There are few fuels that are causing more consternation in the environmental community than nuclear power. It’s seen by some as a long-term bridge fuel as the United States transitions off of dirty coal, oil and gas and onto cleaner, safer energy. The big talking point for proponents is that nuclear power emits near zero carbon emissions. The Paris climate deal to cut global greenhouse gas emissions, as a result, has given nuclear power new prominence.
Other environmentalists see nuclear power’s toxic waste, high maintenance and building costs, marine impacts and security risks as not worth the pursuit and ineligible for being called clean energy. Until its radioactive and other risks are neutralized, critics don’t see nuclear as part of a sustainable energy portfolio in America.
While this split in the environmental community is getting increasing political coverage in the press, a new historic agreement between a major American power company and environmental groups shows that another way is possible. America can, in fact, transition off nuclear in the short-term and replace it with renewable energy, efficiency and energy storage resources. It’s totally feasible. Take a look at the groundbreaking agreement:
First, the 100-plus year-old California-based power giant, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), just agreed to shut down its two 30 year-old nuclear reactors in Diablo Canyon, letting the licenses expire in 2024 and 2025, respectively. This is a big deal, and it’ll make California, the world’s sixth largest economy, nuclear free.
This is no small thing. These two PG&E nuclear reactors, which spurred the start of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth, comprise roughly 20% of the annual electricity production in the company’s service territory and 10% of California’s annual production.
That’s a lot of power. And yet the transition off these kinds of plants is entirely doable and illustrative of switches that should happen across the U.S., including much older plants with long-expired licenses. Entergy’s Indian Point nuclear reactors north of New York City, for example, could be closed even sooner than Diablo Canyon and replaced with a portfolio of renewables, efficiency, and storage. Taking a cue from California, we should be replicating this everywhere.
Second, this agreement indicates that California is outpacing other states in how its utilities are redefining their future, as PG&E didn’t stop with the Diablo Canyon closure. They committed to ramping up their renewable energy portfolio over the next 15 years so that renewables will comprise the majority of their total retail power, at 55%, voluntarily exceeding California’s standards for 2030.
That’s also a big deal and heralds a new tide of utility leadership. PG&E sees the markets moving and wants to make the switch early. Utilities across the U.S., many of which are notoriously conservative in thinking and practice, are seeing the writing on the wall. And in the coming years, we’ll only see more of this switching as the economics are rapidly driving the conversion.
Third, this deal also locks in an equitable and just transition for the communities that supported Diablo’s nuclear power in the past. It contains economic stimulus provisions for the community of San Luis Obispo and Diablo Canyon workforce, which is why labor and, most importantly, the two biggest unions in Diablo are supporting this deal.
There’s even an employee retention and severance program and a community impacts mitigation program. And, remarkably, PG&E is putting up money for all of this. The move has garnered the support of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 and the Coalition of California Utility Employees, making it the model for the future of America’s energy transition. It’s one of the best examples of a blue-green alliance, with both labor and the environmental community on board.
Rolling out these kinds of deals across America won’t be easy. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with its close ties to the nuclear industry, is keen to keep reactors running even if plant licenses have long expired, as we’ve seen with Indian Point in New York, potentially imperiling neighboring communities.
This is why the drumbeat of environmental organizations, that see nuclear as toxic to humans, risky for terrorism, harmful to fish, and expensive for taxpayers, is so essential. Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which both partnered with PG&E on this, are on the right side of history. They know the transition is now. Anyone calling for anything less is simply stalling the inevitable and preventing the necessary.
Michael Shank, PhD, teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.
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