News Archive:

Berkeley-​​Berlin (& Nairobi) team publish on sustainability in the Caribbean

Jess Car­ney of RAEL, Phillipp Belchinger of the Reiner Lemoine Insti­tute, and RAEL Alum Rebekah Shirley explore the path­way to car­bon sus­tain­abil­ity in the Caribbean with a multi-​​sectoral, multi-​​methods analy­sis, pub­lished in Energy Pol­icy.

For the pub­li­ca­tion, click here.


Accel­er­at­ing the rate of renew­able energy deploy­ment in Small Island Devel­op­ing States is crit­i­cal to reduce depen­dence on expen­sive fos­sil fuel imports and meet emis­sions reduc­tions goals. Though many islands have now intro­duced pol­icy mea­sures to encour­age RE devel­op­ment, the exist­ing lit­er­a­ture focuses on qual­i­ta­tive rec­om­men­da­tions and has not sought to quan­ti­ta­tively eval­u­ate and com­pare the impacts of pol­icy inter­ven­tions in the Caribbean. After com­pil­ing the first sys­tem­atic data­base of RE poli­cies imple­mented in 31 Caribbean islands from 2000 to 2018, we con­duct an econo­met­ric analy­sis of the effec­tive­ness of the fol­low­ing five pol­icy inter­ven­tions in  pro­mot­ing the  deploy­ment of  RE: invest­ment incen­tives, tax  incen­tives, feed-​​in tar­iffs, net– meter­ing and net-​​billing pro­grams, and reg­u­la­tory restruc­tur­ing to allow mar­ket entry by inde­pen­dent power pro­duc­ers. Using a fixed effects model to con­trol for unit het­ero­geneities between islands, we find evi­dence that net-​​metering/​net-​​billing pro­grams are strongly and pos­i­tively cor­re­lated with increases in installed capac­ity of renew­able energy — par­tic­u­larly solar PV. These find­ings sug­gest that the RE tran­si­tion in the Caribbean can be advanced through poli­cies tar­get­ing the adop­tion of small-​​scale, dis­trib­uted photovoltaics.

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Interview of Governor Jerry Brown with Dan Kammen

For the May 2021 orig­i­nal in Break­throughs Mag­a­zine of Rausser Col­lege of Nat­ural Resources: click here.


Biden’s Climate Pledge For First Time Pushes U.S. Beyond California Goals

Ezra David Romero

To lis­ten to the inter­view, click here.




Ban­ning frack­ing by 2024, phas­ing out all new sales of gas-​​powered cars by 2035, and achiev­ing car­bon neu­tral­ity 10 years later are just a few of California’s goals mak­ing it a leader among U.S. states in tack­ling cli­mate change. But a new pledge from the White House to halve nation­wide green­house gas emis­sions by 2030 from 2005 lev­els could for the first time leave the state lag­ging behind the fed­eral gov­ern­ment on cli­mate policy.

On paper, the U.S. gov­ern­ment is at least tem­porar­ily ahead of Cal­i­for­nia,” said Dan Kam­men, direc­tor of UC Berkeley’s Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory. “That’s amaz­ing to say, because basi­cally we were always ahead at the state level.”

Pres­i­dent Biden’s goal could push Cal­i­for­nia to be more ambi­tious, Kam­men says. Which is some­thing the state needs to do, accord­ing to Jason Bar­bose, the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists’ senior pol­icy man­ager for the West­ern U.S.

Cal­i­for­nia has been there to really help spear­head action,” Bar­bose said. But the state’s “cur­rent goals are not keep­ing up with the rest of the world, and, more impor­tantly, not keep­ing up with the sci­ence [which] tells us that deeper cuts are essen­tial to stave off the worst impacts of cli­mate change.”

Because Cal­i­for­nia emis­sion tar­gets are based on 1990 lev­els and Biden’s plan uses 2005 as a base year, Kam­men says the U.S. goal is only about 3% more ambi­tious than the state’s.


Kam­men believes Cal­i­for­nia already has the capa­bil­ity to go beyond its cur­rent tar­gets. His team makes the case for an almost 80% drop in emis­sions by 2030, dou­ble the cur­rent goal. Exist­ing plans and pro­pos­als like a require­ment to gen­er­ate 100% of elec­tric­ity from clean energy by 2045, and a bill to cre­ate a for­est of wind tur­bines off the Pacific Coast, could help the state ratchet up reductions.

