California has a long history of opposition to nuclear power. Back in 1976, a ballot initiative called for a ban on all new nuclear facilities. At the time, the legislative analyst commented: “Unlike other types of power plants, each nuclear power plant contains large quantities of radioactive material which, if released—through natural disaster, human error, or malicious intent—may cause widespread public harm.” Proposition 15 failed, largely because the nuclear industry poured in millions to defeat it. But the legislature got the message. It wisely passed a moratorium on nuclear power until there is a solution to the storage of the vast amounts of highly radioactive nuclear waste the plants create.
The moratorium did not cover the Diablo Canyon or San Onofre nuclear power plants already in development but it did lead to serious public opposition at these facilities. In June of 1979, 40,000 attended a protest at Diablo Canyon. Two years later, 1900 protesters were arrested in another protest. In June of 1980, 15,000 marched in protest at the already operating San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).
With the closure of Diablo Canyon in 2025, is the era of nuclear energy in California finally over? The nuclear industry is now mounting a national campaign to reverse this. The strategy is to conceal the dangers and failures of nuclear power and to wildly exaggerates its promise. It is not only the NRC (a captured regulatory agency run for the benefit of the nuclear industry) but also the DOE plus some scientists and engineers who are now pushing to open more nuclear power plants and keep old ones like Diablo Canyon from shutting down.
Some still remember when President Nixon wanted to build nuclear power plants up and down the coast of California. The 1976 moratorium saved us. No more nuclear power plants have been built in California because after a half-century there is still no solution to the safe storage of nuclear waste. Just think of it: nationwide there are nearly 100,000 tons of deadly radioactive waste with nowhere to go and no solutions in sight. The highly radioactive uranium will remain lethal for hundreds of thousands of years. How could anyone argue that we must produce more of it?
Nuclear proponents have changed their approach and now focus on trying to change public perceptions about nuclear power. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm is touring the country (most recently in Arizona, Nevada, and California) proclaiming that nuclear energy is clean, green, emission-free, and the solution to the climate crisis. Former DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz joined the lobbying effort and went on the Bill Maher show to promote nuclear power. Dr. Moniz is an MIT scientist, and no surprise (MIT has its very own nuclear reactor) the institution rakes in millions from DOE grants and wants to preserve the gravy train.
The nuclear industry realizes that it has a huge public relations problem if they boast that it is safe and clean yet the reality is that it is so dangerous that no one wants to store the waste in their backyard. It is worth reading Human Radiation Experiments to see how reckless the U.S. Government has been since the 1940s in endangering citizens with radiation. We all know that the U.S. conducted 1,021 nuclear test explosions in Nevada which spread deadly radiation across the country. But how many know that nuclear explosions also took place in Colorado, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and New Mexico? A colorful summary of all things nuclear can be found here.
Should we continue to conceal the dangers and should we force nuclear waste on local populations? The DOE has changed its tune and is now saying people can finally have a say on where the government can store highly radioactive materials. If the DOE adopts this “consent-based siting,” then what about communities which refuse to give consent but are stuck with vast amounts of nuclear waste for the indefinite future?
A case in point is San Clemente, the official home of the SONGS 1,773 ton nuclear waste dump, home of over 300 million highly radioactive uranium fuel pellets stored 108 feet from the Pacific Ocean. In April, the city council unanimously passed a resolution clearly stating that the city does not give consent. Many other cities in San Diego County have also passed resolutions opposing nuclear power.
To make nuclear power sound more tempting, the U.S. government is now offering $6 billion in taxpayer dollars to spruce up the nation’s aging and accident-prone plants. Suddenly this gets the attention of Gov. Newsom who now appears interested in reversing his stance to keep Diablo Canyon closed. Are we going to close Diablo Canyon or keep it open?
To bolster the argument for more nuclear power, teams of engineers from MIT and Stanford published a 111-page study filled with glowing praise for nuclear power and recommendations for more of it. The report completely ignores all the serious downsides, perhaps because engineers are out of their expertise when it comes to inconvenient truths like epidemiology, public health, and public safety.
How can any scientist say with a straight face that nuclear energy is “clean?” If you count the front end of all things nuclear (the mining and milling of uranium), it is perhaps the most dirty industry in the world. Read Peter Hessler’s The Uranium Widows and learn how entire mining towns in Colorado were bulldozed because of deadly radioactive contamination.
Is nuclear power emission-free as proponents claim? Sure, as long as you ignore the worst kind of emissions: radioactive emissions. It is no secret that every nuclear power plant blasts low-level radioactive waste into the atmosphere and discharges it into waterways. For decade after decade, San Onofre has pumped nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean, tens of billions of gallons in some years. As recently as May 16, SCE pumped 106,030 gallons of radioactive waste into the ocean. No wonder the water is warmer there (surfers beware) and no wonder they had to build a second artificial reef to mitigate the damage to the marine environment after the first one failed.
Southern California Edison deceptively claims that this radioactivity is harmless because it is “low-level.” But every scientist knows that radioactive exposure is cumulative in its effect. We are worried about the cumulative exposure year after year, not the magnitude of an individual release. We know that ionizing radiation does damage cell DNA and it may take years or decades for cancer to develop. Let’s not forget that cancer is the number one killer in California and most of the nation.
Is it a cancer risk to live near a nuclear power plant, especially for women and children who are more vulnerable? Scientific studies in Europe have reported such a link. But no one knows for sure in this country because there has been no research here for over 30 years. The National Academy of Sciences proposed such a study but the NRC refused to fund it (Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities Phase 1 (National Academies Press 2012, 412 pages) and (Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities Phase 2: Pilot Planning) (National Academies Press 2014).
The good news is that President Biden recently signed legislation initiated by Congressman Mike Levin and others to finally fund this research. Leading epidemiologists will carefully examine possible cancer streaks in seven locations including the 50 km radius around San Onofre (Huntington Beach down to Solana Beach). Perhaps President Biden is finally going to honor his pledge for a “moon shot” on cancer.
It is time to call out politicians, engineers, and the nuclear industry when they claim that nuclear power is clean, emission free, and the solution to climate change. It is time to bury, not revive, this failed industry just like many other countries are now doing. Keeping Diablo Canyon open would derail important efforts to bring us closer to what we really need: clean and emission-free energy. Any way you look at it, nuclear power is the most expensive, the most unreliable, the most dangerous, and the most environmentally unfriendly form of energy production.
Professor emeritus Roger Johnson, PhD, served on the faculties of Amherst College, Tufts University, and was one of the founders of Ramapo College of New Jersey.
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