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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.”



October 14, 2020: Peter Fairley of Grist reports on drop in GHG emissions due to COVID-​​19

The world has been trans­formed by the ongo­ing COVID-​​19 pan­demic, and its impact on global CO2 emis­sions is unprece­dented. Accord­ing to a study led by the Pots­dam Insti­tute for Cli­mate Impact Research, the drop in emis­sions dur­ing the first half of 2020 is larger than what was seen dur­ing the finan­cial cri­sis of 2008, the oil cri­sis in 1979, or even dur­ing World War II.

The researchers deter­mined that from Jan­u­ary to June, CO2 emis­sions were 8.8 per­cent lower com­pared to the same time period in 2019, with an over­all decrease of 1,551 mil­lion tons.

The study is pro­vid­ing a much more clear under­stand­ing of how COVID-​​19 has affected global energy con­sump­tion com­pared to pre­vi­ous reports. The experts also high­light fun­da­men­tal steps that could be taken to sta­bi­lize the cli­mate after the pandemic.

Study lead author Zhu Liu is a researcher in the Depart­ment of Earth Sys­tem Sci­ence at Tsinghua Uni­ver­sity in Bei­jing.

What makes our study unique is the analy­sis of metic­u­lously col­lected near-​​real-​​time data. By look­ing at the daily fig­ures com­piled by the Car­bon Mon­i­tor research ini­tia­tive we were able to get a much faster and more accu­rate overview, includ­ing time­lines that show how emis­sions decreases have cor­re­sponded to lock­down mea­sures in each coun­try,” explained Liu.

In April, at the height of the first wave of Corona infec­tions, when most major coun­tries shut down their pub­lic life and parts of their econ­omy, emis­sions even declined by 16.9 %. Over­all, the var­i­ous out­breaks resulted in emis­sion drops that we nor­mally see only on a short-​​term basis on hol­i­days such as Christ­mas or the Chi­nese Spring Festival.”

The analy­sis reveals which sec­tors of the global econ­omy have been hit the hard­est by the pan­demic. Study co-​​author Daniel Kam­men is a pro­fes­sor in the Energy and Resources Group and the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­icy at UC Berkeley.

The great­est reduc­tion of emis­sions was observed in the ground trans­porta­tion sec­tor,” said Pro­fes­sor Kam­men. “Largely because of work­ing from home restric­tions, trans­port CO2 emis­sions decreased by 40 % world­wide. In con­trast, the power and indus­try sec­tors con­tributed less to the decline, with –22 % and –17 %, respec­tively, as did the avi­a­tion and ship­ping sec­tors.” “Sur­pris­ingly, even the res­i­den­tial sec­tor saw a small emis­sions drop of 3 %: largely because of an abnor­mally warm win­ter in the north­ern hemi­sphere, heat­ing energy con­sump­tion decreased with most peo­ple stay­ing at home all day dur­ing lock­down periods.”

The com­pre­hen­sive research was focused on a wide range of data, includ­ing hourly datasets of elec­tric­ity power pro­duc­tion in 31 coun­tries, daily vehi­cle traf­fic in more than 400 cities, daily pas­sen­ger flights, and monthly pro­duc­tion rates for indus­try in 62 countries.

The experts also found that, with the excep­tion of the trans­porta­tion indus­try, most economies resumed their usual lev­els of CO2 emis­sions by July after lock­down mea­sures were lifted.

Even if emis­sions remained low, how­ever, those improve­ments would do lit­tle to off­set the harm­ful lev­els of CO2 that have accu­mu­lated in the atmos­phere in the long term. With this in mind, the researchers empha­size that the only valid strat­egy to sta­bi­lize the cli­mate is a com­plete over­haul of the indus­try and com­merce sector.

Study co-​​author Hans Joachim Schellnhu­ber is the found­ing direc­tor of the Pots­dam Insti­tute for Cli­mate Impact Research.

While the CO2 drop is unprece­dented, decreases of human activ­i­ties can­not be the answer,” said Schellnhu­ber. “Instead we need struc­tural and trans­for­ma­tional changes in our energy pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion sys­tems. Indi­vid­ual behav­ior is cer­tainly impor­tant, but what we really need to focus on is reduc­ing the car­bon inten­sity of our global economy.”