If Cal­i­for­nia can really adopt an 80% clean energy stan­dard by 2030, that really would jump us ahead again,” Kam­men said.

State Sens. Dave Cortese, D-​​San Jose, and Henry Stern, D-​​Los Ange­les, have already intro­duced leg­is­la­tion to estab­lish a min­i­mum 80% decrease as the tar­get for 2030, fol­lowed by net neg­a­tive emis­sions no later than 2035. The bill calls for the reduc­tions in the name of secur­ing “a safe cli­mate for all.”


But the inclu­sion of “all” in cli­mate pol­icy would mean a shift from big cli­mate goals to people-​​focused adap­ta­tion solu­tions, say some cli­mate experts. Hana Creger, the Green­ling Institute’s senior man­ager for cli­mate equity, says reme­dies could include ramp­ing up the fund­ing that goes to dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties from the Green­house Gas Reduc­tion Fund or invest­ing more in pro­grams like the state’s Trans­for­ma­tive Cli­mate Com­mu­ni­ties Pro­gram, which helps fund community-​​led cli­mate projects in places like Stock­ton.

Pro­grams focused on teach­ing peo­ple about the cli­mate cri­sis then empow­er­ing them to take action offer a model not only for fight­ing cli­mate change, but also for build­ing eco­nomic oppor­tu­nity, Creger says.

Such pro­grams address “the his­toric oppres­sion of low-​​income folks of color” and allow com­mu­ni­ties “to really chart their own path by choos­ing their own goals and strate­gies and projects that will both reduce green­house gas emis­sions and pol­lu­tion,” she said.

While Creger rec­og­nizes top-​​down reg­u­la­tions are needed, she says infor­ma­tion gaps exist for res­i­dents already sur­rounded by cli­mate impacts. And big cli­mate goals may not res­onate with peo­ple deal­ing with soci­etal and eco­nomic woes.

We have to rec­og­nize that every sin­gle com­mu­nity has com­pletely dif­fer­ent needs,” she said. “We can’t take a pre­scrip­tive approach with our climate-​​equity kind of solutions.”

These could come in the form of afford­able hous­ing projects near tran­sit, planted urban tree canopies, homes out­fit­ted for solar energy, and the cre­ation of green jobs, she said.

Creger is hop­ing Biden’s desire to address issues of equity as well as the cli­mate cri­sis will prompt Cal­i­for­nia to invest in all of its residents.

It should be much more about how we bring our com­mu­ni­ties along to a place where folks can­not just react to cli­mate change, but really thrive in the face of it, “ she said.

An Earth Day message for California: Move faster on climate change

imageLos Ange­les Times

by Sammy Roth

For the orig­i­nal, click here.

If there’s one thing to under­stand this Earth Day about California’s role in con­fronting the cli­mate cri­sis, it’s this: Just because the state con­sid­ers itself a global leader doesn’t mean it’s doing nearly enough.

Gov. Gavin New­som admit­ted as much last year. As mon­strous wild­fires carved a path of destruc­tion from the giant sequoias of the Sierra Nevada to the moun­tains around Los Ange­les — bring­ing smoke-​​choked orange skies to the Bay Area and rain­ing ash to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia — New­som said, “Across the entire spec­trum, our goals are inad­e­quate to the real­ity we’re experiencing.”

We’re going to have to do more, and we’re going to have to fast-​​track our efforts,” New­som told reporters as he stood among freshly charred trees in Oroville. “While it’s nice to have goals to get to 100% clean energy by 2045, that’s inadequate.”

Now lead­ing sci­en­tists are offer­ing the gov­er­nor a far more aggres­sive path forward.

That path is laid out in a not-​​yet-​​published paper (avail­able on arXiv) from a team of researchers led by UC Berkeley’s Daniel Kam­men, whose work for an inter­na­tional cli­mate sci­ence panel helped earn a Nobel Peace Prize. The researchers make the case that Cal­i­for­nia must ratchet up its ambi­tions dra­mat­i­cally, and immediately.

