Marching Amidst Madness
By Kristin Zaitz, July 27, 2016
A splash of cold water washes across my face, causing my eyes to blink in confusion. Am I awake? It’s only 6:30 in the morning, and this day has started in the worst way. Plant employees at Diablo Canyon fired up their computers to find an announcement that the plant will not seek relicensing. A “deal” to shut down the plant has been struck with PG&E, labor, and so-called environmental groups. Is this really happening? The cold water says yes.
PG&E executives and human resources representatives descend on the unsuspecting Diablo Canyon employees in a coordinated communications effort. The message is, “we really like you guys, but we just don’t need you anymore.” It’s like a bad breakup-- all your friends knew it was going to happen before the words were spoken. A relative army of people and organizations were “in” on this deal. Some employees feel duped. Some feel confused-- this announcement comes mere weeks after the Clean Energy Ministerial in San Francisco, where PG&E was touted as a leader in the fight against climate change. This announcement doesn’t add up.
A media frenzy ensues. The entire world seems to be praising this decision. In the chaos I wonder, how am I going to react? My insides are a washing machine of emotions - anger, sadness, fear, confusion. I convince myself to push aside my emotions and be strong. This isn’t right-- and when it’s not right, it’s not over.
The announcement itself is not unexpected, it’s one of the reasons why Heather and I started Mothers for Nuclear in the first place. When we saw well-run plants facing premature shutdown across the United States, we were uncomfortable. When shuttered nuclear plants were replaced with fossil fuels, we were perplexed (protectors of the environment, where are you?). When the threat came to Diablo Canyon, we were mad.
Why would environmental groups knowingly go backwards on climate progress? Do they really believe that climate change is our most pressing environmental problem? If so, why would they advocate for the shut down our largest source of clean energy? Nuclear power does not emit pollution or greenhouse gases during the production of electricity, and all of the used fuel is securely tucked away in storage canisters. When nuclear plants are shut down, they are replaced by fossil fuels. As air pollution is a carcinogen and a leading environmental health risk, increasing our dependency on fossil fuels is something we should all be concerned about.
It seems that fears are being trusted over facts, and suspicions are favored over science. Calling the shutdown of existing nuclear plants an environmental victory is deceptive and just plain wrong. Moms don’t take deception lightly - especially when the health of our children and our planet are in the balance.
I grew up on the writings of John Muir, exploring the same wilderness that inspired him to crusade for the protection of our national treasures (just like every kid, right?). Now the “environmental” groups that claim to follow his legacy are taking money from fossil fuel interests and approving the destruction of native lands for renewable energy sprawl. And to ice the cake, the proposal to shut down Diablo Canyon includes talk of expanding pumped storage (read: dams). Aaaah, dams. Muir loved those, right? Someone go check on him, I think he just rolled over in his grave.
Here’s the situation in a nutshell: Environmental groups are lobbying for the shutdown of existing clean energy and the mass expansion of a different kind of clean energy -one that requires fossil fuel backup. These groups are taking money from fossil fuels and renewables interests, all of which profit when existing nuclear plants shut down. These groups also receive staggering individual donations based on the popular opinion that they are fighting FOR the environment. If shutting down a nuclear plant is framed as an environmental win, more donation checks will be in the mail.
Who put an electromagnet on the moral compass of modern environmentalism? It no longer points north, it points towards money.
Day one of the March for Environmental Hope is a dramatic opening to this crusade for clean power. Attendees roll in from all corners of the globe. A rag-tag group gathers in a dusty parking lot -students, farmers, architects, singers, builders, teachers, retirees. These people have next to nothing in common except their common goal of protecting our environment from the tragedies of climate change and energy sprawl. There is power in this group - they do more than just understand the clean energy crisis, they are ready to act.
