In June, California utility Pacific Gas and Electric announced plans for phasing out its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, located on the central California coast. If the current timetable holds, late summer 2025 will see the first time in over six decades that the nation’s most populous state will have no licensed nuclear power providers.
This is big news. Forty years ago, Diablo Canyon stood at the middle of an intense controversy over the safety and desirability of nuclear power. Those debates stand as part of the origin story of the anti-nuclear movement; failure to stop the plant from coming online educated and galvanized a generation of anti-nuclear activists. From this perspective, Pacific Gas and Electric’s decision to replace nuclear output with renewable energy seems to be an environmental victory, a belated vindication of the anti-nuclear efforts of the 1970s.
But in the era of climate change, no decision regarding energy production is simple. California’s move away from nuclear power comes alongside a modest reappraisal of a technology that was once vilified by the vast majority of environmentalists. James Hansen, the scientist whose 1988 testimony before Congress provided climate change with much-needed visibility and political salience, has become one of a number of prominent environmentalists to support nuclear power.
The problems of waste, security and ensuring accident-free operation are as vexing as ever. But context is key, and the real but remote dangers of nuclear power may prove more manageable than the more visible – and accelerating – consequences of a warming planet.
Diablo today might be sitting on a second juncture in nuclear history in the United States, one where environmentalists will have to embrace – or even just accept – the very technology that helped teach them to be suspicious of relying too much on technical solutions to the political and social challenge of powering our society.