Hooray! The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant has been saved!

The only working nuclear plant left in the state provides 8.6% of total California generation (23% of carbon-free generation). It was under threat of shut down. Luckily, legislatures have decided to let it continue it’s production of reliable, carbon-free power for 5 to 10 more years.

This was the result of continued efforts by activists and scientists, who pointed out that keeping Diablo Canyon online would reduce California’s annual GHG emissions from electricity generation by over 10%, save billions of dollars, as well as making the grid less vulnerable to black-outs (See Stanford, Stanford+MIT study and a public letter by 79 climate and energy scientists urging to keep Diablo Canyon online). In other words, saving this plant is great news for humans, for the environment, and even economically.

This is a rather big deal, considering that California is pretty much the birth place of the US anti-nuclear movement. This is part of a noticeable 180-turn that is happening across the world, where nuclear energy has increasingly gained positive attention. Even in Japan, we see commitments to restart nuclear plants that were put on stand-by after Fukushima In Germany, of all places, we see some signs (fingers crossed) of overturning decade(s) long anti-nuclear policy - that being - a nuclear-phaseout planned to be completed at the end of 2022, during which Germany’s three remaining NPPs (supplying Germans 6-8% of their energy) would be shut down.

Borrowing the words of environmental activist George Monbiot; such decisions to shut down existing low-carbon capacity in the middle of a climate crisis is just absolute madness. The madness only became worse as Germany was facing the difficulty to replace both nuclear and coal power. Solar and wind are as of yet unreliable to act as a full substitute, so Germany turned to natural gas as the renewable back-up… specifically from Russia. This was made explicit in the speech by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel at the 49th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos on 23 January 2019:

We will have phased out nuclear energy by 2022. We have a very difficult problem, namely that almost the only sources of energy that will be able to provide baseload power are coal and lignite. Germany has now phased out its own coal production. That means that subsidies have been discontinued. Lignite isn’t subsidised and is thus a relatively cheap but very CO2‑intensive source of energy. We’ve therefore set up a commission which is examining the phasing‑out of coal-based power in Germany and is now in the final stage of its work. Naturally, we cannot do without baseload energy. Natural gas will therefore play a greater role for another few decades. The dispute about where our natural gas comes from is thus a bit over the top. For, on the one hand, it’s perfectly clear that we’ll continue to obtain natural gas from Russia. However, it goes without saying that we want to diversify. We’ll therefore also purchase liquid gas – perhaps from the United States and other sources. We’re thus expanding infrastructure in all directions. However, I believe we would be well advised to admit that if we phase out coal and nuclear energy then we have to be honest and tell people that we’ll need more natural gas. What’s more, energy has to be affordable.

Let’s just say, this plan didn’t work out very well. Hopefully the greens within the German government will learn from their mistakes and listen to (real) environmentalists and the scientists. The greens of Finland have already done so.

The increasingly positive attitude towards nuclear is probably the result of the recent energy crisis that was exacerbated after Russia’s war on Ukraine. This isn’t really surprising. A similar thing happened during the oil crisis of the 1970’s. This gave rise to a famous saying in France:

“In France, we don’t have oil, but we have ideas”

What was the idea? Build nuclear plants! France enacted the Messmer Plan in 1974. This would lead to one of the fastest increase in energy capacity in history.


France went from ~10% nuclear to >65% 10 years later, and ~80% after an additional 10 years. Not just that, absolute electricity capacity of the whole country DOUBLED and carbon intensity went from over 500 to 100-50 kg CO2 per MWh.

Left France, Germany to the right for contrast.

Remember, France achieved this in less than 2 decades, disproving the common anti-nuclear claim that nuclear plants can’t be constructed fast enough in time to prevent climate change. Even today, France remains one of the few places in the world with low-carbon electricity, and these rely mostly on either nuclear, hydro, or both.

So yeah, it turns out that when fossil fuels supply runs into problems, people turn to nuclear for economical reasons. France’s motivation to increase nuclear capacity wasn’t environmentally driven, yet it had positive environmental outcomes. Hopefully, this trend will continue and people will finally catch on with the environmental benefits of nuclear power as well.

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Was going to reply but pre-moderation bugs me too much.

I keep wondering what they were thinking.

It has seemed obvious to me that we cannot sufficiently reduce CO2 emissions unless we turn to nuclear power. The human appetite for energy cannot be satisfied in any other way.

Agreed. Right now there are no real alternatives for large scale low carbon baseline power generation. Hydroelectric is great, but has environmental impacts of its own as well as dependency on consistent flow as the Southwest is finding out right now. There are other interesting technologies, such as geothermal, but they have issues for large scale implementation. Nuclear is the best we got right now, and the newest technologies are much safer than those designed in the 1960’s.

That’s true, but I don’t want to go down the road of emphasizing that new nuclear is safer than old nuclear, because that could have the opposite effect. For example, how would you feel if the restaurant manager explains to you how they have improved the safety standards of their food since the last time you visited, and they do this every time you enter that restaurant? Even if they prove that their safety standards are among the strictest of the country, would that be reassuring to most people? I don’t think so. It probably has the opposite effect…

I think the better thing to do is emphasize how safe nuclear power has always been. The old LWRs that were build since the 1960s have been and continue to be the safest source of reliable energy.