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The study is pub­lished in the jour­nal Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and can be accessed here.

Q&A: California’s new electricity-​​blackout challenge

Q&A: California’s new electricity-​​blackout challenge


FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, file photo, electrical grid transmission towers are seen in Pasadena, Calif. As if the pandemic and recession weren’t bad enough, millions of Californians have been facing the recurring threats of abrupt blackouts during a heat wave in the nation’s most populous state. Photo: John Antczak, AP / Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — As if the pan­demic and eco­nomic reces­sion weren’t bad enough, mil­lions of Cal­i­for­ni­ans now face recur­ring threats of abrupt black­outs dur­ing a heat wave in the nation’s most pop­u­lous state.

California’s Inde­pen­dent Sys­tem Oper­a­tor, a non­profit agency that man­ages the state’s power sup­ply, ordered util­i­ties to impose tem­po­rary black­outs for the first time in 19 years last Fri­day and did so again Sat­ur­day, pulling the plug on hun­dreds of thou­sands of cus­tomers for one to two hours. The specter of so-​​called “rolling out­ages” have loomed as a pos­si­bil­ity every day since, and were nar­rowly averted Mon­day evening after “stun­ning” con­ser­va­tion efforts, accord­ing to ISO pres­i­dent Steve Berberich.

Con­ser­va­tion helped avoid threat­ened out­ages again Tues­day and may be needed again Wednes­day to keep the power run­ning. Tem­per­a­tures are finally sup­posed to ease Thurs­day, but more out­ages could still loom if things heat up as much as some fore­casts suggest.

The black­outs seemed to catch gov­ern­ment offi­cials off guard, despite an ISO warn­ing in Jan­u­ary that the state could run low on power over the sum­mer if sev­eral west­ern states were to expe­ri­ence extreme heat at the same time — which indeed hap­pened sev­eral days ago.

This has been a rude awak­en­ing for Cal­i­for­nia,” said Najmedin Meshkati, a Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia civil and envi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor who has stud­ied the state’s power supply.

The out­ages prompted Gov. Gavin New­som, a Demo­c­rat, to order an inves­ti­ga­tion into how the state’s energy sup­ply failed to keep up with demand. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump also weighed in with a Tues­day tweet blam­ing the state’s Democ­rats for the mess.

Here’s a look at California’s lat­est challenge.

Q: Cal­i­for­nia had rolling black­outs two decades ago because of power short­ages. Why hasn’t it learned from past mistakes?

Cir­cum­stances were very dif­fer­ent in 2000–2001. Back then, a recent dereg­u­la­tion of the state power mar­ket was going hor­ri­bly awry as energy traders manip­u­lated energy sup­plies to gouge util­i­ties. Black­out fall­out even­tu­ally led vot­ers to oust then-​​Gov. Gray Davis in a recall election.

These days, Cal­i­for­nia is try­ing to adapt to envi­ron­men­tal man­dates that have shut down natural-​​gas power plants in favor of solar and wind energy. In addi­tion, the San Onofre nuclear power plant in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia shut down in 2013 for safety rea­sons. Nearby west­ern states have also been phas­ing out coal-​​burning plants, reduc­ing other energy sup­plies avail­able for Cal­i­for­nia to import.

Renew­able energy reduces pol­lu­tion, but it can run short if winds die down or demand surges after sun­down. As much as 25% of California’s power sup­ply comes from solar sources. Both came to pass last Fri­day and Sat­ur­day as tem­per­a­tures stayed high into the evening, push­ing up air-​​conditioning demand for electricity.

Energy short­ages used to be the most severe around 4:30 p.m. on hot sum­mer days, but are now occur­ring after 7 p.m., the ISO says.

Oth­ers believe he prob­lem has more to do with Cal­i­for­nia fail­ing to man­age and prop­erly store power gen­er­ated from renew­able sources. “There is a cer­tain level of mis­in­for­ma­tion going on out there,” said Daniel Kam­men, a pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berkeley.

Q: This isn’t California’s first recent heat wave. What’s different?

