In July 2020, we wrote a cover story on the topic of “Grassroots Nuclear Power Support” (UxW34-27), where we argued that the promotion of nuclear power had to come from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. Roughly two years later, we find ourselves in the midst of a global energy crisis with concerns permeating much of the world’s thinking about access to reliable and affordable energy supplies. Brownouts and blackouts like those seen more regularly in less developed nations are now a serious possibility in parts of Europe and even parts of North America and industrialized Asia this winter mainly due to fossil gas shortfalls coupled with a notable shortfall in baseload capacity following a multi-year campaign of coal and nuclear phaseouts in many countries. Against the backdrop of limited capacity and the steady drumbeat in the media about the growing likelihood of power outages, the public has become highly attuned to the perturbations in the energy markets and the limited options available to add new supplies considering competing desires to reduce carbon emissions. Thus, it comes as no surprise that ordinary citizens along with a large cadre of “influencers” have taken on the effort to send powerful messages about the value of nuclear power and the need to both keep our existing fleet of reactors while also deploying new and advanced reactors. These efforts have led to several major successes in nuclear’s favor in the past few months. Below we discuss a sampling of some of the ways ordinary citizens are changing the face of the pro-nuclear movement.
One of the biggest recent wins for nuclear was California’s decision in to extend the life of the Diablo Canyon plant. While timely federal legislation, like the Civil Nuclear Credit and the nuclear production tax credits, were critical to allowing for the plant’s life extension, it is undoubtably the consistent pressure from thought leaders and normal citizens that convinced Governor Gavin Newsom and the Democrat-led state legislature to agree to save Diablo Canyon. Notably, an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times penned by former U.S. Secretaries of Energy Steven Chu and Ernie Moniz clearly moved the needle and started the conversation beginning in November 2021. However, continued pressure from groups like Mothers for Nuclear, and an especially vocal leader of that group, Heather Hoff, kept the save Diablo Canyon initiative at the top of the California news cycle. Another critical person leading the effort to save Diablo Canyon was Isabelle Boemeke, who used her Isodope influencer persona and a TED talk on nuclear energy to push the idea that plants like Diablo Canyon are too valuable to discard. It should also be mentioned that Isabelle’s close friendship with Elon Musk’s former girlfriend and popstar Grimes also had a big impact, including a PSA by Grimes on saving Diablo Canyon. Word has it that Elon Musk’s recently-found affinity to nuclear power can also be traced to Isabelle’s connection to Grimes.
While California clearly steals the show in terms of big name celebrities, the Diablo Canyon warriors likely learned a thing or two from the efforts in 2021 to save Exelon’s (now Constellation’s) Byron and Dresden plants in Illinois. Without the persistent efforts of Exelon’s own nuclear workers showing up at the state capitol in Springfields to rally for passage of legislation that included subsidies to save the reactors, we just don’t know what the outcome would have been.
Notably, both the California and Illinois efforts along with a push to restart the Palisades plant in Michigan all have at least some reasons to thank the efforts of Madi Hilly‘s Green Nuclear Deal Campaign and Mark Nelson’s Radiant Energy Fund. Both of these initiatives have been linked to all the recent grassroots efforts in the U.S. to promote nuclear power and educate everyday people about the value of the atom.
Staying in the U.S., another two critically important voices that have kept the pressure on and spread the word widely are Bill Gates and Michael Shellenberger. Gates is already known to be involved in nuclear as the owner of advanced reactor developer TerraPower, but he has also often spoken more broadly about the benefits of nuclear power, for example, in a 2021 interview on 60 Minutes. Meanwhile, Shellenberger is also no stranger to the nuclear industry, but he uses his platform as an environmentalist and author to push against the notion that climate change can be solved without a significant role for nuclear energy.
However, the U.S. is not the only place where grassroots efforts and influencers are changing the game for nuclear power. Just to the north in Canada, the recent change of heart by Ontario’s government to extend the life of the four reactors at the Pickering B nuclear station would likely not have occurred without the efforts of Canadians for Nuclear Energy (CGNE) and their tireless leader, Dr. Chris Keefer. Notably, Dr. Keefer (whose day job is emergency physician) was spotted just this past week meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other federal leaders pushing for more investment and focus on nuclear power.
Across the pond in Europe, an upsurge in grassroots interest groups promoting nuclear power have also been tracked. While Greta Thunberg’s recent interview, in which she said keeping German nuclear plants operating would be better than burning more coal, gets a lot of attention, the real work to support nuclear power has come from people like Zion Lights in the UK and her group Emergency Reactor. On the continent, in Belgium, several groups have formed to push to save as many of the remaining reactors in that country as possible. These include 100 TWh, Association Vinçotte Nuclear (AVN), and Horizon 238. One of these groups (100 TWh) has even filed a lawsuit to try to prevent permanent nuclear reactor closures (see page 10). Meanwhile, a group has formed in Switzerland called Stop Blackouts that aims to end the ban on new nuclear plants in the country. Similar pro-nuclear citizen campaigns have also been witnessed in France and elsewhere in Europe.
While not always successful, individual citizens in democracies around the globe are using their voices to promote nuclear power. One example that did not pan out as hoped was in Taiwan, where an initial victory in 2018 by a group of pro-nuclear campaigners aiming to overturn the government’s nuclear phase-out law eventually led to another referendum in 2021 that saw a narrow loss on the question of restarting the mothballed Lungmen nuclear plant project. However, Taiwan’s direct democracy efforts showed that there is strong interest by the public in many places to preserve the nuclear option, especially as fears of energy shortages increase.
The fact that so many grassroots efforts are rising up in support of nuclear power is not only encouraging but shows that the industry has much more support than previously thought. Naturally, backing from government, financial, and industry leaders is key to continued growth of nuclear power, but if the positive public sentiment that we are now seeing around the world can be channeled even more directly, the future for nuclear energy could be even brighter than expected.