The group descends on the Sierra Club with homemade signs and songs about climate change. Their employees hide inside. Not wanting Sierra Club staff to miss out, the adventurous students in our bunch find a way to get the group inside the building. Their message is clear, “We support your organization’s mission, but you’re wrong about nuclear power.” After a rousing few verses of “The Battle Hymn of the Atom,” the group is ushered out by a most unhappy manager.
The March moves on to Greenpeace, where icons of the pro-nuclear environmental movement lock arms in protest in front of the building entrance. Giant organization Greenpeace gave their employees the day off in anticipation of this event (you’re welcome). Pulitzer prize winning author Richard Rhodes speaks to the crowd above the commotion. Gwyneth Cravens and Robert Stone join in. More participants are added with every passing minute. The March becomes a flood of bodies and signs, pushing down the streets of San Francisco in a roar.
The flood hits the gates of the Natural Resources Defense Council, where perplexed building security staff lock the building’s front doors as the protesters stack up. Chants of “No Receiving Dirty Cash” ring out, and protesters aptly rename the group the “Natural Gas and Renewables Development Corporation.” Energy runs high at the NRDC, as they are one of the signatories on the dirty deal to close Diablo Canyon.
In the weeks leading up to the march we were asked why we were advocating for such vocal and powerful action. Why march? Why protest? Can’t we just write a few more letters? Or perhaps we should sit down with these groups and explain the truth. We have facts on our side, isn’t that enough?
If that was enough, we wouldn’t have closed Vermont Yankee. Clinton and Quad Cities would be mulling long-term plans instead of decommissioning strategies. And the list goes on.
It is always the right time for information and education, but we can’t keep pretending that the facts will be enough to convince policymakers to make responsible long-term energy decisions. After multiple open letters to decision makers and environmental organizations from leading scientists and conservationists, a gaping divide remains between a clean energy future and the political will to get there. It’s time for something more.
After a full day of protest, an exhausted group of marchers rolls into the group campsite at Lake Solano. This is only day one. Of five.
Dust, heat, flies, where’s the water? Day two of the march is a symbolic 3.8 mile trek through Fairfield. This is the average distance that people have to walk to get water in the developing world. With temperatures rising above 100 degrees (38 C), the marchers appreciate the symbolism. With reliable power, the developing world can have water along with other modern “luxuries.”
Modern luxuries are nowhere to be found at base camp, a group campsite that these weary marchers now call home. Tents look like they’re stacked on top of each other (what privacy?), and camp chairs compete for space around the fire pit. Marchers escape the dust and bees by trekking down to the nearby river to reset their overheated bodies in the cool water. Our sense of community builds fast.
There is some irony in our living conditions - we march for clean reliable power but we can’t find enough power to keep our cameras and laptops functioning. Our one solar panel and battery can’t keep up with the demand, and it is difficult to prioritize who gets to use the precious wattage. Our modern lives revolve around access to power, and the campers now appreciate it even more. As I wait my turn for half of a cell phone charge, I think twice about the effectiveness of sending solar panels to third world countries.
The heat is unrelenting. Day three of the march is Sunday in Vacaville, routing past nine places of worship to remind us of our charge to be responsible stewards of this earth. While the kids take the afternoon off to watch “Finding Dory,” adults circle up to discuss the future of pro-nuclear environmentalism.
Decades of lobbying by well-funded anti-nuclear groups has caught nuclear power unaware. This lobbying has created tangled webs of discriminatory energy policy, deceptively framed around protection of the environment. A lobbyist once told me, “you can be on the side of the angels and it will make no difference to most politicians.” We have to do more than just tell the truth.
On this Sunday I am reminded of a passage from the Gospel of Luke, “For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” This highlights my personal conviction to share the truth about my experiences in nuclear power. It’s more than just sharing -- it’s a movement of hearts and minds to the place where people everywhere share the ambition to power AND protect the planet. We have an uphill battle, that is certain. But this is a mountain that we must summit if we are to protect our planet from catastrophic environmental consequences.
