If we are to save nuclear power — including Diablo Canyon — we must never surrender
By Michael Shellenberger
In the spring of 2014, I toured Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear plant. I was struck by the beauty and serenity of the place.
We drove through a grove of old-growth oak trees before being greeted by a (grass-fed organic) cow from a local ranch. We saw a peregrine falcon. We watched seals and sea lions splash near the intake pool.
By 2015 I started hearing rumors that the state was going to force PG&E to close Diablo Canyon.
That December, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom — currently the front-runner in the race to become California’s next governor — used his position on the State Lands Commission to block a normally routine-extension of the plant’s lease.
“I just don’t see that this plant is going to survive beyond 2024, 2025,” Newsom said. “I just don’t see that.”
I wanted to do something to keep the plant operating and so I left the think tank I had co-founded 12 years earlier and launched a campaign to Save Diablo Canyon.
The climate scientist James Hansen, Whole Earth Catalog Founder Stewart Brand, Pulitzer-winner Richard Rhodes, and a couple dozen other scientists and scholars joined me in publishing an open letter to Gov. Jerry Brown urging him to keep the plant open.
We attracted positive media attention even from liberal publications like Mother Jones and started making friendships with workers at Diablo Canyon, particularly Kristin Zaitz and Heather Matteson, the founders of Mothers for Nuclear.
In June of 2016 — just as we were about to begin a protest march from the Bay Area to Sacramento — PG&E announced that it had secretly negotiated a deal with NRDC and other anti-nuclear groups to close the plant.
We denounced the deal but it quickly became clear that there was little we could do through official channels. The matter would be decided by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) which was controlled by Gov. Brown.
Some of my advisors encouraged me to give up on Diablo Canyon and focus on nuclear plants at risk of closing elsewhere. California was a lost cause, they said.
But I didn’t like the idea of giving up on Diablo Canyon or on California. I could still work to save nuclear plants in places like Illinois and South Korea without giving up on Diablo. Plus, I had come to view the plant as special.
Part of this was because of its role in dividing the environmental movement. In the mid-1960s, the leadership of Sierra Club advocated for Diablo Canyon while a splinter group of Club leaders opposed it, eventually founding Friends of the Earth (FOE).
Another reason I viewed Diablo Canyon as special is because it is beautiful and well-run by people who care — exactly the kind of power plant California environmentalists should want.
Seeking a way to save Diablo, I sought to learn more about the history of nuclear power in California.
What I learned surprised me. Gov. Brown wasn’t the neutral observer he portrayed himself as but rather had actively sought to kill nuclear plants — and Diablo Canyon specifically — since the 1970s.
While he and his compatriots did so in the name of the environment, Brown was also actively seeking the expansion of oil and gas production — including in ways that benefitted his own family — during his terms as governor.
And Brown and his friends have done so in ways that have at times run afoul of law enforcement.
In the 1970s the FBI investigated campaign contributions from a Mexican oil and gas entrepreneur. In 2015, the Department of Justice opened a criminal investigation of the CPUC’s role in closing San Onofre nuclear plant.
Meanwhile, anti-nuclear groups like NRDC and Sierra Club weren’t small and innocent grassroots groups but rather had budgets in the tens of millions and the backing of natural gas and renewable energy interests who stood to make billions from closing San Onofre and Diablo Canyon.
The news media sometimes covered these scandals but because California’s Democratic Party controls the Governor’s office and a supermajority in the state legislature, there are no serious checks and balances on Gov. Brown’s power.
At various moments people would ask me why we weren’t participating in the CPUC hearings over closing Diablo Canyon. “We have to give people something they can do,” a colleague told me.
But I would be deceiving people and wasting their time if I asked them to petition a government agency that has been flagrantly corrupted by natural gas and renewable energy interests.
It was clear that we couldn’t save Diablo Canyon without cleaning up the CPUC, and we couldn’t clean up the CPUC unless a reform-minded governor was elected.
I tried for over a year to find someone else to run. Finding nobody, I decided to run myself.
I wouldn’t have done it if all I cared about was saving Diablo Canyon and cracking down on corruption. I am equally concerned by the housing crisis and rising inequality.
But behind those problems are policies advocated and maintained by the very same groups — Sierra Club and NRDC — that are trying to close Diablo Canyon. What they for decades have said they want is resource scarcity and higher prices in order to curb population growth and prosperity.
We must fight back against corrupt organizations like NRDC and Sierra Club and corrupt politicians like Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom. They are trying to replace Diablo Canyon with natural gas to the benefit of their families, friends, and campaign contributors.
But that's not enough. We must also must build a larger movement advocating abundance, prosperity, and environmental progress.
Our success won’t come quickly, or easily, but it will come. In just two years we’ve won important victories in New York, Illinois, South Korea, Connecticut, and France, and fresh victories could soon arrive in New Jersey, Taiwan, and Spain.
Places like California and Germany will almost certainly take longer.
Throughout history, advocates of good causes have faced longer odds than ours, persevered, and triumphed. We can take inspiration from them.
We must use every ethical and legal tool at our disposal.
And we must never surrender.