The sci­en­tists call for the state to reduce its planet-​​warming pol­lu­tion nearly 80% by 2030, rather than the cur­rently man­dated 40%, through what they describe as a “a wartime-​​like mobi­liza­tion of resources.”

Why should the Golden State dou­ble its efforts?

The paper rat­tles off a dizzy­ing series of facts about the cli­mate con­se­quences already con­fronting Cal­i­for­ni­ans: 4.3 mil­lion acres burned in 2020, about 4% of the state; nearly $150 bil­lion in health and eco­nomic dam­ages from smaller firestorms two years ear­lier; and con­fla­gra­tions so bad experts didn’t expect to see them for another 30 years. Not to men­tion wors­en­ing droughts, ris­ing seas and hot­ter heat storms that are far dead­lier than many peo­ple real­ize.

And despite the state’s long track record of lead­er­ship in phas­ing out fos­sil fuels, it’s now falling behind, the researchers say.

There’s no bet­ter sign of that than Pres­i­dent Biden — once viewed with extreme skep­ti­cism by cli­mate activists — try­ing to pass an infra­struc­ture bill that sets a national goal of 100% clean elec­tric­ity by 2035, a full decade ahead of California’s target.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti delivers his annual State of the City address from Griffith Observatory on April 19, 2021.

Los Ange­les Mayor Eric Garcetti deliv­ers his annual State of the City address from Grif­fith Obser­va­tory on April 19, 2021.

Los Ange­les Mayor Eric Garcetti endorsed the same 2035 goal in his State of the City address on Mon­day. That fol­lowed the release of a first-​​of-​​its-​​kind study by the fed­er­ally funded National Renew­able Energy Lab­o­ra­tory find­ing L.A. can achieve 98% clean energy as early as 2030, and 100% by 2035, with­out increas­ing the risk of black­outs or dis­rupt­ing the local economy.

Garcetti said in an inter­view that New­som and the state Leg­is­la­ture should “absolutely” fol­low L.A.‘s lead.

This should encour­age Cal­i­for­nia to see that it’s achiev­able every­where. If the biggest city in the state with the largest munic­i­pal util­ity in the coun­try can do this, you can do it too,” Garcetti said.

The rea­son why is obvi­ous. This whole world, gov­ern­ments are miss­ing their goals. Weather events are becom­ing more extreme, and the threat is greater today than it was yes­ter­day,” he said.

There are other exam­ples over­seas of gov­ern­ments pick­ing up the pace.

The United King­dom plans to ban the sale of gas cars by 2030, half a decade ahead of Newsom’s dead­line for Cal­i­for­nia. British Prime Min­is­ter Boris John­son recently set a tar­get of slash­ing car­bon emis­sions 68% by 2030, far more aggres­sive than California’s aim. Volvo says it will pro­duce only elec­tric vehi­cles by 2030. Fin­land is aim­ing for a carbon-​​neutral econ­omy by 2035, 10 years ahead of California.

Law­mak­ers in Wash­ing­ton state also vaulted ahead of Cal­i­for­nia last week, set­ting a goal to end the sale of gas cars by 2030.

There’s a lot going on that we’re not tak­ing advan­tage of,” Kam­men said in an interview.

Kam­men has pre­vi­ously served as a Coor­di­nat­ing Lead Author for the United Nations-​​backed Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change. His coau­thors on the new paper include UC Merced cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Tee­nie Mat­lock; USC soci­ol­o­gist Manuel Pas­tor; UC Santa Bar­bara soci­ol­o­gist David Pel­low, UC San Diego cli­mate sci­en­tist Veer­ab­had­ran Ramanathan; UC Santa Bar­bara polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Leah Stokes; and Tom Steyer, the bil­lion­aire cli­mate activist who ran for the Demo­c­ra­tic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion last year.

The group used a mod­el­ing tool devel­oped by the Cli­mate Cen­ter, a Santa Rosa-​​based non­profit, to ana­lyze how much the Golden State could cut emis­sions over the next nine years with­out caus­ing energy costs to rise sig­nif­i­cantly. They deter­mined a reduc­tion of 77% below 1990 lev­els was fea­si­ble, largely because solar pan­els, wind tur­bines and bat­ter­ies are get­ting so cheap.

