sierra Club over whether to sup­port the con­struc­tion of Dia­blo Canyon, left to found Friends of the Earth, which was vehe­mently anti-​​nuclear. As John Wills explains in his 2006 book, “Con­ser­va­tion Fall­out,” these dis­putes coin­cided with broader philo­soph­i­cal shifts. Conservationism—with its focus on the preser­va­tion of charis­matic scenery for out­door adventures—was giv­ing way to the mod­ern envi­ron­men­tal­ist move­ment, sparked in part by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring.” Carson’s book, which inves­ti­gated the dan­gers posed by pes­ti­cides, artic­u­lated an eco­log­i­cal vision of nature in which every­thing was con­nected in a del­i­cate web of life. Nuclear power was asso­ci­ated with radi­a­tion, which, like pes­ti­cides, could threaten that web.

By 1979, the U.S. had seventy-​​two com­mer­cial reac­tors. That year proved piv­otal in the shap­ing of pub­lic opin­ion toward nuclear power in Amer­ica. On March 16th, “The China Syn­drome,” star­ring Jane Fonda, Jack Lem­mon, and Michael Dou­glas, was released; the film por­trayed cor­rup­tion and a melt­down at a fic­tional nuclear plant. Twelve days later, one of the two reac­tors at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Gen­er­at­ing Sta­tion in south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia par­tially melted down. Most epi­demi­o­log­i­cal stud­ies would even­tu­ally deter­mine that the acci­dent had no detectable health con­se­quences. But at the time there was no way the pub­lic could know this, and the inci­dent added momen­tum to the anti-​​nuclear move­ment. By the time of the Cher­nobyl cat­a­stro­phe, in Soviet Ukraine, in 1986—widely con­sid­ered to be the worst nuclear dis­as­ter in history—opposition to nuclear power was wide­spread. Between 1979 and 1988, sixty-​​seven planned nuclear-​​power projects were can­celled. In the mid-​​eighties, the Depart­ment of Energy began research into the “inte­gral fast reactor”—an inno­v­a­tive sys­tem designed to be safer and more advanced. In 1994, the Clin­ton Admin­is­tra­tion shut the project down.

Today, the loom­ing dis­rup­tions of cli­mate change have altered the risk cal­cu­lus around nuclear energy. James Hansen, the nasa­sci­en­tist cred­ited with first bring­ing global warm­ing to pub­lic atten­tion, in 1988, has long advo­cated a vast expan­sion of nuclear power to replace fos­sil fuels. Even some envi­ron­men­tal groups that have reser­va­tions about nuclear energy, such as the Nat­ural Resources Defense Coun­cil and the Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Fund, have rec­og­nized that abruptly clos­ing exist­ing reac­tors would lead to a spike in emis­sions. But U.S. plants are aging and grap­pling with a vari­ety of chal­lenges. In recent years, their eco­nomic via­bil­ity has been threat­ened by cheap, fracked nat­ural gas. Safety reg­u­la­tions intro­duced after the melt­downs at Japan’s Fukushima Dai­ichi nuclear plant, in 2011, have increased costs, and, in states such as Cal­i­for­nia, leg­is­la­tion pri­or­i­tizes renew­ables (the costs of which have also fallen steeply). Since 2013, eleven Amer­i­can reac­tors have been retired; the lost elec­tric­ity has largely been replaced through the burn­ing of fos­sil fuels. At least eight more clo­sures, includ­ing Dia­blo Canyon’s, are planned. In a 2018 report, the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists con­cluded that “clos­ing the at-​​risk plants early could result in a cumu­la­tive 4 to 6 per­cent increase in US power sec­tor car­bon emis­sions by 2035.”

