Politics & Policy

The Greens’ Nuclear Identity Crisis

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty)
The environmentalism of the 1970s is being challenged by technology-loving climate activists.

Three and a half decades ago, California’s most prominent greens were getting arrested by the hundreds trying to prevent the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant from even opening. Now, in the name of climate change, some of the state’s highest-profile environmentalists are campaigning to keep that same plant from closing.

On January 29, a new group called the Save Diablo Canyon Coalition sent a letter to California governor Jerry Brown, urging him to keep the 2,200-megawatt twin-reactor plant operating. If Diablo Canyon closes, they said, the state’s carbon-dioxide emissions will increase by an amount equivalent to “adding nearly two million cars to the road. Closing Diablo Canyon would make it far harder to meet the state’s climate goals.”

While the regulatory and political issues facing the facility in San Luis Obispo County are complex, there are two broader issues at hand. The first is the continuing decline of America’s nuclear capacity. The second is the ongoing ideological clash on the green left over what qualifies as environmental protection. It’s clash between the pro-nuclear New Guard Greens, many of whom call themselves “ecomodernists,” and the anti-nuclear Old Guard Greens, led by groups like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The fact that the ideological battle over nuclear energy is largely being played out on the streets of San Francisco only adds to the intrigue.

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Regarding America’s nuclear capacity, the possible closure of Diablo Canyon — which, by itself, provides about 9 percent of California’s electricity — underscores the ongoing decline of the domestic nuclear sector. Nuclear power remains important; it generates about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. But in November, Entergy Corporation announced it would close its 838-megawatt FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego, N.Y., by early 2017. The FitzPatrick announcement came just three weeks after Entergy said it would also close its 688-megawatt Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, located in Plymouth, Mass., by 2019.

Nearly 10 gigawatts of domestic nuclear capacity is facing shutdown over the next few years.

In all, nearly 10 gigawatts of domestic nuclear capacity, or about 10 percent of America’s domestic nuclear fleet, is facing shutdown over the next few years. Those looming shutdowns only add to the woes of the domestic nuclear sector. Since 2013, domestic utilities have shuttered 4.2 gigawatts of nuclear-generating capacity. Five new reactors — located in Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina — with a total of 4.4 gigawatts of capacity are expected to be completed by 2020. But after those projects are completed, the pipeline of new reactor projects is essentially empty. And while the ecomodernists are championing the development of next-generation nuclear technologies that could be safer and cheaper than existing designs, the licensing and construction of a new, advanced reactor in the U.S. will likely take a decade, and perhaps much longer. Furthermore, the longer the U.S. delays in supporting next-generation nuclear, the more likely it is that advanced reactors will be built in places like China or Canada.

The history of Diablo Canyon reflects the history of modern environmentalism — a belief system that, for decades, has required reflexive antipathy toward nuclear energy. In 1979, then-governor Jerry Brown (who’s now the governor of California again) spoke at an anti-nuclear rally near Diablo Canyon. Two years later, musician Jackson Browne, along with about 1,500 others, was arrested while protesting the opening of the Diablo Canyon facility. Before he was arrested, Browne told reporters that he was protesting because his wife was pregnant, and “we want to have children without genetic defects.” Rolling Stone magazine called the 1981 protests “the boldest demonstration yet against a nuclear future.” The Los Angeles Times described them as “the Normandy Invasion of civil protests.”

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Today’s efforts to keep Diablo Canyon operating are being spearheaded by Michael Shellenberger, a longtime environmentalist who was a co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute. Shellenberger led the effort to draft and send the letter to Brown. That letter was signed by 61 people, including Shellenberger, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, author and Pepperdine professor Steven F. Hayward, and several climate scientists, including James Hansen of Columbia University, Kerry Emanuel of MIT, and Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

They wrote that declining electricity from California’s hydroelectric dams “underscores the importance of nuclear, the only source of zero carbon power that is reliable no matter the weather or climate. In 2014, Diablo Canyon — a single power plant — produced 24 percent more electricity than all of California’s wind power, and 33 percent more electricity than all of California’s solar power.”

Nearly as remarkable as the letter itself was that it got favorable coverage in both the San Francisco Chronicle and Mother Jones magazine, the latter headlining its coverage “Closing This Nuclear Plant Could Cause an Environmental Disaster.”

#share#As might be expected, the Old Guard Greens are still playing their Jackson Browne LPs and longing for the good old days when nuclear energy was the demon that must be defeated. The Pied Piper of the Old Guard Greens is Stanford professor Mark Jacobson, who claims that the U.S. could run its entire economy on renewable energy if only it had the political will to do so, never mind that any such effort would cost trillions of dollars.  In 2014, I debated Jacobson at the University of Iowa on the question of renewables. During the debate he declared, “We shouldn’t even discuss nuclear energy.” Jacobson hasn’t changed his opinion. In its February 3 article on Diablo Canyon, Mother Jones quoted Jacobson as saying that keeping the nuclear plant open will “be costly” and will divert “funds from the development of more clean, renewable energy.”

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Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes is among Jacobson’s many fellow travelers. In a December op-ed in the Guardian, she cites Jacobson’s claim that we can run our economy solely on “wind, water, and solar, coupled with grid integration, energy efficiency and demand management.” But the most astounding part of Oreskes’s article is her nutty claim that climate scientists who favor the deployment of nuclear energy represent “a new form of climate denialism.” Thus, in Oreskes’s view, anyone who dares to disagree with the claim that we only need renewable energy to power our economy is a “denier.”

Unlike nuclear, both wind and biofuels require vast amounts of land to produce significant quantities of energy.

To be sure, the clash between the New Guard Greens and the Old Guard involves technology and the belief that technological advances are essential in the effort to help bring people out of poverty. Technological progress is a fundamental tenet of ecomodernism. But the broader clash is about land use. I am a longtime critic of both wind and biofuels because both of them require vast amounts of land to produce significant quantities of energy. That point was made by the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute, which recently calculated that replacing Diablo Canyon with wind energy would require about 621 square miles of land. To put that in perspective, Marin County covers 520 square miles and San Francisco County covers about 47 square miles.

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Of course, the battle over nuclear energy goes far beyond California. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo continues calling for the closure of Entergy’s Indian Point Energy Center in Westchester County, and he intensified his criticism after news broke earlier this month that Indian Point had leaked trivial quantities of tritium. Cuomo hasn’t bothered to explain how he would replace the electricity produced by Indian Point. And in December, he declared that New York State should be getting half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, a move that puts him firmly in the camp of the Old Guard Greens.

The punch line is clear: The U.S. has been leading the Nuclear Age since the start of the Manhattan Project. It now produces nearly twice as much electricity from fission as France. But unless or until politicians in Washington — and, in particular, Democratic politicians, in state capitals like Sacramento and Albany — get serious about keeping existing reactors operating, as well as developing a new generation of safer, cheaper reactors, the U.S. could soon be a nuclear also-ran.

Robert Bryce — Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author and producer of the forthcoming book and documentary Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.

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