In a 2 week period in 1981, 1,900 protestors were arrested at PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant construction site. This was to be the largest arrest in the US history of the anti-nuclear movement. (see Nuclear Knock-Out: When Splitting the Atom Nearly Split the Nation )
Regardless, Diablo Canyon went on line in 1985 and hasn’t had a nuclear related problem since. Of course normal power plant issues have popped up from time to time - Unit 2 was taken offline for a couple of days in 2008 due to jellyfish partially clogging an ocean water intake.
Still, we’ve had a de facto moratorium on US nuclear plant construction for 3 decades. There haven’t been any new construction starts since 1977. But those early plants have been good soldiers – reliably cranking out megawatts without fanfare, public respect or even recognition.
In fact, I don’t think most folks outside of the power industry are aware of the U.S. nuclear record:
So, nuclear has had a bad rap despite its performance. Now, within a period of several months, it looks like nuclear power may be getting some favorable press from former opponents.
Stewart Brand, noted environmentalist and writer who founded the legendary Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, has come out in favor of nuclear power. Brand believes that the perils of nuclear power have been way over exaggerated and are far-outweighed by the benefits. He was interviewed recently by National Public Radio. He seemed to me to be quite knowledgeable about science and technology and even a bit apologetic for some of the anti-nuclear overstatements of the past.
And he’s not alone. Patrick Moore, early outspoken leader in Greenpeace, is also pro-nuclear. You can even find a website titled Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy (www.ecolo.org).
That doesn’t mean all environmental activists are pro-nuclear. Some consider nuclear-leaning environmentalists as traitors. Still, there’s certainly been a palpable shift.
On the international scene, while the US has stalled nuclear plant construction, relying on its abundant resources of coal, several other nations have continued to consider nuclear as a realistic option. In fact, about 15 percent of worldwide electricity comes from nuclear generation. France is the leading nuclear advocate and has been relying on nuclear plants to safely provide about 75 percent of France’s electrical energy.
At the recent nuclear energy conference in Paris, French President Sarkozy urged world nations to employ nuclear energy, saying it was indispensable in the fight against global warming. He also told the representatives from 60 attending nations that poor countries in particular should have access to nuclear power.
Of course, France is quite anxious to sell nuclear power plants to those very nations. But none-the-less, President Sarkozy’s open nuclear enthusiasm was surprising.
Even more surprising is the U.S. government’s increased support of new nuclear plant construction. The proposed 2011 federal budget increases loan guarantees for nuclear construction to over $54 billion, tripling the existing budget limit.
“This is only the beginning,” President Obama said while designating financial backing for a new nuclear power plant in Georgia to be operated by Southern Company. Even while campaigning in 2008, Candidate Obama openly supported more nuclear construction. There weren’t any riots and he got elected. Obviously public acceptance of nuclear power has improved.
We’ve come a long way from the mass arrests on the California Coast. Now we’ll see what happens when a wave of new plant construction begins.