Exploring Energy: Nuclear

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Journalist

Despite the consensus that moving away from fossil fuels is of the utmost importance for combating climate change, knowledge and beliefs about other energy sources vary greatly. While these energy sources are often championed for their ability to mitigate climate emissions, most people not directly involved in the energy sector lack a deeper awareness of how each of them work and their various social and environmental implications. Nuclear power is a prime example of a non-carbon energy source that is controversial and confusing for those both within and outside of the environmental community, as it has the ability to evoke strong emotional reactions in people’s psyches and the science behind it is difficult  for most people to comprehend. This energy source has a local connection to Humboldt County, as the nuclear waste from the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant currently sits on the highest bluff overlooking the Bay. Learning more about these energy sources and their local implications can help broaden the conversation around energy and inspire other possible solutions beyond the replacement of fossil fuels.

A Brief Primer of How Nuclear Power Works

 Currently, nuclear power plants account for 11 percent of global electricity generation, and nearly 20 percent of the electricity generation in the United States. Nuclear energy is held in the nucleus of an atom, and can be released either through the splitting of atoms (fission), or the joining of two atoms (fusion). All of today’s nuclear plants use fission to generate electricity, as thus far there has been no way to use fusion on a commercial scale. 

In order to produce electricity, atoms — often uranium — are split to release heat. This heat boils water into steam that turns the blades of turbines and eventually drives generators to make electricity. This process produces spent nuclear fuel made up of radioactive isotopes, some of which can take thousands of years to decay. While nuclear power is sometimes lumped into the renewable energy category, Alec Brown, a graduate student at Cal Poly Humboldt studying the implications of spent nuclear fuel storage on Humboldt Bay, clarified that the finite supply of uranium on earth makes nuclear nonrenewable.

A Brief History of Nuclear Power

Electrical power was first produced from nuclear energy in 1951 at the Idaho National Laboratory.  Two years later, the famous speech “Atoms for Peace” was delivered by President Dwight Eisenhower to the United Nations. In it, he declared his hopes for a bright future that utilized nuclear power for good. By 1996, nuclear power provided 17.6 percent of the world’s electricity. However, after multiple accidents, including the Three Mile Accident in 1979 and the Fukushima accident of 2011, nuclear power production has dropped as public enthusiasm waned. 

In 1982, The Nuclear Waste Policy Act mandated the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to take ownership of all spent nuclear fuel and create a safe way to store and dispose of it permanently  in deep geologic repositories. The Act was amended in 1987 to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the sole repository of all waste in the United States. After several years the project was shut down due to political backlash from communities in Nevada. Concerns about the leakage of harmful materials into the surrounding environment, threats to national security, the risks associated with transporting radioactive waste, and the cultural and historical implications for the Indigenous peoples of the area all contributed to the backlash.  Without this repository, most nuclear waste is currently stored at the sites where it is produced throughout the country.

Since 1987, nuclear utilities have been expecting the federal government to absolve them of the responsibility of their radioactive waste, although this doesn’t seem likely to occur anytime soon. Despite there being no central repository, the United States is still the largest producer of nuclear electricity. However, the United States’ reliance on nuclear power is likely to change, as only one new plant has been built in the past year. While there are still 94 reactors in 28 states, the majority of the plants are reaching the end of their design life with the average age being 39 years under a license to run for 40. 

History of Nuclear Power in Humboldt

Built in the early 60s, the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant was the first plant to be funded entirely by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and the seventh plant overall to be built in the country. After the discovery of the nearby earthquake faults that go almost directly below the plant, it was shut down in 1976 after generating electricity for only 13 years. While waiting to be moved to the permanent repository promised by the DOE, the spent nuclear fuel was placed in underwater pools to cool off until it was moved to a dry cask storage system in 2008. This system is made up of six individual canisters containing 37 tons of hard metallic uranium pellets that were placed in metal rods. These canisters are set below ground in a concrete vault on Buhne Point, located 44 feet above sea level. 

Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant as seen from Humboldt Hill, 2010. Source: JP Smith, Wikimedia Commons.

This bluff is protected by a seawall that was built in the 1950s to prevent wave-induced erosion. Although 44 feet sounds high, Brown pointed out that projected sea level rise in Humboldt Bay is going to render the wall ineffective in the years to come. According to the Ocean Protection Council’s 2018 sea level rise projections, two meters of sea level rise could occur by 2076 in the high-risk scenario, or by 2093 under the extreme scenario. In conjunction with ongoing erosion, two meters of sea level rise will turn the bluff into an island, greatly affecting the accessibility and integrity of the site. 