The past decade has seen the rise of a con­tin­gent of strongly pro-​​nuclear envi­ron­men­tal­ists. In 2007, Shel­len­berger and his col­league Ted Nord­haus co-​​founded the Break­through Insti­tute, a Bay Area think tank known for its het­ero­dox, “eco­mod­ernist” approach to envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. The orga­ni­za­tion, which presents itself as more prag­matic than the main­stream envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, sup­ports nuclear power along­side G.M.O.s and agri­cul­tural inten­si­fi­ca­tion. Other pro-​​nuclear groups include Third Way, a center-​​left think tank, and Good Energy Col­lec­tive, a policy-​​research orga­ni­za­tion. (Shel­len­berger left the Break­through Insti­tute, in 2015, and founded Envi­ron­men­tal Progress, partly to focus more on efforts to save exist­ing plants.)

The 2011 Fukushima dis­as­ter shifted the land­scape of opin­ion, but not in entirely pre­dictable ways. Imme­di­ately after Fukushima, anti-​​nuclear sen­ti­ment surged; Japan began to shut­ter its nuclear plants, as did Ger­many. And yet, as Car­olyn Kor­mann has writ­ten, stud­ies have found few health risks con­nected to radi­a­tion expo­sure in Japan in the wake of the acci­dent. (The evac­u­a­tion itself was asso­ci­ated with more than a thou­sand deaths, as well as a great deal of eco­nomic dis­rup­tion.) Pro-​​nuclear advo­cates now point out that, after retir­ing some of their nuclear plants, Japan and Ger­many have become increas­ingly reliant on coal.

Heather Hoff watched news footage of the Fukushima dis­as­ter while at Dia­blo Canyon. What she saw resem­bled the sce­nar­ios she had learned about in training—situations that she had pre­pared for but never expected to face. “My heart instantly filled with fear,” she later wrote, on the Moth­ers for Nuclear Web site. For a time, her con­fi­dence in nuclear power was shaken. But, as more infor­ma­tion emerged, she came to believe that the acci­dent was not as cat­a­clysmic as it had ini­tially appeared to be. Even­tu­ally, Hoff con­cluded that the inci­dent was an oppor­tu­nity to learn how to improve nuclear power, not a rea­son to give up on it. She and Zaitz vis­ited the site in 2018. They saw black plas­tic bags of con­t­a­m­i­nated soil heaped on the road­side, and ate the local fish. After­ward, they both blogged about the expe­ri­ence. Zaitz wrote that she under­stood the fear pro­voked by radi­a­tion, “with its deep roots in the hor­ren­dous human impacts caused by the atomic bomb.”

Pro-​​nuclear envi­ron­men­tal­ists often tell a con­ver­sion story, describ­ing the moment when they began to see nuclear power not as some­thing that could destroy the world but as some­thing that could save it. They argue that much of what we think we know about nuclear energy is wrong. Instead of being the most dan­ger­ous energy source, it is one of the safest, linked with far fewer deaths per terawatt-​​hour than all fos­sil fuels. We per­ceive nuclear waste as uniquely haz­ardous, but, while waste from oil, nat­ural gas, and coal is spewed into the atmos­phere as green­house gases and as other forms of pol­lu­tion, spent nuclear-​​fuel rods, which are solid, are con­tained in con­crete casks or cool­ing pools, where they are mon­i­tored and pre­vented from caus­ing harm. (The ques­tion of long-​​term stor­age remains fraught.) Most nuclear enthu­si­asts believe that renew­ables have a role to play in the energy sys­tem of the future. But they are skep­ti­cal of the premise that renew­ables alone can reli­ably power mod­ern soci­eties. And—in con­trast to an envi­ron­men­tal move­ment that has his­tor­i­cally advo­cated the reduc­tion of energy demand—pro-nuclear groups tend to focus more on the value that abun­dant nuclear energy could have around the world.

