Southern California Edison’s announcement this week that it will close its troubled twin-reactor San Onofre nuclear power plant—along with other recent setbacks for atomic energy in the United States—marks a downward spiral for nuclear power.
And it could—and should—mean a great advance for the implementation of safe, clean, renewable energy technologies. “We have long said that these reactors are too dangerous to operate and now Edison has agreed,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, after the announcement Friday. “The people of California now have the opportunity to move away from the failed promise of dirty and dangerous nuclear power and replace it with safe and clean energy provided by the sun and wind.”
S. David Freeman, former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority and other utilities, at a joint news conference with Pica Friday, said it was a “step in the right direction and another move toward the renewable revolution that’s underway in California.”
Also this week, Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy scrapped plans to build nuclear plants in Iowa. Last month, Dominion Resources announced it was shutting down its Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin. Also last month, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that a partnership between Toshiba and NRG Energy to build two nuclear plants in Texas violated a U.S. law barring foreign control of nuclear plants. Further last month, Duke Energy announced it was scuttling plans to build two nuclear plants in North Carolina. This came after Duke’s earlier announcement that it would close its troubled Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida.
From 104, the U.S. in short order has gone to 100 operating nuclear plants—and most of these are also plagued with safety and financial problems. Many also face strong opposition and demands they be shut down.
“This industry is on its final trajectory downward,” said Pica Friday. He said that with these events, the NRC should be renamed the Nuclear Retirement Commission.
At the news conference, Freeman said that having a nuclear power-free and greenhouse gas-free world are the two most needed things to be done to “sustain life…on Earth.”
That nuclear power is a threat to life is not a new issue—it’s been central to the battle against nuclear power even before the first commercial nuclear plant in the U.S., the Shippingport plant in Pennsylvania, opened in 1957.
But new in recent decades have been the great advances in safe, clean, renewable energy technologies led by solar and wind, rendering nuclear power unnecessary. Germany has become a global model in jettisoning nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and is committed to a goal of 100% of its energy coming from clean, renewable sources.
A few hundred miles from the San Onofre plant, in San Francisco last month, a conference—“Pathways to 100% Renewable Energy”—was held serving as an international organizing and strategy event. It was hosted by the Renewables 100 Policy Institute of San Francisco. Experts in energy and finance, political leaders and renewable energy activists spoke on the feasibility of 100% renewable energy.
Study after study have now determined that renewable technologies can provide all the power the world needs.The Renewables 100 Policy Institute presents many on its website including “A Plan to Power 100% of the Planet With Renewables,” a 2009 cover story of Scientific American, a conservative and most careful publication.
The challenge has been converting this understanding to action, particularly considerng how special interests pushing their energy products—nuclear, oil, gas and coal—have a hold on so many governments around the world. At the conference, a “global alliance” was formed to “build political will among a critical mass of decision makers and set a required goal of 100% renewable energies.”
Also a big problem has been the ignorance in much of mainstream media about energy issues—especially concerning nuclear power. For example, at the news conference Friday, Matthew Wald, who covers nuclear power for The New York Times, demanded most defensively of Pica how he squared eliminating “2,400 megawatts of carbon-free energy” that would be generated by the San Onofre nuclear plant. Wald either doesn’t want to acknowledge or doesn’t know that the “nuclear cycle”—the mining, milling, fuel enrichment and other components of nuclear power—emit greenhouse gases and contribute substantially to global warming, and thus the energy from San Onofre was never “carbon-free.”
The San Onofre plant, built along an earthquake fault, has been an obvious threat to anyone traveling along Interstate 5, the major highway linking San Diego and Los Angeles. Its twin domes sit right next to Interstate 5.
“We are now left with one of the largest, most concentrated nuclear waste piles on the planet,” said Ace Hoffman of Carlsbad, California, who has written extensively about the serious safety problems at San Onofre. “This will be an eternal problem, but thankfully it is no longer a growing problem…It will take millions of years—not just days—to be safe, but at least we are headed in the right direction.” As to the employees of San Onofre, said Hoffman Friday: “I hope they all will find jobs in the solar and wind technology energy sectors.”
Two nuclear reactors amid millions of people will now be shut down permanently. The electricity they would have generated can be replaced, said utility veteran Freeman, an engineer, through energy efficiency and with solar and wind power made available on-demand with a variety of energy storage systems.
And, as Damon Moglen, climate and energy director of Friends of the Earth, said at the conference, with San Onofre’s closing “we will see California move even more decisively” on renewable energy and become “one of the largest non-nuclear economies on our planet .”
That’s a big step in the vision of a nuclear power-free world using energy that people can live with—safe, clean renewable energy.