Brown and his advisor, Cal Poly Humboldt Assistant Professor Jen Marlow, have been working on a year-long project to engage community partners in the decision making and risk mitigation planning efforts that are taking place. According to Brown, he and Marlow are choosing to ask the questions that PG&E would rather avoid, including the very real possibility that there might never be a federal repository available to take Humboldt’s nuclear waste. “They’re saying, we don’t have to do these analyses,” said Brown. “We don’t have to look, we don’t have to actually plan for this because, guess what, it’s going to be gone before that happens. And we’re saying, ‘what if not?’”

The importance of including the voices of those whose lives are directly impacted is sometimes missing in the broader energy debate, although Humboldt residents have successfully self-advocated in these matters before. Thanks to a Community Advisory Board (CAB) that was chartered in 1998,  community members were able to ensure that the process for decommissioning the Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant was done much more thoroughly than originally planned. “To improve nuclear power and nuclear waste, we need to look at the environmental and climatic impacts and do that comprehensively to better understand what the community wants to see,” said Brown. “I think understanding the community and their capacities and whether or not it will be an improvement to their wealth, health, wellbeing, and economic vitality, those things are sort of unconsidered right now.”

Why It’s Championed

One of the biggest benefits of nuclear power is that it produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a quality that is of significant value considering the current crisis. This feature, in combination with a large power generating capacity, has led many to believe that nuclear power is an important asset capable of easing the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Once established, nuclear power plants have low energy costs and can be easily integrated into electricity grids with few changes to existing infrastructure. Additionally, they are considered to be extremely reliable sources of energy, producing power regardless of weather or time of day.

Why It’s Controversial

Although it is often touted as a bridge to a more sustainable energy future, the timeline for building nuclear plants makes them incapable of being a quick fix to the so-called energy gap. Nuclear reactors are also criticized for how much they cost and their tendency to be over budget. Beyond the initial investment, there are other costs that need to be recognized. “I think the true costs have to be accounted for not only in construction, but also decommissioning and the cost of ongoing storage and management of spent nuclear fuel,” said Brown. “These are things we have to start accounting for and thinking about as a society if we’re going to pursue this option. Yeah, it’s cheap to generate the electricity once it’s loaded into the case and you’re boiling water and turning a steam turbine, but then after that, the ratepayers have to pay into decommissioning funds, which if you look into these trust funds, it’s money collected throughout the service lifetime of the nuclear plant. It’s like a penny per kilowatt hour or something like that. It’s very small and people don’t realize it. But if you look at your bill, it’s there.”

It is also worth noting that greenhouse gas emissions are not the only negative output that can be leaked into the environment from the generation of electricity. With no foolproof way to store spent nuclear fuel at this point, keeping communities and waste sites safe as climate change related disasters increase is a real concern. Nuclear accidents, while rare, have pervasive and horrific consequences. From Dale Preston’s perspective, a biostatistician and epidemiologist who has studied the long term health effects of radiation exposure, nuclear accidents can have strong negative psychological effects that go beyond those that are experienced physically. When people are exposed to radiation, even if the danger is small, the fear associated with the possible consequences can considerably affect their quality of life. The anxiety created from potential accidents and the severe apprehension that can result in the aftermath of real accidents is a consequence that is not always considered. “To me, it’s just not worth the potential social costs especially when we can conserve electricity,” said Preston. “We use a lot of electricity in this country compared to the rest of the world. We can use less, and we have solar technologies, we have wind…My view is that nuclear power is probably never really viable. And it certainly isn’t the solution to the climate crisis, even as a bridge to some ideal world in the future.”

Rethinking how energy is used and allocated is not always a popular topic, although it is an important avenue to explore. Regardless of individual stances on nuclear power, it is vital that the public has a larger say in where and how this energy source is managed.  “A lot of people worked on advocating for community health and safety through the decommissioning process,” said Brown. “But those people are now in their 60s and 70s. And so the history is turning over and it seems like it would be more prudent now than ever to sustain this conversation and equip the next generation, either myself or other people like me, other graduate students, or just people who are interested in this and doing this work, equip them with these tools that are needed to sort of carry the torch.”


  • https://44feetabovesealevel.com/
  • https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/nuclear-plants-are-closing-in-the-us-should-we-build-more