Char­lyne Smith, a twenty-​​five-​​year-​​old Ph.D. can­di­date in nuclear engi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Florida, who shared her story on the Moth­ers for Nuclear Web site, grew up in rural Jamaica, where she had first­hand expe­ri­ence of “energy poverty.” Dur­ing hur­ri­canes, she told me, no one knew when the elec­tric­ity would come back; food would spoil in the fridge. Smith learned about nuclear power as an under­grad­u­ate and decided to enter the field, with the goal of bring­ing reac­tors to the Caribbean. She is not naïve about the risks: she is writ­ing a dis­ser­ta­tion on nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion. But, she says, “Waste and radiation—those are risks that are min­i­miz­able. Pro­lif­er­a­tion of nuclear material—that risk is min­i­miz­able. Ver­sus what you can get out of nuclear energy, weigh­ing the pros and cons. I strongly believe that nuclear energy can solve count­less problems.”

The pro-​​nuclear com­mu­nity is 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. (These reac­tors are still in the exper­i­men­tal phase.) There are also dif­fer­ences in rhetoric. At one end of the spec­trum is Shel­len­berger, who seems to see main­stream envi­ron­men­tal­ists as his main adver­saries; his newest book is titled “Apoc­a­lypse Never: Why Envi­ron­men­tal Alarmism Hurts Us All.” His recent com­men­tary decry­ing what he calls the cli­mate scare has been widely cir­cu­lated in right-​​wing cir­cles and has per­plexed some pro-​​nuclear allies. At the other end is Good Energy Col­lec­tive, co-​​founded, recently, by Jes­sica Lover­ing, Shellenberger’s for­mer col­league at the Break­through Insti­tute. Her orga­ni­za­tion sit­u­ates itself specif­i­cally on the pro­gres­sive left, and is attempt­ing to ally itself with the broader envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and with activists focussed on social and racial jus­tice. Moth­ers for Nuclear falls some­where in between: their tone is less com­bat­ive than Shellenberger’s, but Hoff and Zaitz often seem frus­trated with anti-​​nuclear argu­ments and, in their social media feeds, point out the down­sides of renewables—an empha­sis that may turn off some of the peo­ple they are try­ing to per­suade. (They believe that nuclear power should do most of the work of decar­boniza­tion, sup­ple­mented by renewables.)

Nuclear energy scram­bles our usual tribal alle­giances. In Con­gress, Demo­c­ra­tic Sen­a­tors Cory Booker and Shel­don White­house have co-​​sponsored a bill with Repub­li­can Sen­a­tors John Bar­rasso and Mike Crapo that would invest in advanced nuclear tech­nol­ogy and pro­vide sup­port for exist­ing plants that are at risk of clo­sure; a cli­mate plat­form drafted by John Kerry and Alexan­dria Ocasio-​​Cortez included a plan to “cre­ate cost-​​effective path­ways” for devel­op­ing inno­v­a­tive reac­tors. And yet some envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Green­peace and Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance, deplore nuclear energy as unsafe and expen­sive. Per­haps most telling is the ambiva­lence that some groups express. Although the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists has warned about the cli­mate impacts of shut­ting down nuclear facil­i­ties, it has his­tor­i­cally sounded the alarm about nuclear risk. Ed Lyman, its direc­tor of nuclear-​​power safety, told me that, because “there are so many uncer­tain­ties asso­ci­ated with nuclear safety analy­sis,” it’s “very hard to make a con­clu­sion about whether it’s safe or not.” He noted, dispir­it­ingly, that cli­mate change could increase the haz­ards at nuclear plants, which will have to con­tend with more extreme weather events.

When Hoff and Zaitz offi­cially launched Moth­ers for Nuclear, on Earth Day, 2016, they had to fig­ure out how to tell their story and to change minds. The stan­dard images of renewables—gleaming solar pan­els, ele­gant wind tur­bines in green fields—are wel­com­ing, even glam­orous. It seemed to Hoff and Zaitz that, by com­par­i­son, the nuclear indus­try had done a ter­ri­ble job at pub­lic rela­tions. By empha­siz­ing safety, they thought, the indus­try had acti­vated fears. Air­lines don’t adver­tise by tout­ing their safety records. It might be bet­ter to unapolo­get­i­cally cel­e­brate nuclear energy for its strengths.

