These 5 people changed their minds about nuclear power. Are you next?

The debate over nuclear energy has never seemed more important.
After weighing every study on the subject, teams of scientist have
predicted that warming of 1.5 degrees C (2.4 degrees F)
above pre-industrial levels would
bake 1.5 billion people in
life-threatening heat waves at least once every five years, bleach
coral reefs, and cause crop failure. And according to the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there’s no way to
avoid that scenario
without using nuclear power
. After all, nuclear fission is the
world’s second-largest
source of low-carbon electricity after hydropower.

Yet here in the United States, utilities are planning to shut
down nuclear power plants that are producing more than twice as
much electricity as
all the solar panels in the country
. The main reason is the
cost. Today’s reactors are so expensive that some say it would be
better to invest in other options — fusion, batteries, or maybe

a better version of nuclear

Of course, it’s impossible to disentangle nuclear energy from
the specter of
nuclear war
, its high-profile disasters (like Fukushima or
Chernobyl), or from its legacy of poisoning vulnerable people, such
as the
Bikini islanders

Opinions about nuclear power are cast in granite. They don’t
bend under pressure. They emerge unchanged after slamming into
mountains of contrary evidence. Or at least that’s how it seems.
But these five people bring a special insight into this debate,
because they once stood on the other side.

The unlikely employee Kristin Zaitz

Given Kristin Zaitz’s profile, you might think she’d be the
last person to take a job at a nuclear power plant. She’s a
trail-running, home-birthing, farmers-market shopping mother of
three. She grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains
in California, raised by the kind of back-to-the-land parents who
prohibited flushing the toilet after peeing to save water. Zaitz
started hiking as soon as she was big enough to carry a pack, often
traipsing through the mountains for weeks with her uncle, a Sierra
Club guide who had donated a big chunk of his life savings to
Greenpeace (a longtime foe of nuclear power). At an age when other
teenagers were starting to party, she was trekking up glaciers with
her snowboard.

Her family talked about protecting the environment all the time,
but the subject of nukes never came up. But when she went to
California Polytechnic State University and found her group of
likeminded people, she discovered she was anti-nuclear by clan, way
of life, and birth. It came with the package.

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In a class on public speaking, Zaitz got an assignment to
research a controversial topic and picked nuclear energy. As she
leafed through a stack of books in the university library, one
preconception after another shattered.

“I had this image of nuclear waste from the Simpsons as
glowing green bars that you picked up with tongs, or barrels oozing
green goo,” she said. “I learned that it was solid fuel rods
encased in dry casks, which is benign compared to particulate air
pollution spewing everywhere.”

When she researched wind, solar, and other renewable sources,
she began grappling with the amount of land solar panels would
require to replace fossil fuels, the thousands of birds that wind
turbines kill, and the damage hydropower dams do to river
ecosystems. “I think my big realization was that every form of
energy has a downside,” Zaitz said. Her speech in front of the
class ended up being fairly neutral, not the anti-nuclear talk
she’d expected to deliver.

When she graduated in 2001, a door opened for an internship at
the Diablo Canyon Power Plant just up the road, and she tiptoed
through. “I took the internship for stupid reasons,” she said.
“I had a boyfriend in town, and I needed a job.”

At this point she knew that a lot of the worries people had
about nuclear power were overblown, but she also figured there must
be a kernel of truth behind people’s aversion to it. Zaitz
soothed her qualms about her internship decision by telling herself
that maybe she could serve as a watchdog on the inside and help
anti-nuclear advocates pounce on problems at the plant. She was
surprised to find that the workers there didn’t mind her
scrutiny, because it was an established part of the nuclear
industry’s “safety
” to encourage probing questions. Older engineers were
encouraging, kind, and often staunch environmentalists.

“This wasn’t Homer Simpson eating doughnuts in the control
room,” she said. “They were awesome. It just didn’t seem
possible that these people were covering up some awful

And so she stayed.

“I ended up loving the job, and the people, and ditching the
boyfriend,” she laughed.

Because she was a civil engineer, Zaitz got to scuba dive in the
kelp forest around the plant to inspect the water intake system and
rappel down the reactor containment domes looking for cracks while
taking in the beauty of her surroundings. Humpback whales played in
front of her workplace. She marveled at the way nature and reactors
producing as much electricity as three coal plants could exist in
harmony. As the years passed, she came to believe that plants like
this produced the most environmentally friendly, and safest, source
of energy.

