Like Carlos Santana’s acceptance speech for the Year 2000 Grammy for Album of the year, this must be a dream. Please don’t wake me up…
It’s 1982… Burlington, Vermont. I’m active in the Clamshell Alliance. We’re pummeling Public Service Company of New Hampshire for its planned Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. Governor Sununu is pummeling us. We had a dream of an end to nuclear power, an end to its gross risks. There must be a better way…. a cleaner, much safer way. Seabrook was built. And since then, Chernobyl, Fukushima…
Now the dream is real. California will soon be nuclear free. Pacific Gas and Electric Company announced this past month that it will close the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant in 2025. It will not seek an operating license extension. Instead, it will shutter the plant, putting an end to nuclear in the Golden State. Southern California Edison elected to retire its San Onofre Nuclear Generating station (SONGS) in 2012.
Diablo was a contentious build. Understatement. Like Seabrook on the East Coast, Diablo was a lightening rod, a live wire. Situated directly on top of earthquake faults, the nuclear complex seemed like a risky venture to many citizens. But the plant was built, and today it pumps out nearly 9% of California’s power. So closure?
Clearly these electrons aren’t “too cheap to meter” as Richard Nixon had once professed that nuclear would be. In fact, PG&E believes that it can provide the same amount of energy at lower cost. Simple. And it will get this by investing in solar and wind. The announcement, one pundit stated, “is further evidence that the age of renewables has arrived.” We’re on a steep, carbon-free trajectory in California… 20% renewables by 2012, 33% by 2020, and 50% by 2030. This is very real, and nuclear is squeezed out.
The end of an era? Perhaps. Nuclear has continued to plague. The environmental community has been polarized by nuclear. Some say we need it. America’s 99 reactors produce about two-thirds of nation’s low-carbon energy, the other third provided by renewables. To some, nuclear is critical to powering our society while cutting GHGs and complying with global protocols for mitigation. To others like me, the Faustian Bargain that nuclear forces is simply unacceptable. Imagine having to relocate Manhattan given an accident at Indian Point.
Even with government insurance, nuclear is too expensive and can’t compete with innovative new sources. The economic reality is coming into focus, getting aligned with the environmental mandate of the era: Pacific Gas and Electric, announced that it would shut down Diablo Canyon and that it would replace the power with lower-cost, zero-carbon energy sources. This has prompted other states to consider following suit. Governor Cuomo in New York has expressed his interest in closing the Indian Point reactors, dangerously close to New York’s mega-metropolis. Am I dreaming?
Fast forward for fun. What will become of the closed nuclear sites? Might they become spiritual centers, modern-age vortexes of energy ala Sedona? Casinos for chain-smokers? Resorts complete with themed rooms, “the control room,” the “reactor vessel suite”… A site for weddings, cremations? We’re getting back some prime real estate from the nuclear era.
Levity, however, may be premature: What are we left with? Unlike all other forms of power production, a spent nuclear plant is hot with radiation and will be for years. San Onofre and Diablo will end up with casks of highly radioactive, spent fuel for decades. The reactors themselves are hot. These sites are dangerous. Of course we’ll need to address these before we bask in the nuclear-free reality.