They gave talks at schools and con­fer­ences, shared sto­ries on their Web site, posted on social media, and even­tu­ally started chap­ters in other coun­tries. Iida Ruishalme, a Finnish cell biol­o­gist who lives in Switzer­land and now serves as Moth­ers for Nuclear’s direc­tor of Euro­pean oper­a­tions, told me that she was drawn to the orga­ni­za­tion, in part, because of its appeal to emo­tion. The wide­spread impres­sion, she said, is that “peo­ple who like nuclear are old white dudes who like it because it’s tech­ni­cally cool.” Moth­ers for Nuclear offered “this very emo­tional, very car­ing point of view,” she said. “The moti­va­tion comes from want­ing to make it bet­ter for our chil­dren.” Ruishalme said that online com­menters often tell her that the group is “clearly pro­pa­ganda, a lob­by­ist front, not sincere—because it’s so pre­pos­ter­ous to think that moth­ers would actu­ally do this.” On the organization’s Web site, a photo mon­tage of women and chil­dren is accom­pa­nied by a cap­tion clar­i­fy­ing that they are pic­tures of real peo­ple who sup­port the group—not stock images.

Among oppo­nents, there is a long-​​standing assump­tion that any­one who pro­motes nuclear power must be a shill. The name “Moth­ers for Nuclear” sounds so much like some­thing dreamed up by indus­try exec­u­tives that it can elicit sus­pi­cion, even anger, in those who are anti-​​nuclear. The orga­ni­za­tion is entirely volunteer-​​run, with a tiny bud­get, and has not accepted dona­tions from com­pa­nies. But Hoff and Zaitz work at a nuclear plant and have been flown to give talks at industry-​​sponsored events; Moth­ers for Nuclear has received small dona­tions from oth­ers who work in the indus­try. There is no deny­ing the con­flict of inter­est posed by their employ­ment; even within the pro-​​nuclear com­mu­nity, their indus­try ties pro­voke uneasi­ness. Nord­haus, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Break­through Insti­tute, wrote in an e-​​mail that, although he thinks Hoff and Zaitz are “well-​​intentioned,” nuclear advo­cacy should be inde­pen­dent of what he called “the legacy indus­try.” (The Break­through Insti­tute has a pol­icy against accept­ing money from energy inter­ests.) Yet, from another angle, their con­nec­tion to indus­try may be an asset. “Where they’ve been suc­cess­ful is com­ing at it from a per­sonal per­spec­tive,” Jes­sica Lover­ing, the co-​​founder of Good Energy Col­lec­tive, told me. Their approach to telling their sto­ries, as out­doorsy, hip­pie moms, “human­izes the indus­try,” she said.

On a driz­zly morn­ing in May, 2019, when such vis­its were pos­si­ble, Hoff and Zaitz offered me a tour of their plant. Hoff picked me up from my hotel in San Luis Obispo in her slate-​​gray elec­tric Ford Focus, adorned with a “Split Don’t Emit” bumper sticker. While we waited for Zaitz at a café a few blocks away, Hoff told me about the laven­der pen­dant hang­ing around her neck. Crafted for her by an artist she knew in Ari­zona, it was made partly of ura­nium glass, an old-​​fashioned mate­r­ial that has a touch of ura­nium added in for aes­thetic pur­poses. “I wear it as a demonstration—radiation is not nec­es­sar­ily dan­ger­ous,” she said. Like many nuclear advo­cates, Hoff believes that the fears pro­voked by radi­a­tion are often unfounded or based on infor­ma­tion that is not con­tex­tu­al­ized. A CT scan of the abdomen involves about ten times as much radi­a­tion expo­sure as the aver­age nuclear worker gets in a year. Some sci­en­tists argue that no level of radi­a­tion expo­sure is safe, but oth­ers doubt that expo­sure below a cer­tain thresh­old causes harm, and note that we are all exposed to nat­ural “back­ground” radi­a­tion in daily life. (Ura­nium glass emits a near-​​negligible amount.) Hoff and Zaitz believe that panic about radi­a­tion from nuclear energy has, cumu­la­tively, caused more harm than the radi­a­tion itself.

