Growing Power for a Growing World

Chinatown, San Francisco. Painting in gouache and airbrush by the author.

I began my college career in San Francisco, California and marveled not only at the cultural diversity of this city and its very American, very pioneering history, but also at its quite compact geographical size. I lived right on the western cusp of Chinatown, yet I could easily get on the Muni or BART trains and be anywhere from Berkeley to the Pacific Ocean in short time. A friend who was a young engineer fresh out of school himself and I often would talk about typical issues of the Bay Area over dinner: the high rental costs of all of San Francisco, the fate of the former Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard, and the growing need for electrical power for the region. Sometimes another friend who was a graduate student in political science at Cal Berkeley would join us for dinner or coffee; he was widely-traveled and would note his observations on how Russia, China and other nations were dealing with either growing needs for power supplies in service of heavy industry (Russia) or for a growing population coupled with new industrial directions (China). San Francisco in the 1990s was quite liberal as I suppose the city always has been, and concern for the environment was omnipresent. A few years later I took a graduate seminar on ecosystem management, and industrial and energy issues were a constant leitmotif of our weekly discussions, despite the fact our assigned readings were concerned with the rather remote topics of actually managing native populations of animals and plants in a given ecosystem. Unlike with my aforementioned friends, both of whom favored or at least were open to nuclear energy, my fellow grad seminar students were quite opposed to the concept. "San Francisco", I recall one girl telling me with no trace of humor, "is no place for nuclear power—it's too dangerous and everything is too close together here".

She was almost certainly unaware of the long history of involvement in the development of nuclear that the Bay Area has played: Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Sandia National Lab's California campus, and of course the Vallecitos Nuclear Center, which was the first first privately owned and operated nuclear power plant to be connected to a public power grid and supply electricity to a power utility's customers. Cal Berkeley, perhaps more than any other school except the University of Chicago, has played one of the largest roles in leading research on nuclear physics, nuclear engineering, and nuclear medicine in the formative years of nuclear as an applied field of science. Region-V of the NRC also was located at Walnut Creek—also in the Bay Area—prior to its merging with Region-IV in Arlington, Texas. So there is a lot of nuclear history in the Bay Area; indeed, along with the Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Los Angeles, the Bay Area pioneered a great many diverse advances in nuclear that can be rightly called "California's own".

Yet today, with the decommissioning of San Onofre Nuclear Station, we only have Diablo Canyon as California's single remaining nuclear power facility in operation for the production of energy. Part of this is due to the type of public opposition to nuclear that has long been rife in California, engendered in part due to the movie The China Syndrome which was set outside of Los Angeles—a setting that probably had as much to do with the fact that the film studio could access such a location with less expense than going on location in another state, yet one that made nuclear in California for a whole generation a concept considered often in tandem with this fictional film. The more general view that nuclear is somehow worse for the environment than other forms of power generation also is strong in California, a state that has always lead in eco-minded politics. I too believe in doing all we can for the environment, which is why to me, nuclear meets the twin criteria of being the least environmentally-harmful and also most-pragmatic means for the production of electricity. Many people do not choose to examine the facts though and thus fail to see nuclear in this light. 

Which is a shame, and this takes us full circle to the point I began this post with: those old dinner discussions with friends over the growth of the Bay Area—the growth of California and really, the growth of energy needs for the entire nation and whole world. Given our combined expertise in software, systems engineering, and world politics and polity, we knew even then in our youth that in most places population was not shrinking and even where birth rates were in decline (such as Russia), changes in industrial models would require greater demands on power grids—greater amounts of energy. The entire world was becoming more and more electronic—we may now most often say "digital", but what we mean is complex uses of digital electronics—and electronics require electricity. Nowadays, even some cars require electricity, a move designed to provide a means for autos to get around their direct greedy need for oil and all the economic, political and environmental issues that demand causes. But to have enough electricity for everything—and for the many things we still cannot fully even see coming a few decades in the future—we need nuclear. And we need it badly. The entire urban world—from New York to Moscow to Hong Kong—is in essence the type of scene I painted in the painting of San Francisco's Chinatown above: hectic, full of people and cars, full of businesses and homes that require energy and sustainable energy at that. Most people reading this blog probably agree with me—I know I am preaching to the choir here. However, we need to take this message and its ample pragmatism to the lay public; we need the call for nuclear to increase in scope and scale—not decrease as we've seen over the past two decades, alarmingly, in California and elsewhere. I think the most-successful approach to selling the benefits of nuclear to the public is to present the problem before offering the solution: that is, to expand on the concerns of growing energy needs, growing post-industrial economies that still need super-sized, high-tech, industrial capacities, and the inability for conventional energy sources outside of nuclear to meet these needs while also conforming to the growing international laws and mandates to end climate change and mitigate other environmental damage. And every day, in ways large or small, that's what anyone who works in or cares about nuclear needs to do: to be that voice of reasonable discussion and to always remember, at the end of the day, what matters is that not only are today's needs provided for, but also are tomorrow's.