We didn’t work back from a tar­get. We worked for­ward from what are the cur­rent price declines we’re see­ing on the renew­able and stor­age side,” Kam­men said in an inter­view. “The 80% comes in at a sweet spot, where the prices don’t rise that much.”

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Pine Tree Wind and Solar Farm in the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern County.

The Los Ange­les Depart­ment of Water and Power’s Pine Tree Wind and Solar Farm in the Tehachapi Moun­tains of Kern County.

What would those changes look like in practice?

Under one path­way laid out in the paper, which is being reviewed by the jour­nal Envi­ron­men­tal Research Let­ters, Cal­i­for­nia would need to reach 100% clean elec­tric­ity by 2030. That would require build­ing new infra­struc­ture — includ­ing lots of off­shore wind tur­bines — at a pace Kam­men described as “a bit scary.” Emis­sions from trans­porta­tion, the largest source of cli­mate pol­lu­tion, would need to fall by 70% in nine years, almost cer­tainly neces­si­tat­ing an end to the sale of gas cars some­time this decade.

It’s really designed to be a wake-​​up call,” Kam­men said.

There’s lit­tle ques­tion a wake-​​up call is needed.

The National Oceanic and Atmos­pheric Admin­is­tra­tion reported this month that con­cen­tra­tions of car­bon diox­ide and methane, the two most impor­tant green­house gases, reached record lev­els in 2020, ris­ing rapidly despite a pan­demic that slowed the global econ­omy. The planet is already 1.2 degrees Cel­sius warmer than it was before the Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, near­ing the 1.5 degrees that sci­en­tists have set as a tar­get for staving off dan­ger­ous tip­ping points.




Open letter to California on taking a more aggressive stance on the climate emergency — by Tee­nie Mat­lock, Manuel Pas­tor, David Pel­low, Veer­ab­had­ran Ramanathan, Tom Steyer, Leah Stokes, Feliz Ven­tura & Daniel Kammen

A team of energy and cli­mate experts have penned an open let­ter to accel­er­ate the time­line for cli­mate action in California.

The let­ter can be read here on this real​.berke​ley​.edu website.

The let­ter has been authored by:

Tee­nie Mat­lock, Manuel Pas­tor, David Pel­low, Veer­ab­had­ran Ramanathan, Tom Steyer, Leah Stokes, Feliz Ven­tura & Daniel Kammen

The let­ter has been posted on the preprint server arXiv​.org, and can be accessed here.

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Opinion: More big PG&E rate hikes if use of outdated system continues


For the orig­i­nal, click here.

Opin­ion: Daniel M Kamen

If you live in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, your util­ity bill likely will rise by 8% this month. For Pacific Gas & Elec­tric cus­tomers, this will be the sev­enth year in a row of increases. The company’s rates have dou­bled since 2005 — and they’re going to get much worse unless PG&E changes its ways.

Sim­ply put, util­i­ties are spend­ing too much money on the same out­dated, unre­li­able sys­tem. Energy con­sumers are forced to rely on power plants in far-​​away places to dis­trib­ute energy on an expen­sive maze of poles and wires to power our homes. We’ve already seen how run­ning power lines through remote forests can spark mas­sive, deadly wildfires.image

But we have the tech­nol­ogy today to reduce the risk of wild­fires, lower elec­tric­ity bills and pro­vide reli­able clean energy. The solu­tion is sim­ple: Gen­er­ate and share more energy where it’s being used. The ben­e­fits are tremen­dous: Higher lev­els of reli­a­bil­ity, flex­i­ble and smarter sys­tems, improved envi­ron­men­tal qual­ity and huge envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice wins for front­line and under-​​served communities.

This is Cal­i­for­nia, the land of inno­va­tion and new ideas. Yet util­i­ties in the state are plan­ning to spend $15 bil­lion over the next two years on out­dated energy tech­nolo­gies. They need to pivot to invest in decar­boniza­tion, effi­ciency and energy stor­age. It’s for their own and their cus­tomers’ finan­cial well-​​being.

From this spend­ing binge, the worst is yet to come. Cal­i­for­nia reg­u­la­tors expect rates to go up 20%-40% in just the next three years.  As we rebuild after a pan­demic, who will be able to afford this?

Gov. Gavin New­som deserves praise for his com­mit­ment to clean elec­tric­ity. While util­i­ties are poised to spend bil­lions of dol­lars that will only lead to rate hikes, we have bet­ter solu­tions that reduce rates for everyone.