After Zaitz arrived, we set out for Dia­blo Canyon. I rode up front; Zaitz sat in the back, pump­ing breast milk for her year-​​old daugh­ter. The light rain had stopped, but mist still hung in the air. We passed through the town of Avila Beach, dri­ving along­side the ocean. To our left, aqua­ma­rine water sparkled. On our right lay gen­tly slop­ing ter­rain of grasses, sage­brush, wild­flow­ers, and shrubs. The facil­ity sits amid twelve thou­sand acres of oth­er­wise unoc­cu­pied sea­side land. Along the curv­ing road, a sign pro­claimed “Safety Is No Acci­dent.” In the dis­tance, the two mas­sive con­tain­ment domes rose above a clus­ter of shorter structures.

We pulled into the park­ing lot. In one of the out­build­ings, I handed over my pass­port, then placed my jacket and bag in a plas­tic bin for an X-​​ray. I walked through a metal detec­tor, then stood under the arch of a “puffer machine,” which blasted me with air, shak­ing loose par­ti­cles and ana­lyz­ing them for traces of explo­sives. Once I’d been cleared, we walked upstairs to Hoff’s office, where the two women exchanged greet­ings with a few co-​​workers. We put on safety glasses and hard hats before enter­ing “the bridge,” a nar­row cor­ri­dor with large win­dows that con­nects the admin­is­tra­tion build­ing to the tur­bine hall. Through the win­dows, we could see the ocean, where water was con­tin­u­ally cycling into and out of the plant. A secu­rity guard, armed with a hand­gun and a rifle, and wear­ing a red back­pack, saun­tered by.

The tur­bine hall, a vast space with a soar­ing, arched ceil­ing, was dom­i­nated by two large gen­er­a­tors. Out­side, within the two con­tain­ment domes, ura­nium atoms were split­ting apart in a chain reac­tion, heat­ing water to more than six hun­dred degrees Fahren­heit; the steam spun the tur­bines, which in turn drove the gen­er­a­tors. The result­ing elec­tric­ity would bring power to about three mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans. Warm air rushed nois­ily around us. Through the din, Hoff explained dif­fer­ent parts of the sys­tem: the pipes, the springs that sup­ported them, the con­denser, which takes wet vapor from the tur­bine exhaust and turns it back into liq­uid. Vend­ing machines sell­ing Pepsi and Chex Mix stood against one wall. I wasn’t allowed to take pho­tos, but Hoff snapped a few of me and Zaitz. We smiled as if we were at Disneyland.

In June, 2016, not long after the for­ma­tion of Moth­ers for Nuclear, P.G. & E. announced that it would not renew its oper­at­ing licenses: the reac­tors at Dia­blo Canyon would cease oper­a­tions in 2024 and 2025, respec­tively. The com­pany said that its deci­sion was based largely on eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions. Cus­tomer demand was declin­ing, in part because of the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of a sys­tem called community-​​choice aggre­ga­tion, in which local­i­ties can choose their energy sources; often they choose wind or solar farms (though they still need to rely on nat­ural gas at night, when solar is unavail­able). The year before, Cal­i­for­nia had passed Sen­ate Bill 350, which requires the state to derive half of its energy from renew­able sources by 2030; since P.G. & E. would be legally required to increase its pro­cure­ment of renew­able energy, it could end up with more elec­tric­ity than it needed if it kept Dia­blo Canyon online.