The state’s high­est recorded demand for elec­tric­ity occurred in August 2006 when usage peaked at 50,270 megawatts, accord­ing to the ISO. No black­outs were nec­es­sary. But at the time, natural-​​gas plants were still pro­duc­ing about 7,000 megawatts of elec­tric­ity that is longer avail­able, said Sev­erin Boren­stein, an ISO board mem­ber who is also a pro­fes­sor of busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion and pub­lic pol­icy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia. Berkeley.

A Sep­tem­ber 2017 heat wave caused demand to spike to 50,140 megawatts, the ISO said Tues­day. But power imported from other west­ern states that weren’t as hot helped save the day.

The recent short­ages would have likely been even worse but for pan­demic restric­tions that closed many large offices. By some esti­mates, the pan­demic so far has reduced over­all elec­tric­ity demand in Cal­i­for­nia and other parts of the coun­try by 8% to 10%.

Q: Doesn’t Cal­i­for­nia also face black­outs intended to pre­vent wildfires?

Yes, par­tic­u­larly in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Such black­outs are likely to be more severe than what the state has just expe­ri­enced. Some of the more than 2 mil­lion peo­ple affected by fire-​​fighting out­ages last fall were left with­out elec­tric­ity for sev­eral days, not just an hour or two.

It’s highly unlikely that the ISO would order rolling out­ages at the same time as a fire-​​prevention black­out, as demand will auto­mat­i­cally have already been reduced, Boren­stein said.

Q: How can Cal­i­for­nia avoid future rolling blackouts?

Invest­ments in elec­tric­ity stor­age and dis­tri­b­u­tion would do the trick, Kam­men said. But those could be expen­sive, and even harder to bud­get for at a time when the state faces huge deficits amid the pandemic-​​related slowdown.

Cal­i­for­nia also may have to con­sider extend­ing the life­time of its last nuclear power plant in Dia­blo Canyon. The plant is cur­rently sched­uled to close by the end of 2025, and keep­ing it open would likely face staunch resis­tance from envi­ron­men­tal­ists and politicians.

Con­ser­va­tion might be an eas­ier and quicker option. Cal­i­for­ni­ans have con­served effec­tively in the past, most recently in a water-​​saving cam­paign dur­ing a pro­longed drought. But no one knows if home­own­ers will agree to turn up ther­mostats a few degrees to pre­vent blackouts.

Util­i­ties, how­ever, can encour­age such behav­ior. Boren­stein sug­gests allow­ing util­i­ties to charge higher rates from 4 to 9 p.m. in exchange for lower prices at other hours as part of a vol­un­tary program.

What­ever mea­sures the state takes may only be the first step. “Look­ing ahead, who knows what to expect,” Boren­stein said. “All we know is the cli­mate is changing.”

COVID-​​19: SF air pollution is 38% lower than normal, but will it last?

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For the orig­i­nal in The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cleclick here.

Shel­ter­ing in place has plenty of down­sides, espe­cially eco­nom­i­cally, but there is one thing you can feel good about if you’ve taken to work­ing from home. It’s likely dras­ti­cally reduc­ing Bay Area air pollution.

SF air pol­lu­tion is 38% lower than it was at this time in 2019, accord­ing to the EPA. This is likely largely due to decreased trans­porta­tion, which accounts for up to 30% of the typ­i­cal U.S. household’s emis­sions, whether dri­ving or tak­ing pub­lic transportation.

Dur­ing recent quar­an­tine mea­sures in China, there was also a direct impact on pol­lu­tion lev­els. NASA and the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) pol­lu­tion mon­i­tor­ing satel­lites detected sig­nif­i­cant decreases in nitro­gen diox­ide (NO2) over China when com­par­ing Jan. 1–20, 2020 (before quar­an­tine) and Feb. 10–25 (dur­ing quar­an­tine). Nitro­gen diox­ide is emit­ted by motor vehi­cles, power plants and indus­trial facilities.

Accord­ing to NASA sci­en­tists, the reduc­tion in NO2 pol­lu­tion was first

appar­ent near Wuhan, but even­tu­ally spread across the coun­try. “This is the first time I have seen such a dra­matic drop-​​off over such a wide area for a spe­cific event,” said Fei Liu, an air qual­ity researcher at NASA’s God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter in the NASA post.