Solar and wind are the least-​​cost forms of gen­er­a­tion, so let us tar­get invest­ments there instead. A study put together by Dr. Christo­pher Clack, a weather sci­en­tist for­merly with the National Oceanic and Atmos­pheric Admin­is­tra­tion, found that an energy sys­tem built around local solar and bat­ter­ies could save the United States $473 bil­lion by 2050. A model devel­oped in my lab­o­ra­tory comes to the same conclusion.

We’re already see­ing the ben­e­fits of local solar and bat­ter­ies here in Cal­i­for­nia. In 2018, California’s Inde­pen­dent Sys­tem Oper­a­tor can­celed $2.6 bil­lion in util­ity spend­ing thanks to local solar and effi­ciency improvements.

We should be encour­ag­ing this because the peo­ple who are hurt most by rate hikes are always those who can least afford it. Low-​​income com­mu­ni­ties also face the high­est pol­lu­tion expo­sure lev­els from gen­er­a­tion of carbon-​​based energy.

It is no secret that the cur­rent util­ity busi­ness model of “the more you spend, the more you profit” is bro­ken. It’s time to inno­vate and put com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple at the cen­ter of the solu­tion. Local clean energy will boost the econ­omy, cre­ate jobs and make elec­tric­ity cleaner and more afford­able for everyone.

New­som recently called for a “new par­a­digm” for how we pro­duce and dis­trib­ute energy. He chal­lenged pol­i­cy­mak­ers to make energy more local and to look at clean energy tech­nol­ogy such as rooftop solar and bat­ter­ies. We can meet that challenge.

UC Berkeley’s Daniel Kam­men is pro­fes­sor and chair of the Energy and Resources Group, pro­fes­sor in the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­icy, and pro­fes­sor of Nuclear Engi­neer­ing. Twit­ter: @dan_kammen

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.”



Why America’s power grids will keep failing us (Salon)




Nicole Karlis, Salon.

Link to the orig­i­nal arti­cle in Salon, click here.

Wednes­day marked the third day that many Tex­ans found them­selves with­out power fol­low­ing a rare win­ter storm and frigid tem­per­a­tures dip­ping into the low 20s. While power is being restored in some areas, rotat­ing out­ages are expected to start on Wednes­day in Texas.

The sit­u­a­tion is dire for many Tex­ans. Accord­ing to The New York Times, at least 23 peo­ple have died as of Wednes­day morn­ing. Emer­gency rooms saw a wave of peo­ple with car­bon monox­ide poi­son­ing, the after­math of attempts to keep warm. Like­wise, clean water access is a grow­ing issue as pipes freeze in the Lone Star State.

And Texas isn’t alone: As the rem­nants of the win­ter storm make its way across the Mid­west, and a sec­ond win­ter storm looms in the North­east, rolling power out­ages are pop­ping up in parts of Mis­souri, Louisiana, Ohio, West Vir­ginia, Ken­tucky, and Ore­gon. The sit­u­a­tion is eerily sim­i­lar to what hap­pened in Cal­i­for­nia last sum­mer, when rolling black­outs were sparked by a demand-​​driven energy short­age; then, a mas­sive heat wave increased air con­di­tioner use and forced rolling power out­ages. Those black­outs were the first of their kind since 2001 when Cal­i­for­nia faced an elec­tric­ity crisis.

All these recent inci­dents are rais­ing con­cerns over the fragility of the country’s frag­mented power grid, and how vul­ner­a­ble these sys­tems are to extreme weather events com­pounded by cli­mate change.

So what went wrong in Texas?

Many of the prob­lems we’re see­ing, both in Cal­i­for­nia now in Texas, are due to the fact that the grid we have in both places is dumb and old, as opposed to being smart, new and flex­i­ble,” said Daniel Kam­men, a pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. “Fos­sil fuel grids” like the one in Texas, and like what Cal­i­for­nia used to have until they tran­si­tioned away from them, are “really dumb sys­tems — they’re not adap­tive or flex­i­ble, and that is really caus­ing a lot of the prob­lems you’re see­ing in Texas today,” Kam­men added.