The envi­ron­men­tal groups that sup­ported P.G. & E.’s plan, includ­ing the Nat­ural Resources Defense Coun­cil and Friends of the Earth, see it as a model for grad­u­ally tran­si­tion­ing to a grid fed entirely by renew­able energy. P.G. & E. has pledged to replace Dia­blo Canyon with other low-​​carbon energy sources. And yet energy stor­age remains a major chal­lenge. Even if P.G. & E. does man­age to fill the gap with­out help from nat­ural gas—a heavy lift—some argue that, given California’s ambi­tious cli­mate goals, the state should be adding to its total port­fo­lio of low-​​carbon energy rather than sub­tract­ing from it. Experts dif­fer on the wis­dom of the choice. Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-​​winning physi­cist who served as Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s Sec­re­tary of Energy, told me that he had urged P.G. & E. not to decom­mis­sion the plant. “It’s really the last twenty to thirty per cent of elec­tric­ity where it’s going to be hard to go a hun­dred per cent renew­able,” he said. Daniel Kam­men, a physi­cist and a pro­fes­sor of nuclear energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, how­ever, was more san­guine. Although he is not opposed to nuclear power, or even to keep­ing Dia­blo Canyon open, he said, “We don’t need nuclear, and we cer­tainly can get to a zero-​​carbon future with­out nuclear. The mix­ture of other renew­ables means you don’t have to go there.”

Hoff and Zaitz are not espe­cially opti­mistic about the future of Dia­blo Canyon, but they hope that, between now and the planned clo­sure, P.G. & E. and state offi­cials can be per­suaded to reverse course. They seek to recruit ordi­nary Cal­i­for­ni­ans to their cause. After tour­ing the plant, I accom­pa­nied them to a radio stu­dio, where they were sched­uled to be guests on Dave Con­gal­ton Home­town Radio, a pop­u­lar local talk show. On the air, Hoff explained who they were. “Moth­ers for Nuclear offers a dif­fer­ent voice,” she said. “Nuclear power plants are run by lots of men, and women have been more scared of nuclear energy. We’re here to offer the moth­erly side of nuclear—nuclear for the future, for our chil­dren, for the planet.”

The phone lines lit up. The first cou­ple of calls were favor­able. “It’s kind of nice to hear a lit­tle bit of san­ity about nuclear power, for a change,” a caller named John said. But then Pete, a lis­tener who said that he had protested the con­struc­tion of Dia­blo Canyon back in the early eight­ies, brought up nuclear waste. “There’s been numer­ous efforts to put it here, put it there, put it in bar­rels, bury it in the sea, bury it in deep caves—this, that, the other thing,” he said. “I don’t think any really good solu­tion has even come up.”

Pete, where do you put your garbage?” Hoff asked. “Where do you put your plas­tic waste?”

That’s not radioactive!”

It’s still really dam­ag­ing to the envi­ron­ment,” Hoff said.

An acci­dent at a nuclear plant is a lot worse than an explo­sion at an oil plant,” Pete said.

Zaitz jumped in. “The sur­pris­ing thing, Pete, that we found out is that nuclear is actu­ally the safest way to make reli­able elec­tric­ity when you look at even the con­se­quences of the worst acci­dents we’ve ever had,” she said. “Any other energy source ends up, in the long run, killing more peo­ple, whether it’s due to air pol­lu­tion, whether it’s due to indus­trial acci­dents. Air pol­lu­tion kills about eight mil­lion peo­ple per year.”

As the con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ued, Hoff and Zaitz held their own, but it seemed unlikely that many minds would be changed deci­sively. In try­ing to plan a carbon-​​free future, we are faced with imper­fect choices and innu­mer­able unknowns. In such sit­u­a­tions, we typ­i­cally go with our guts. Gut feel­ings are hard to alter. And yet, espe­cially for younger peo­ple, nuclear power may not elicit vis­ceral fears. Many peo­ple who did not grow up with the threat of a nuclear holo­caust now face a future of cli­mate chaos. Many lie awake at night imag­in­ing not melt­downs but lethal heat waves and calv­ing glac­i­ers; they dread life on an inex­orably less hos­pitable planet.