The drop in nitro­gen diox­ide did coin­cide with Lunar New Year cel­e­bra­tions, where gen­er­ally busi­nesses and fac­to­ries close to cel­e­brate. Air pol­lu­tion usu­ally decreases dur­ing this period and then increases once the cel­e­bra­tion is over, but this year the coun­try didn’t see an increase.

While the U.S. may see sim­i­lar reduc­tions in emis­sions as peo­ple are dri­ving and fly­ing less, it likely won’t have a last­ing effect, warned Daniel Kam­men, an energy pro­fes­sor at U.C. Berkeley.

We’ve seen this after 9/​11 and dur­ing the Bei­jing Olympics,” Kam­men said. “Emis­sions went down tem­porar­ily but then they roared back after­ward as fac­to­ries reopened and every­one made up for lost pro­duc­tion. Look­ing at this emis­sion drop is exceed­ingly deceptive.”

Kam­men, who was for­merly a sci­ence advi­sor to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion (he resigned over the president’s 2017 response to the Char­lottesville demon­stra­tions) and also served as an adviser to the Obama admin­is­tra­tion, also noted that look­ing at just our own emis­sions doesn’t tell the whole story. For exam­ple, much of the emis­sions com­ing from China are because of U.S. goods being made there. He said he hopes peo­ple under­stand the full impact of an individual’s car­bon foot­print and that while he cau­tions get­ting overly opti­mistic about the decrease in pol­lu­tion, what we learn dur­ing the cri­sis could have a larger impact on the work­ing world.

We could be able to take some lessons from this on how to be climate-​​smart,” Kam­men said. “If we learn from this cri­sis that we could shift a lot of our IT activ­i­ties, our con­fer­ences, etc. to use Zoom and Slack and the like then that’s a good les­son. These are ways we can decar­bonize our economy.”

While the envi­ron­men­tal impacts may not be sus­tained, they have had short-​​term gains. Mar­shall Burke, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at Stanford’s Depart­ment of Earth Sys­tem Sci­ence, wrote that while the harms the virus will cause will likely far exceed any health ben­e­fits from reduced air pol­lu­tion, it may have saved the lives of between 50,000 and 75,000 peo­ple. “The reduc­tions in air pol­lu­tion in China caused by this eco­nomic dis­rup­tion likely saved twenty times more lives in China than have cur­rently been lost due to infec­tion with the virus in that coun­try,” Burke wrote on G-​​Feed, a site run by a group of sci­en­tists research­ing the rela­tion­ship between soci­ety and the environment.

While there are health ben­e­fits of the air pol­lu­tion changes, Kam­men cau­tioned about the long-​​term impacts to the econ­omy that we can’t yet know that could also impact the envi­ron­ment. “There is no ques­tion that we’re see­ing big car­bon impacts due to coro­n­avirus,” he said. “We won’t be able to say the reduc­tion is a good thing because the eco­nomic impacts are going to be so large.”

U.C. Berke­ley researcher and pro­fes­sor Den­nis D. Bal­doc­chi also said it’s likely too early to under­stand any of the effects coro­n­avirus will have long term, but he agreed that we could learn from this new way to work. “Often with the envi­ron­ment, there are win­ners and losers. You try to do one good thing and one thing pops up that’s unin­ten­tional,” he said. “But this could show that we can func­tion dif­fer­ently in the future and still be socially interactive.”

Bal­doc­chi also acknowl­edged the unknown impact of the increased waste right now, like every­thing from plas­tic hand san­i­tizer bot­tles to more take­out con­tain­ers to med­ical equipment.

It’s too early to say what the impacts are right now, but if we revisit in March 2021 and com­pare it to this year it will be very inter­est­ing,” he said.

Costa Is Now Serving Food From A Sci-​​Fi Desert Farm

For the orig­i­nal piece in Forbes, click here.