In 2016,
when the state of California and Pacific Gas and Electric, which
owns the Diablo Canyon plant, began talking about shutting the
reactors down, it hit Zaitz like a punch to the gut. She knew she
could get another job easily enough, but she was worried about the

“I’d always thought of this as the jewel of the country’s
nuclear fleet — if it gets closed prematurely then we could be
looking at early shutdowns for all the plants,” Zaitz said. “We
could lose
of the United States’ clean electricity at a time when
we are painting our faces and holding up signs at climate marches.
The thought of it made me feel sick.”

In 2011, Zaitz and her colleague Heather Matteson, a reactor
operator, decided it was on them to stop that from happening. They
hesitated out of fear they might get fired: After all, they were
opposing the course of action that PG&E executives — their
bosses — wanted. But a little research showed them that the
company couldn’t restrict what employees did on their own

The pair decided to start Mothers for Nuclear because, as
mothers themselves, they figured they could target an audience that
doesn’t get a lot of direct attention from activists.
“Throughout history, women have been the ones looking out for
things that might harm their families,” Zaitz said. “We think
it’s a group super motivated to save the planet.”

For the last few years they’ve been organizing through
a website and social
media, handing out fliers at local farmers markets, writing op-eds,
and meeting with politicians in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
They made a
last February to see for themselves what a nuclear
accident looked like.

Zaitz’s stance led to some hard conversations with old
friends. Sometimes people assume that she’s being paid to promote
nuclear power. (It’s all on her own dime and time.) But most
people are interested in her expertise and her story: “Support
for nuclear power is not something that comes naturally to the
friends of mine who are herbalists and homeschoolers and
midwives,” she wrote on the
Mothers for Nuclear website. “But they love me and trust me. What
I find most moving is the willingness of everyone to not just
listen but also to ask questions.”

The former prime minister Chris Ratcliffe –
Pool / Getty Images

Naoto Kan, who became prime minister of Japan in 2010, was an
ardent foe of nuclear weapons, but nuclear energy was another
matter. That seemed safe and necessary. After all, Japan lacked its
own fossil fuel resources, and the power of the atom looked like
the solution. When Kan took office, Japan was generating some

60 percent of its electricity
from imported coal, oil, and gas,
while getting 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants.
The country had plans to scale up nuclear power to meet its climate
change commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and other agreements
while simultaneously decreasing its dependence on imported fossil

Then, in March 2011, an earthquake sent colossal 130-foot waves
crashing over the towns of northeastern Japan
killing some 16,000
people. The tsunami engulfed the Fukushima
Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, destroying its safety systems. The
plant’s cooling systems failed, hydrogen gas buildup in
containment domes led to explosions, and several reactors melted
down and released radioactive material into the air and sea. That
disaster changed everything for Kan, including his mind. He
resigned his post in the summer of 2011 and has since become a
nuclear energy abolitionist, traveling the world and speaking at

“Before Fukushima, I was pro-nuclear,” he said at an

anti-nuclear rally
in France last year. “But with Fukushima,
we almost had to evacuate millions of people, and I realized we had
to stop nuclear power.”

Before Fukushima, most Japanese people were convinced that a
nuclear disaster would never occur in a country as detail-focused
and technologically advanced as Japan, one under the watch of its
savvy engineers, Kan explained in his book, My Nuclear Nightmare.
“Our laws, our institutions, our government and economy, even our
culture had revolved around the conviction that a nuclear accident
would not occur,” he wrote. “One could say we were totally
unprepared, so when an accident actually happened we were unable to
handle it.”

Immediately after Kan learned that the earthquake and tsunami
had caused a cooling-system failure at Fukushima, he asked the
chair of the country’s Atomic Energy Commission to plot out a
worst-case scenario. If everything went wrong, the chair said,
everyone within 100 miles of the plant would have to evacuate.
Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, is
just 140 miles from the plant, and its proximity to an irradiated
area would have crippled the country.

Nothing approaching this kind of disaster came to pass. “But
ever since, the worst-case scenario has remained a permanent
presence in the back of my mind,” Kan wrote.

A little more than a year after the earthquake
, Japan had shut
down all 50 of its nuclear power plants. Several have
in the years since, and the country has began
building more renewable energy facilities. But the country replaced
much of that missing nuclear power by burning more fossil fuels,
which supplied
83 percent
of its energy in 2016.

To Kan — who declined to comment for this piece — the
consequences of nuclear disasters just aren’t worth the risk.
“Personally, at all costs, I want to see the end of nuclear
power,” he wrote in his book.

The justice advocate Norris McDonald

In the early 1980s, Norris McDonald accepted it as an article of
faith that nuclear power was evil. He was working for the
Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Policy Center, which
campaigned to end nuclear energy. (It later merged with the
nonprofit environmental network Friends of the Earth.)