Day four of the march is a peaceful stroll through the college town of Davis. The march is routed past a large solar installation, causing us pause to consider the implications of a renewables-only energy quest. The group consensus is that all clean power sources should be promoted, but we need to be aware of the limitations of each source. The bulldozed land and ten foot tall chain link and barbed wire fence surrounding these panels reminds us that we need to balance natural land use with energy production.
These marchers are an innovative bunch. We agree that energy innovation is vitally important, and research on all clean energy sources must be promoted. And as we are innovating, we need to keep all clean energy sources working to their full capacity. Innovation takes time, and the planet does not have time for us to continue emitting greenhouse gases while we experiment.
This group ended their five-day journey with an energetic parade through the streets of Sacramento and a lap around the capitol building. The march concluded at the June 28 California State Lands Commission meeting only to find pockets of madness on both sides of this issue. Flying in the face of every other real-life example of a nuclear plant shutdown, PG&E testified that the shutdown of Diablo Canyon would not cause an increase in natural gas and would not cause electric rates to increase. Anti-nuclear groups testified that their unborn children, should they be born, would die from radiation caused by Diablo Canyon. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere far away from the madness that overwhelmed this meeting.
Tragedies are not born just of themselves, they are composed of a series of wrong steps. One of these failings was the loss of democratic process that was on full display at this meeting. Firstly, the conclusion was fully decided before this meeting was ever called to order. The ink on the back-room deal was still wet when the Commission staff revised its report to recommend extension of the leases contingent on closure of Diablo Canyon by 2025. Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom openly admitted that he met with the parties to this deal. All of which means that the five-hour public comment period following the Commission's dog and pony show was a show in itself - for no reason other than checking the requisite box.
Anti-nuclear testimony was given priority - they spoke first and were allowed as much time as they needed. The commission allowed lengthy discourses from each of them, including speeches from dozens of individuals representing the same organizations. This amounted to hours upon hours of mostly nonsensical accusations and fear-mongering, with a few nuggets of true concern hidden between the lines.
The press was gone by the time they were a third of the way into the lineup. Despite the volume of speakers and duplicity of content, the Commission allowed the anti-nuclear speakers to exceed their allotted two minutes of time, even doubling it for so-called “expert” testimonies.
This ran in stark contrast to the pro-nuclear comments that were allowed to begin once the shadows were long and the Commission had lost its patience. Speakers’ microphones were muted as soon as the two-minute timer ran out. Speakers from the same organization were asked to consolidate their comments. In a humiliating attempt to cut-off supporters’ comments, the pro-nuclear speakers were asked to stand at the microphone together to “save time”.
This is not what democracy should look like. To be fair, PG&E is not a democracy, they are a business. They can choose to close a power plant when they decide that it is best for the business. The biggest failure here is the political pressure and legislative framework borne from anti-nuclear lobbying that brought PG&E to the point where closing 23% of California’s clean power is the right business decision.
At the end of the meeting, the California State Lands Commission voted to approve Diablo Canyon's intake and discharge structure leases (which would have expired in 2018). This approval is contingent upon approval of the "deal" to close Diablo Canyon at the end of its NRC operating licenses in 2024 and 2025. Parties on both sides of the issue are celebrating. Although the seven year extension of these leases is a short-term win for the environment, watching the slow death of California's largest source of clean energy is not something that any of us should be proud of.
Amidst this madness, I need something to hope for. So I marched. My hope is that the world will pull back the veil of political posturing and financial gain to see nuclear power for what it really is - a proven way to power and protect the planet.
The stream of support for nuclear power is growing. Why? The truth is on our side. Deception is damaging, but it is not the end of the story. True environmentalists will continue to fight for the planet. This movement will continue to grow until the rising tide of truth lifts our world's decision makers into support for responsible energy policy.
The March for Environmental Hope will live on. We will march until the truth is clear. We will march until we all have something to hope for.
Read more about the March for Environmental Hope at http://www.marchforenvironmentalhope.org/