Jan­u­ary 17, 2020

by: Emanuela Bar­bi­roglio

Costa Cruises and AIDA Cruises ships call­ing at Aqaba, Jor­dan, are offer­ing their guests climate-​​friendly veg­eta­bles from an inno­v­a­tive farm out­side the city. The new part­ner­ship brings together the Costa Group and the Nor­we­gian non-​​profit Sahara For­est Project Foundation.

The ini­tia­tive will deliver veg­eta­bles to a total of 14 incom­ing ships dur­ing the sea­son from March to October.

With 28 ships and over 85,000 berths among the dif­fer­ent brands, the lead­ing cruise com­pany in Europe and China wants to cre­ate a trend through this project.

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We believe that through this project we offer the chance to repli­cate the same approach in places and com­mu­ni­ties where the appli­ca­tion of these cutting-​​edge tech­nolo­gies will rep­re­sent a step for­ward into their life,” Davide Tri­acca, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Costa Crociere Foun­da­tion, told Forbes​.com.

We also see the tremen­dous poten­tial of mak­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of guests on board Costa and Aida ships aware of key top­ics. Lastly, on a global scale the impact will be mul­ti­plied as usu­ally other play­ers in the cruise indus­try fol­low Costa’s lead­er­ship example.”

Accord­ing to Costa, it ‘s not easy to scout inno­v­a­tive and sus­tain­able projects that can be applic­a­ble in a real­is­tic time-​​frame and that can pro­vide a con­crete value to the peo­ple and the environment.

We acknowl­edge that inno­va­tion is not (only) an intro­spec­tive process and that’s why the Foun­da­tion is always open to effec­tive, sound project pro­pos­als from non-​​profit orga­ni­za­tions and start-​​ups in var­i­ous fields,” Tri­acca added. “We don’t have any geo­graph­i­cal bound­ary as we will sup­port projects that can bring ben­e­fits to the com­mu­ni­ties and the environment.”

Pro­fes­sor Dan Kam­men, direc­tor of the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory (RAEL) at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Berke­ley, wel­comed the part­ner­ship recently pre­sented at COP.

The Sahara For­est Project planet in Jor­dan is an excep­tion­ally promis­ing exam­ple of true out-​​of-​​the-​​box think­ing about the clean-​​energy-​​food-​​water pos­si­bil­i­ties,” Kam­men told Forbes​.com.

By lever­ag­ing low-​​cost renew­ables, this effort demon­strates that the ben­e­fits of clean energy can lever­age dra­matic shirts to a sus­tain­able future where added food and water access is brought to life.”

Accord­ing to FAO, the global demand for food, water and energy is expected to increase by about 40 to 50% by 2030. “Dou­bling food pro­duc­tion by 2030 will not come from putting more fer­tile land into pro­duc­tion but mainly from sus­tain­ably inten­si­fy­ing pro­duc­tion – that is, get­ting more from agri­cul­tural lands already in use – and from using mar­ginal lands, such as dry­lands,” said FAO nat­ural resources offi­cer Alessan­dro Flammini.

Due to the war in Syria, how­ever, there has been issues and delays to the roll-​​out and upscal­ing. Key logis­tic routes to mar­kets have been closed and some stake­hold­ers had to change their agendas.

Another chal­lenge has been estab­lish­ing a salt­wa­ter pipeline from the Red Sea to the farm’s site, but the com­pany is cur­rently work­ing with Jor­dan­ian offi­cials to make some devel­op­ment in this sense.

As we under­stand it, there has been imple­men­ta­tion chal­lenges and delays, but we should all hope that they over­come those,” the direc­tor of Norway’s Inter­na­tional Cli­mate and For­est Ini­tia­tive (NICFI) Per Fredrik Pharo com­mented. “The Sahara For­est Project showed great promise. Clearly, its cir­cu­lar nature and abil­ity to uti­lize non-​​fertile lands for food pro­duc­tion and employ­ment could be a breakthrough.”

Inau­gu­rated under the patron­age of King Abdul­lah II of Jor­dan and Prince Haakon of Nor­way in 2017, the Sahara For­est Project uses salt­wa­ter and sun­light to har­vest prod­ucts. It aims at green­ing desert areas and cre­at­ing local jobs through pro­duc­tion of food, fresh­wa­ter and clean energy.