“It was the ultimate environmental evil, perhaps more so than
global warming,” he said. “I didn’t really study it, but we
had a full complement of anti-nuclear lobbyists that justified that
every day.”

In 1991, McDonald had a life-changing asthma attack. He’d been
hustling to meetings around Washington on a muggy summer day,
breathing smog and tailpipe fumes at bus stops. “By the time I
got home I was shutting down,” he said. “I passed out in the
ambulance on the way to the hospital. Basically, I died. I woke up
four days later starving.”

McDonald, who in 1985 had founded the African
American Environmentalist Association
, a small environmental
justice organization, knew that black people are more likely to
live in areas with asthma-inducing air pollution and also eight
more likely to die of the chronic lung disease than
non-Hispanic whites. He also knew that when environmental
campaigners had successfully blocked the construction of nuclear
facilities, smog-producing coal and gas plants took their

But McDonald’s full nuclear turnaround didn’t come until a
decade later in the early 2000s. He had a fascination with quantum
mechanics and liked to read books about the behavior of subatomic
particles in his spare time. One of those books had a section on
nuclear energy.

“As I was reading the lightbulb clicked on,” he recalled.
“I realized, ‘Wait a minute, nuclear produces no smog-forming
gasses, nitrogen oxide, no sulfur dioxide, and no greenhouse
gases.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, in a global-warming world, in a
smog-filled world, nuclear power is a godsend.’”

At that point, McDonald wasn’t aware of any other
environmentalist who had come out in favor of atomic energy, and he
knew he’d face harsh criticism from fellow greens. He was working
full time as president of the African American Environmentalist
Organization, and he was convinced his group would never grow into
the powerhouse he hoped it might become with a pro-nuclear

But criticism, he said, didn’t worry him. “Because of my
near-death experiences I had no fear. I said, ‘This works. I’m
going to get out there and say it, I don’t care what the
consequences are.’”

The derision he received was loud and forceful. His colleagues
began telling everyone in Washington that he was crazy, he said.
McDonald didn’t let it bother him. Other environmentalists came
out as pro-nuclear after McDonald in the 2000s, and people were
talking about a nuclear renaissance. He started another nonprofit,
Center for
Environment, Commerce, and Energy
, focused mainly on nuclear
energy. “It was a heady time,” he said, “I thought I was on
the forefront of something. And then the bottom fell out.”

Wall Street analysts were claiming that nuclear plants were a
great investment because
oil and gas prices were rising
as reserves dwindled — this
was the era before fracking when everyone was talking about “peak
oil.” But as workers began constructing these facilities it
became clear that real costs would dwarf the estimates. For
example, in 2009, when construction started on two new reactors in
Georgia, they were expected to cost
$14 billion
and open in 2017. The reactors are still under
construction with costs of
$27 billion
and rising.

These two are the only reactors being built in the U.S. (A
similar project in South Carolina was abandoned after $9 billion
was spent only partially constructing a pair of reactors.) Last
year, a group of nuclear researchers
: “There is no reason to believe that any utility in
the United States will build a new large reactor in the foreseeable
future.” The nuclear renaissance was stillborn.

So McDonald has shifted his focus to keeping existing plants
open. “Every time a nuclear plant shuts down, it’s replaced
with fossil fuels, generally in low-income and minority
communities, and people like me end up breathing the pollution,”
he said.

The curious researcher Photo courtesy of UC
Berkeley School of Journalism

In his 2011 freshman writing seminar at Princeton, Dayton
Martindale wrote a research paper explaining why the environmental
movement should embrace nuclear power. He pointed out that nuclear
disasters, though they grab a lot of attention, are less damaging
to wildlife than the mines, pipelines, and refineries required to
produce fossil fuels. And if you include the damage caused by
greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not even close: Nuclear is far
cleaner than fossil-fuels.

As a young, science-focused student looking for solutions to our
existential environmental crisis, Martindale thought he had found
his silver bullet.

But as the astrophysics major progressed through college, his
stance shifted. By his senior year, he had switched positions
entirely, writing a paper explaining why nuclear power wasn’t the
way to get the U.S. off carbon.

He’d learned about the history of uranium mining in the United
States, which, in the early 1950s, exposed workers and people
living in mining regions throughout the Southwest to poisonous
levels of radiation. He was swayed by the Stanford scientist
50 class of 2016
) Mark Jacobson’s papers that argued the
world could run purely on energy from wind, water, and solar
sources. Martindale saw that nuclear plants routinely went wildly

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News 2
These 5 people changed their minds about nuclear power. Are you next?