Opening Day: Hope, activism, and the future of nuclear power

Today is Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. Forget for a moment that technically three real baseball games already have been played; today is the official opening day for most teams.

Opening Day is a day of hope and renewal. There are 30 teams in major league baseball: as the season starts, they are all even in the standings. Every one of them–if everything goes right–theoretically has the same shot at winning the World Series six months from now. Every team has a legitimate reason for hope, for optimism, for a spring, summer and fall that will bring about the vision they hold in their collective minds of victory as the season starts.

For a baseball fan, and you’re reading the writing of one now, there is no better day of the year. After a long and miserable winter, Opening Day reminds us that, yes, Spring has arrived. There actually was a petition on the White House website this month to make Opening Day a national holiday; it received well over the 100,000 signatures necessary to ensure a White House reply (the reply was: don’t ask us, we can’t designate holidays, ask Congress…). But, in short, it’s Opening Day: Life is good.

When I started thinking last week about writing this piece, I googled “nuclear power and baseball” just to see what it would come up with. Here’s the result:

burnsasmanagerYep, greedy nuclear power plant owner Mr. Burns was the manager of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s softball (not quite baseball, but close enough) back in The Simpson’s third year, in 1992. (For baseball fans, the episode actually included the voices of a number of prominent real baseball players, including Ken Griffey, Jr., Daryl Strawberry, Wade Boggs, and quite a few more). For those who want to know more about the episode, check Wikipedia here.

Another thing I found on Google was a 2009 piece from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which actually focused on NASCAR–an energy-wasting sport much more appropriate for NEI (it sponsored a race car owned by actor Paul Newman, who was a big nuclear power supporter–if you buy Newman’s Own products for their charitable work, you might want to think again) than baseball…

But neither, of course, was what I wanted to write about, which is not about Opening Day or baseball. It’s about hope, and vision, and activism, and building a clean, sustainable future.

I’ve been at Nuclear Information and Resource Service more than 28 years now, and the longer I’m here, the more often I get asked how I do it. How can I continue to butt heads with the nuclear power industry, with all its wealth and resources spreading its poisons across our planet, year after year after year. Don’t I get frustrated or dismayed or feel defeated, or, worse, despair?

I’ve met quite a few concerned activists who seem motivated by despair, by their understanding that nuclear power kills and if they don’t do something about that, who will? But they also tend to think they’re not going to win, that the power against them is too great–and that leads to even more despair.

I ran across an article today on that seems to reflect that viewpoint. In The Myth of Nuclear Safety: Fukushima Reveals That Nuclear Power Is Here to Stay, Donald G. Schweitzer, a retired Senior Scientist at Brookhaven National Labs points out that just three years after Fukushima, Japan is trying to resurrect its nuclear power industry and open its Rokkasho reprocessing plant. He adds that new reactor designs are not really new and do not assure safety, but that isn’t stopping governments from pursuing them. Faced with that reality, he concludes: “There is no problem facing the nuclear community that will deter Congress, the utilities and the defense contractors from using the nuclear option to ‘combat’ permanent wars and permanent terrorism and to provide permanent profits.”

In my mind, that’s a conclusion of defeat, of despair. And, while I harbor no rosy delusions about the nuclear industry and its backers’ determination to protect and expand its interests, I think the implicit conclusion that we–the anti-nuclear community–are bound to lose is wrong. Indeed, I think it is inevitable that we will win, and that victory will come, perhaps not in my lifetime, but in most of yours.

It’s an Opening Day kind of thinking. It’s about hope and optimism–and the most successful revolutions are always based on hope and optimism and rising expectations, not about despair and desperation. It’s what has motivated me for the past 28+ years at NIRS. And it’s a way of thinking that is not about castles in the sky, it’s about reality. Because in those past 28 years, we’ve won more than we’ve lost, and that trend is set to accelerate.

Of course, if one thinks the only measurement of victory is an immediate end to the nuclear industry, then no, we haven’t won yet. But that’s never been a realistic expectation–especially in a democratic society where, yes, even the nuclear industry has rights and among those rights–rightly or wrongly–is the ability to get a license to build nuclear reactors.

But, if one looks more realistically at the fight to end nuclear power and replace it with clean energy as a series of battles, over individual reactors and proposed reactors, over waste dumps and proposed waste dumps, over the choices our society makes over our energy use and where our energy will come from, then we are indeed winning. We’re closing more reactors than they’re opening. We’re stopping more waste dumps and protecting more communities than they are contaminating. The public opinion polls show nuclear power and coal at the bottom of the public’s preferences, and solar and wind at the top (this one is only the most recent in a long trend).