The ongo­ing long-​​term agree­ment for sup­ply of veg­eta­bles to Costa and AIDA ships can pave the way for an expan­sion of our project in Jor­dan, while rais­ing inter­na­tional aware­ness for the need to scale-​​up inno­v­a­tive solu­tions to com­bat global warm­ing and cre­ate local jobs in desert areas,” said Mr. Stake, man­ag­ing direc­tor of the Sahara For­est Project.

It is urgent to prove that it is pos­si­ble to shift away from cur­rent agri­cul­tural prac­tices tra­di­tion­ally using 80% of scarce fresh­wa­ter resources and con­tribut­ing with 25% of CO2 emis­sions in many dry coun­tries and scale up con­cepts that are good for the envi­ron­ment, social devel­op­ment and business.”

Bernie Sanders’ $16 Trillion Climate Plan Is Nothing Short of a Revolution

For the orig­i­nal, click here.

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On Thurs­day, Bernie Sanders released his long-​​awaited pres­i­den­tial cli­mate plan. And folks, Bernie is gonna Bernie.

You can hear his voice in every­thing as it spits hot fire about pros­e­cut­ing the fos­sil fuel indus­try, uplift­ing work­ers, and cre­at­ing a whole swath of new pub­lic works pro­grams and infra­struc­ture. It also calls for 100 per­cent renew­able energy for trans­porta­tion and elec­tric­ity sec­tors by 2030 while eschew­ing nuclear power and demil­i­ta­riz­ing the world, set­ting a goal that’s some­where between wildly ambi­tious and out of reach. In that regard, it per­fectly cap­tures the icon­o­clas­tic nature of the Ver­mont sen­a­tor him­self. But whether it can be imple­mented is a big ques­tion mark.

For­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Jay Inslee, who exited the 2020 race on Wednes­day, made waves when he announced a $9 tril­lion plan to com­bat cli­mate change, a large por­tion of which would be lever­aged invest­ments from the pri­vate sec­tor. Sanders’ plan goes much, much fur­ther. It guar­an­tees a $16.3 tril­lion invest­ment through 2030 to rad­i­cally reshape Amer­i­can life and address the cli­mate crisis.

The plan itself doesn’t focus on where the money will come from, though the cam­paign did say it would come in part from new taxes on the rich, rais­ing rev­enue from the plan itself, reduced social safety net costs, and a few other sources. Instead, it focuses on who gets the money. The plan com­mits tril­lions of dol­lars to grants for low– and middle-​​income fam­i­lies to do every­thing from home weath­er­iza­tion to buy­ing a new elec­tric vehi­cle, and it would cre­ate a whole new host of pub­licly owned energy and inter­net infra­struc­ture. It also uses lan­guage like “we will spend,” “we plan to pro­vide,” and “give.” I’m not going all bUt HoW wIlL wE pAy FoR iT, given that we need a liv­able planet, but the lan­guage and the recip­i­ents them­selves are the mes­sage: This is a god­damn revolution.

Among the out­lays, Sanders would com­mit $2.37 tril­lion to renew­able energy and stor­age, which the plan says would be enough of an invest­ment to meet the country’s energy needs. Any renew­able energy the gov­ern­ment gen­er­ates would be pub­licly owned, and a Sanders admin­is­tra­tion would pri­or­i­tize sell­ing it to pub­licly owned util­i­ties and coop­er­a­tives at cur­rent rates to keep costs down. The cam­paign esti­mates that alone would raise $6.4 tril­lion of the $16.3 tril­lion needed to fund the tran­si­tion. The plan high­lights this under a bul­let point about need­ing to “end greed in our energy system.”

To that end, the plan also says Sanders would instruct the Depart­ment of Jus­tice (DOJ) to go after fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies for both civil and crim­i­nal penal­ties. So far, cases wind­ing through the state court sys­tems have largely failed to hold Big Oil account­able for lying to every­one from the pub­lic to share­hold­ers. There may be a fed­eral prece­dent, though.

