A few weeks ago, a group of climate and energy scientists penned a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, telling him to not close the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant in California. You can read it below (and keep reading below for more information and commentary).
In a letter to Gavin Newsom, climate/energy experts including @DrJamesEHansen, Kerry Emanuel, Steven Chu, @JesseJenkins, @KenCaldeira, Richard Somerville, David Victor, @ramez, @PauliJllo, @DrChrisClack, myself, + many others argue CA should keep Diablo Canyon nuclear plant open. pic.twitter.com/BDQ21U4503
— Dr. Zeke Hausfather (@hausfath) February 3, 2022
Some Background On The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant
Anyone who tells you there’s a clear-cut answer on this is either a fool, or trying to sell you something. If you follow this topic the way we do here, you’d know that “nuclear good” and “nuclear bad” are the caveman answers they sound like. Like any other complex topic, the answer is almost always “It depends…” What nuclear depends on when deciding whether it’s good or bad is context.
Let’s start with the plant itself. It started construction in the 1960s, and went online in 1985-1986. It was designed to directly draw coolant water from the Pacific ocean, keep it clean, and return it to the ocean only 20 degrees warmer than ambient. This helps minimize the impact to ecosystems. For those unfamiliar with nuclear power, water is needed to get power from the nuclear reaction that happens in the reactors.
The nuclear reaction generates a LOT of heat, which is used to boil water that gets pumped through the reactor. The water turns to steam, and the steam pressure turns turbines, which generate electricity. The steam condenses to water again and gets pumped back into the reactor in a closed loop, which keeps the contaminated water from getting out into the environment. Other water (coolant water) gets pumped through a heat exchanger (like a radiator) with the reactor water to cool it off, and the excess heat gets dissipated in cooling towers and then with released water. If any of this quits happening, the reactor can melt down, which obviously would be bad.
There have been safety concerns over the years, especially regarding a seismic fault that was found offshore, but none of the concerns over the years can compare to those raised after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster. Like the Diablo Canyon plant, Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant was situated near the ocean. Like any nuclear plant, Fukushima’s reactors shut down for safety when the initial earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011. Loss of power meant that emergency diesel generators were needed to keep coolant and reactor water/steam pumping at the plant, as the reactors still had a lot of heat in them. But, when the tsunami struck a few minutes later, the diesel generators got knocked out, and the flooded reactors melted down.
Obviously, Californians aren’t big fans of reactor meltdowns happening in their state. With the Diablo Canyon plant situated by the ocean like the Fukushima plant, people predictably turned against the plant’s continued operation.
New Nuclear Is Inferior To Renewables
Another thing going against nuclear power is that it’s really not carbon free. Why? Because as Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson (a scientist we regularly check in with on things who has penned a few CleanTechnica pieces himself) points out, there are opportunity costs. It takes a long time to put in a new nuclear power plant, while you can put in renewables like solar or wind in a LOT faster. When the funding that could have gone to renewables instead gets tied up for a decade or more in a nuclear plant, the grid keeps running on fossil fuels for that time.
There’s also the normal lifecycle emissions of a plant, including mining for fuel, cleaning the fuel up, transporting it, and then hauling away waste (among other things). Plus, there’s the risk of nuclear war that accompanies the spread of nuclear power through nuclear latency. Countries that use nuclear power put themselves a lot closer to being able to produce weapons than countries that don’t use it. For example, Japan is said to be a “screwdriver’s turn” from weapons.
Nuclear That Is Already Running Is Better Than Fossil Fuels
The downsides of nuclear power do need to be put in perspective, though. While we’d be better off to build new renewable projects than new nuclear power plants, the question of what to do with existing nuclear plants is a very different issue. If a grid is sufficiently stocked with renewable energy to replace a nuclear plant’s generating capacity, it’s a no-brainer. Shut the nuclear plant down and use renewables. But, when a nuclear plant’s shutdown would require a grid to use more fossil fuels, the nuclear plant isn’t competing with renewables. It’s competing with coal, natural gas, and other dirty fuels.
Even when nuclear power goes very badly like it did in Fukushima, we have to compare the health problems for people it caused with the health problems coal power would have caused over the period the plant was operating. The truth is, coal power would have caused a lot more death and destruction over time than even a nuclear disaster caused in Japan.
Unfortunately, the Diablo Canyon plant is California’s last nuclear power plant. While the build-out of renewables has been great in the state, it’s nowhere near enough to replace what the nuclear plant puts into the grid. So, if it gets shut down next year, the state will have to turn to fossil fuels to cover the shortfall. Or worse, the state may have to resort to rolling blackouts during summer.
My Take On The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant
The scientists penning the letter are thinking about all of this. They’re not arguing for new nuclear power, and they’re not arguing for expanding the plant’s operations. Instead, they’re arguing for keeping the plant online for a few more years to give California a chance to come up with more clean power. Then, when the nuclear power wouldn’t be replaced with fossil fuel burning, we’d be able to shut it down without causing greater environmental damage.
At the same time, though, there’s a risk that keeping nuclear plants around longer can become a crutch that society starts to lean on too much instead of walking or running toward clean energy. In a state like California, where there’s a real commitment to renewable energy, this risk seems low. Renewables are eventually going to get to the point where you don’t have to turn to fossil fuels.
But, what happens when the nuclear power plant becomes excess energy for the state? If neighboring states are still burning fossil fuels, selling them cleaner nuclear power is better for not only them, but California. Plus, the pro-nuclear lobby that pushes lies about renewables has a greater foothold in conservative states. So, a situation could develop where there’s political pressure and perhaps a federal mandate to keep the plant open and carry the other states that didn’t build out renewables.
For that reason, I think there needs to be a solid plan of some kind to actually replace it with renewables and close it.
Featured image: Screenshot from Google Maps showing the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
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