Since I first met with Hoff and Zaitz, the coro­n­avirus pan­demic has upended the world. At Dia­blo Canyon, the com­par­a­tively small frac­tion of the plant’s work­ers who need to be on site—security guards, control-​​room oper­a­tors, and the like—are now doing so in masks, and with other safety pro­to­cols in place; Hoff and Zaitz have been work­ing from home. Mean­while, last sum­mer, wild­fires set the West Coast ablaze. For Hoff and Zaitz, both crises have rein­forced their exist­ing beliefs. Evi­dence that air pol­lu­tion exac­er­bates vul­ner­a­bil­ity to covid–19 is yet another rea­son to move away from fos­sil fuels; the impor­tance of ven­ti­la­tors and other devices at hos­pi­tals under­scores the need for reli­able, around-​​the-​​clock elec­tric­ity. Last August, when thick smoke blocked the sun in parts of Cal­i­for­nia, solar out­put in those areas tem­porar­ily plummeted.

Rolling black­outs have raised ques­tions about how California’s grid will func­tion after Dia­blo Canyon is shut down. In May, the office of the Cal­i­for­nia Inde­pen­dent Sys­tem Oper­a­tor, which is respon­si­ble for main­tain­ing the grid’s reli­a­bil­ity, filed com­ments to the state’s Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion. Its mod­el­ling, the office reported, showed that “incre­men­tal resource needs may be much greater than orig­i­nally antic­i­pated and that the sys­tem hits a crit­i­cal inflec­tion point after Dia­blo Canyon retires.” At the same time, the plant’s out­sized role is not with­out draw­backs. The reac­tors peri­od­i­cally need to be taken offline for main­te­nance, with­draw­ing a sub­stan­tial amount of elec­tric­ity from the grid.

Our energy sys­tem is in flux. There are inno­va­tions under way in the renew­ables sphere—advances in bat­tery stor­age, demand man­age­ment, and regional integration—which should help over­come the chal­lenges of inter­mit­tency. Nuclear sci­en­tists, for their part, are work­ing on smaller, more nim­ble nuclear reac­tors. There are com­plex eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions, which are insep­a­ra­ble from policy—for exam­ple, nuclear power would imme­di­ately become more com­pet­i­tive if we had a car­bon tax. And there are huge risks no mat­ter what we do.

To be fer­vently pro-​​nuclear, in the man­ner of Hoff and Zaitz, is to see in the peace­ful split­ting of the atom some­thing almost mirac­u­lous. It is to see an energy source that has been steadily pro­vid­ing low-​​carbon elec­tric­ity for decades—doing vastly more good than harm, sav­ing vastly more lives than it has taken—but which has received lit­tle credit and instead been maligned. It is to believe that the most sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem with nuclear power, by far, is pub­lic per­cep­tion. Like the anti-​​nuclear world view—and per­haps partly in response to it—the pro-​​nuclear world view can edge toward dog­ma­tism. Hoff and Zaitz cer­tainly seem read­ier to tout stud­ies that con­firm their views, and reluc­tant to acknowl­edge any flaws that nuclear energy may have. Still, even if one does not embrace nuclear power to the same extent, one can rec­og­nize its past con­tri­bu­tions and ques­tion the wis­dom of count­ing it out in the future.

One of the last times I spoke with Zaitz, she noted that a lot of peo­ple seemed to be feel­ing dis­cour­aged at this moment, over­whelmed by the scale of the chal­lenges ahead. But she coun­selled against despair. “The hope­ful way to go into that is, ‘Oh, wow, we actu­ally have tech­nol­ogy that can do this,’ ” she said. “And that’s nuclear. And so I’d rather stay hopeful.”



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