Michael Ger­rard, the direc­tor of the Sabin Cen­ter for Cli­mate Change Law, told Earther that Sanders “is try­ing to repli­cate and go beyond what hap­pened in 2006, when after a lengthy trial DOJ obtained the civil con­vic­tion of eleven major tobacco com­pa­nies under the Rack­e­teer Influ­enced Cor­rupt Orga­ni­za­tion (RICO).” The result of that case changed how Big Tobacco could adver­tise and forced them to issue cor­rec­tive state­ments about the adverse effects of smok­ing, though no fines were levied. I would ven­ture to guess a Sanders’ DOJ would hope for a stronger outcome.

Patricia Hidalgo-​​Gonzalez named a 2019–2020 Siebel Scholar in Energy Science!

Patri­cia Hidalgo-​​Gonzalez was today named a  2019–2020 Siebel Scholar in Energy Science!

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Join­ing a com­mu­nity of grad­u­ate stu­dent Siebel Schol­ars, Paty is now part of The Siebel Energy Insti­tute, global con­sor­tium for inno­v­a­tive and col­lab­o­ra­tive energy research.
The Insti­tute funds coop­er­a­tive and inno­v­a­tive research grants in data ana­lyt­ics, includ­ing sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis and machine learn­ing, to accel­er­ate advance­ments in the safety, secu­rity, reli­a­bil­ity, effi­ciency, and envi­ron­men­tal integrity of mod­ern energy systems.

Paty’s work is on power sys­tems the­ory, includ­ing both ana­lytic work and the devel­op­ment of the SWITCH mod­el­ing tools, and prac­tice, with research foci in the US, Chile, and China, and on basic power sys­tem reli­a­bil­ity, and deep decar­boniza­tion of the sector.


ERG student compiles data on climate change — right outside the President’s window! [Japan’s cherry blossoms signal warmest climate in more than 1,000 years]

From the April 4 Wash­ing­ton Post: and devel­oped by  ERG PhD stu­dent Zeke Hausfather:

For more than 1,000 years, emper­ors, aris­to­crats, gov­er­nors and monks have chron­i­cled the flow­er­ing of Japan’s famed cherry trees in the city of Kyoto. But bloom dates have shifted rad­i­cally ear­lier in recent decades, a sure sign that the region’s cli­mate is warm­ing and warm­ing fast.

Yasuyuki Aono, a pro­fes­sor of envi­ron­men­tal sci­ences at Osaka Pre­fec­ture Uni­ver­sity, has assem­bled a data set that com­piles blossom-​​flowering dates in Kyoto all the way back to 800 A.D. It shows a sud­den and remark­able change in the past 150 to 200 years.

From roughly 800 to 1850, the blos­som flow­er­ing time was fairly sta­ble. While the bloom dates bounced around quite a bit from year to year dur­ing April, the long-​​term aver­age hov­ered between April 10 and April 17 (the 100th to 107th day of the year).


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(Invert plot to see the Hockey Stick!)

Make Carbon Pricing a Business Requirement

Check out the video: https://​www​.green​biz​.com/​v​i​d​e​o​/​c​a​r​b​o​n​-​a​c​c​o​u​n​t​i​n​g​-​b​u​s​i​n​e​s​s​-​r​e​q​u​i​r​e​m​ent

Dan Kam­men, pro­fes­sor of energy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley and a cli­mate adviser to the Obama admin­is­tra­tion, dis­cusses the the poten­tial of a car­bon tax at the recent Clean Energy Min­is­te­r­ial (CEM7) con­fer­ence in San Francisco.

“If we really want to bend the curve to make the tran­si­tion, we need every­one to speak the same lan­guage — not always to agree, but to talk about things in the same way,” said Kam­men. “You just can’t get envi­ron­men­tal­ists and busi­ness lead­ers and elected offi­cials to do that unless we’re valu­ing and pric­ing out the impacts. Car­bon tax will get us there.”

Kam­men con­tends that the U.S. gov­ern­ment could get the car­bon tax ball rolling by mak­ing car­bon account­ing a “busi­ness require­ment” for all fed­eral contracts.

To watch the video: click here.

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Phone: (510) 642-1640
Fax: (510) 642-1085
Email: ergdeskb@berkeley.edu


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