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That cat is out of the bag. Everyone saw what happened at Fukushima and Chernobyl. I think it is worthwhile to point out that those disasters are physically impossible in some of the newer designs.

I think it is more akin to starting an old car and a new car. When cars were started with a hand crank it was entirely possible to break your arm or lose a limb when starting a car. Now that is physically impossible. It’s a change in technology, not just an effort to do better with the same technology.

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Except that what most people think happened at those place is quite different from what actually happened. A recent report by UNSCEAR concludes:

No adverse health effects among Fukushima residents have been documented that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure from the accident, nor are any expected to be detectable in the future.

Although, this mostly confirms the conclusions in their 2013 report. There is also that one worker who got cancer that was attributed to the accident, but that’s a matter of legal policy wherein if a worker is exposed to a certain dose of radiation and later is diagnosed with cancer they are eligible for compensation. But sure, we can count 1 as a conservative observed death toll from Fukushima radiation.

Even with Chernobyl, the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history, of the ~1000 people that were on site during the accident (incl. plant operators and firefighters), 2 died from the explosion and ~130 experienced ARS, which killed 50. Among the public, the only noticeable radiation related effect was thyroid cancer from Iodine-131. This occurred because people drank milk produced by cows that ate the grass that was coated with I-131 dust. Some 4000 instances of thyroid cancer were observed. Luckily, thyroid cancer is very treatable with a high >99% survival rate. About 9 succumbed to thyroid cancer. So the observed death toll is ~60.
It’s estimated that an additional ~3940 cancer related deaths could eventually be caused by radiation exposure among the 200.000 liquidators and 400.000 residents, which were among the cohorts that received the highest radiation doses (outside those that experienced ARS). Considering that spontaneous cancer rate among the public has a baseline of about 25%, this estimated number represents only an increase of 3% in relative risk; i.e. a change from 25.00% to 25.75%. Such a small difference would difficult to distinguish from statistical noise in public health studies. And even this might be an overestimate, because it relies on assumptions about the effects of low radiation doses. Regarding the environmental impact, at first many plants and animals died in the surroundings. However, after the radiation levels subsided, nature bounced back. Today, the exclusion zone effectively functions as a wild life sanctuary. This doesn’t mean radiation is good for the ecosystem. It does mean that ordinary human activity like farming, deforestation, maintaining roads and infrastructure, etc is much worse relative to the worst nuclear disaster in history. See WHO report.

Most people are perplexed when hearing these results. In fact, I have been called a shill for the nuclear industry for simply presenting these figures to them. There is also this conspiracy theory going around in anti-nuclear circles claiming that several international scientific institutions such as the WHO, IAEA, UNSCEAR are covering up hundreds of thousands or millions of deaths from these accidents. Even among the general public, it’s common for people overestimate the death toll of these accidents by one or several orders of magnitude, which gives strength to the persistent myth that nuclear energy is inherently unsafe. Why is there such a distorted perception? It’s easy to blame anti-nuclear greens from spreading such myths (that is certainly part of it), but I mainly blame the lack of comprehensive public communication. I also would argue that this perception only gets reinforced every time when someone goes to the public and says something like:

“These new nuclear power reactors are not like the ones you know. They are much much safer. Trust me.”

This implicit bashing of old nuclear reactors isn’t helpful.

And it’s not like overestimating the risks of old nuclear is inconsequential. That is (or rather should be) the big lesson from both Chernobyl and Fukushima. Quoting the abstract of David Ropeik’s paper:

Deep fear of nuclear radiation is widespread, yet research on radiation’s biological effects finds that the level of alarm far exceeds the actual danger. This “radiophobia” has roots in the fear of nuclear weapons, but has been significantly reinforced and inflamed by accidents at nuclear power plants. Radiophobia does far more harm to human health than the radiation released by nuclear accidents. In some cases, the harm results from disaster response. The influence of radiophobia on society’s energy choices poses great additional dangers.

At Fukushima, while none (or only 1) died from radiation, about a few hundred or +1000 died as the result from a botched evacuation where old people were forced out of their care homes and cramped into busses that got stuck in traffic for days, often without access to medical care, food, or water. To add more insult to injury, a study showed that the evacuation itself was completely unnecessary. The same study also shows that 75% of those that were relocated after Chernobyl constituted an overreaction. An interesting line from the Chernobyl concludes that:

“the mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date”.

This resulted from the trauma and stress experienced after relocation, in addition to severe anxiety and fear from:

“an exaggerated sense of the danger to their health from radiation exposure and a belief in a shorter life expectancy. Anxiety over the health effects of radiation shows no signs of diminishing and may even be spreading.”

Even the older designs. That’s why I said PWRs. The Chernobyl scenario cannot happen with PWRs. Not even with currently existing RBMK reactors, after the retrofits. So while it’s true that modern reactors continue to keep getting safer, we should be emphasising how safe the old reactors are / always have been.

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Thanks for the post @Nesslig20 . It is really helpful.