Since I came to NIRS in 1985, when there were a hundred or so reactors operating and still more than a dozen under construction, I’ve seen the nuclear industry reach its peak of 112 operating reactors in the U.S. That’s down now to 100 and will fall below triple figures later this year when Vermont Yankee finally closes for good. That’s more than 10% of the U.S. fleet that’s been shut down. And, to put it in even greater perspective, the nuclear industry managed to build only 10% of President Nixon’s goal of 1,000 nuclear reactors across the U.S. countryside by 2000.

Back then, there were supposed to be 12 “low-level” radioactive waste dumps scattered across the nation by 1996. In 1987, Congress decreed that Yucca Mountain would be built and operating by 1998. Neither happened. And neither will. The radioactive waste problem is far more difficult and complex and dangerous than the nuclear boosters had promised.

And, as I said, I expect the trends to accelerate. U.S. reactors are old and aging poorly. The economics of nuclear power are no longer working for the technology. Nuclear reactors always have been expensive to build, but made up for it by the relative low-cost of their uranium fuel compared to the costs of coal and oil. But we don’t use oil for electricity in the U.S. anymore, and coal is fading fast too. Even low-cost uranium fuel can’t compete with free fuel from the wind and sun–especially now that construction costs for wind and solar installations are cheaper–per kilowatt–than nuclear power. And the price differential is only growing: nuclear is getting more expensive, renewables–especially solar–are getting cheaper. Energy efficiency remains cheaper still.

As we’ve been writing about a lot in these pages, the nascent but rapidly evolving transformation of the utility industry will also serve to accelerate the demise of nuclear power. When people can generate all of their own electrical needs from their rooftops, there is little need for large baseload power plants of any kind, much less ones that might kill us. We are already entering that era, faster than even futurists could have predicted.

It is not Congress that will determine the future of nuclear power–at worst it will do what they can to support the industry, which will hurt taxpayers but can’t fend off the inevitable. Nor even do utilities anymore have much influence over a nuclear future, certainly not as great an influence as the individual actions of millions of people choosing a different way to meet their electricity needs. The Pentagon? It’s a major backer of renewable energy, which it has realized is far more effective than other sources at meeting the needs of a wired, remote combat force. You can’t build a nuclear reactor or coal plant in a war zone, but you can put up solar panels in a few days. The military is betting, big, on renewables, and putting its money on it too.

I think we will see some more nuclear reactor shutdowns this year, and then more again in 2015, and still more in 2016. I would be surprised if there are as many as 80 in the U.S. by 2020, more likely it will be around 60-65–and still falling. By 2030, we’ll be left with a handful; they’ll be curiosities from the 20th century, monuments to an era when technology was oriented toward massive–and ultimately harmful–projects with the goal of maximizing profits rather than serving society.

I say this is inevitable, and I believe it is. That’s the vision part; the hope part–the part that Opening Day inspires, that has driven me for the past 28+ years–is that with our efforts, our knowledge, our activism, our combined voices, we can bring about the inevitable sooner. Immediate end of the nuclear industry may not be realistic, but as close as possible to that is our goal, and every closed reactor and every waste dump that doesn’t open and doesn’t contaminate a community brings us closer to that goal.

The inevitable is a handful of reactors left by 2030. The possible is an entirely nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system by 2030. It’s attainable; we just have to keep working at it, every day. That’s what I’ve done for 28 years and what I will continue doing. It’s the message of Opening Day: every team has a chance, but only one is going to win in the end. We have the chance, we should have the hope, we can be the winning team.

Homer Simpson wins the game for Springfield.

Homer Simpson wins the game for Springfield.

Michael Mariotte

March 31, 2014


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2 thoughts on “Opening Day: Hope, activism, and the future of nuclear power

  1. Don Richardson

    Life begins on opening day. And yes, the nuclear PR department is alive, but their product has died of market forces. Dead. Morte. But let’s keep up the pressure. Don Richardson

    1. Peter Sipp

      With every SUN rise we!!!!! are just that much closer to winning. We are sure to win. How can we not, after all: gravity of the SUN is holding the planets in orbit. Good ALWAYS TRIUMPHS over EVIL.
      Mr. Mariotte is RIGHT!!! Patiently, WITH DETERMINATION, we are SURE to WIN in the END. What is SOOOO good; The SUN will PATIENTLY wait. So do like Michael is doing. Methodically, patiently work at bringing the dinosaurs down. They are SURELY in their LAST DAYS The time to be HOPEFUL has NEVER been BRIGHTER…


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