Indeed, fos­sil fuel power plants are gen­er­ally built to be far away from pop­u­la­tion cen­ters, which means that the power has to be shipped long dis­tances. This alone, Kam­men said, cre­ates a very “inflex­i­ble” sys­tem. In Texas, the power short­age hap­pened after nat­ural gas plants couldn’t sup­ply the 30 gigawatts of power they were expected to sup­ply. To put this in per­spec­tive, 30 gigawatts is more than the aver­age demand in Cal­i­for­nia, Kam­men said.

The idea that so much gas would go offline, because of these freez­ing events, really speaks to a sys­tem that’s not adapt­able,” Kam­men said. “It”s not able to reroute power because we have smart inter­changes on the trans­mis­sion net­work; it’s a sys­tem that is fun­da­men­tally not up to speed … they don’t have enough sen­sors on the power lines, on the power plants, so they can pre­dict this.”

We know that when these events hap­pen, the power losses are ear­li­est and gen­er­ally longest in the low­est income com­mu­ni­ties,” Kam­men said. “So there’s a real envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice dam­age that comes from not hav­ing a smarter,  more renew­able energy–enabled grid.”

Kam­men added that Cal­i­for­nia, New Jer­sey and New York — which have become lead­ers in imple­ment­ing solar pan­els — are exam­ples of how states can imple­ment a renew­able energy plan.

In an ice and snow storm like this, what you would have needed to have peo­ple do is lit­er­ally go and shovel the snow off the roof,” Kam­men said. “I’m hop­ing that this will push Texas to rec­og­nize the large eco­nomic ben­e­fit of mov­ing to enabling dis­trib­uted rooftop solar, and more wind farms dis­trib­uted across the state can be a real ben­e­fit here.” Mod­ern wind tur­bines, Kam­men noted, have built-​​in heat­ing systems.

But the prob­lems with the grid in Texas were also the result of a per­fect storm of poor plan­ning, decrepit infra­struc­ture, and blind wor­ship of the free mar­ket by policymakers.

Vijay Modi, a pro­fes­sor of mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing at Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity, told Salon what he believes is hap­pen­ing in Texas is the agglom­er­a­tion of five sep­a­rate shifts that have hap­pened in Amer­ica over the last few decades. First, we’ve built more hous­ing. Sec­ond, our civ­i­liza­tion has become more reliant on gas. Third, elec­tric heat pumps have become more pop­u­lar, espe­cially in the South. Fourth, there’s been a momen­tum in some parts of the coun­try to embrace a free mar­ket power util­ity sys­tem — espe­cially in Texas. And finally, many of our gas pipelines and power sys­tems — like the one in Texas — aren’t weath­er­ized. Indeed, power grids across the coun­try weren’t built with cli­mate change in mind.

All these fac­tors com­bined with a weather event unusual for Texas added up to an inad­e­quate sup­ply for this rare event,” Modi said. “Unfor­tu­nately, we are likely to see more rare events in the future because we have so much more hous­ing and peo­ple to sup­port with an aging infra­struc­ture and unusual weather systems.”

Modi added that now is the time to “rethink how we engi­neer our sys­tems for resiliency and for reliability.”

Both experts had dif­fer­ent opin­ions on whether this sit­u­a­tion — more fre­quent power out­ages, rolling black­outs to ease the demand on power grids dur­ing extreme weather — would con­sti­tute the new normal.

The short answer is that the new nor­mal is not just because of cli­mate and weather, but it’s because of our expec­ta­tions too,” Modi. “I work in coun­tries where many don’t have elec­tric­ity access at all, for them, the new nor­mal is to get at least enough for light­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Our new nor­mal will go towards, ‘I want to be able to run my elec­tric heat, charge my elec­tric vehi­cle, run my appli­ances and my WiFi all at the same time maybe and do so reliably.’”

Modi said that Amer­ica “can and should deploy smarter engi­neer­ing solu­tions that don’t require a new $20,000 per cus­tomer infra­struc­ture invest­ment to get this reliability.”

Mean­while, Kam­men deemed the sit­u­a­tion in Texas “the new abnormal.”

It’s the new abnor­mal, if any­thing — because only after the fact can ana­lysts fig­ure [whether] the Texas storm was dri­ven by the abnor­mal cli­mate change we’re seeing.”


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