Reconciling Nuclear Safety and Climate Resilience

Alec Brown, Graduate Student Researcher, Environmental Science & Management at Cal Poly Humboldt

Spent nuclear fuel stored on-site in dry storage casks at the Humboldt Bay power plant. File photo.
Spent nuclear fuel stored on-site in dry storage casks at the Humboldt Bay power plant. 

The closure of all but one of California’s nuclear power plants is evidence of the decades-long struggle between nuclear safety and carbon mitigation. PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, once slated to begin decommissioning in 2025 at the behest of anti-nuclear activists, concerned scientists, and citizens, now sits firmly at the center of the debate. Amid revived interest and an all-but-certain legislative move to extend the plant’s lifetime to at least 2030, the conversation has been reignited by the state’s shortfalls in meeting ambitious renewable energy goals to combat climate change. How does this ‘nuclear renaissance’ fit into the narrative unfolding around Humboldt Bay’s history with nuclear and the future it hopes to step into? 

The recent (2021) decommissioning of Humboldt’s nuclear power plant rounds out a short saga of nuclear energy production that lasted from 1963 to 1976. However, the remnants of that bygone era still loom heavily, positioning 37 tons of spent nuclear fuel precariously atop Buhne Point – an eroding bluff flanked by active fault lines and rising seas. Some of today’s nuclear advocates, including the outspoken founder of the Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal, argue that nuclear waste is a non-issue, assuring that good technology and the climate crisis negate any appreciable risks. This tricky act of balancing nuclear safety and carbon reduction all comes down to one factor: place. 

Every place is contextual, situational, and complex: what works in one place might not work elsewhere. Spent nuclear fuel canisters can be technologically sound, but nothing lasts forever. Maybe it is safe now, but what about in fifty years when rising seas limit access? How can the casks be monitored or removed then? What protective infrastructure is needed and who will maintain it? Where will the waste be transported to (if ever), what communities will it go through, and will people be given adequate and advanced notice? How much erosion is expected under future conditions? When unprecedented shifts in climatic and environmental systems test our assumptions of safety, longevity, and access, we have to adapt our thinking. PG&E is also licensed to oversee nuclear storage at Humboldt Bay and, like Diablo Canyon, it maintains that risks are negligible because the site is “regularly inspected and built to withstand the effects of environmental conditions and extreme events”, a stance that upholds a one-size-fits-all approach to highly place-sensitive issues. We have to zoom into place.  

These questions represent some of the research gaps we hope to fill. Updating our collective understanding of the specific risks at Humboldt Bay can aid community leaders to advocate for protective measures and contingency plans aligned with local interests and values. 

How we plan for nuclear waste management is inexorably tied to the climate-nuclear conundrum and built on place-specific nuances – politics, society, technology, economics, values, interests, ethics. The meaning of safety is never perfectly defined, trust in the government and the industry varies widely from person to person, and perceptions of risk and the capacity to act are rarely the same. Planning for reliable energy, climate change mitigation, or nuclear safety will need to integrate these different contexts if we desire robust, satisfactory, and appropriate outcomes. 

With funding from California Sea Grant and CSU COAST, a collaborative effort between Cal Poly Humboldt, the Wiyot Tribe, various government agencies, sea level rise and coastal hazard experts, non-profits, community leaders, and the nuclear industry convened to explore possible futures for Humboldt Bay’s spent nuclear fuel, beginning the journey of plumbing the contexts that may facilitate more scientifically and socially informed decision-making. Our goal is not to advocate for or against nuclear but to build awareness around the sociocultural, economic, and environmental contexts of the Humboldt Bay community, remove barriers to meaningful participation, and propel us toward novel, inclusive, and entrepreneurial solutions to the unresolved nuclear waste problem. The aim is to justify a range of actions that contribute to long-term resilience, sustained responsible management, and capacity and awareness building by linking best available science, current policy, and community values in a transformative planning process.

In interviews with key stakeholders, we grew to understand the vulnerabilities, challenges, and opportunities inherent to potentially protracted waste storage, especially in relation to known coastal hazards. We immersed ourselves in the way these individuals perceive risks and think about the future, constructed a ‘logic’ around how our community might reach a desired future state, and discussed criteria that might help guide future efforts. Three scenario planning workshops then put those insights to work to challenge conventional wisdom, identify opportunities and constraints to action, envision future “worlds” replete with full-bodied narratives, characters, and events, and assign next steps to keep the ball rolling. 

Flexibility is built into the scenario planning framework as a means to adapt to changing circumstances. Before the recent news about Diablo Canyon, we thought nuclear was on its way out; our assumptions were flawed. How reinvestment in Diablo might affect us is unclear as it does not appear that any funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill or the Inflation Reduction Act will go toward nuclear waste storage directly. However, consent-based siting and education initiatives might help ease tensions and foster awareness around this hotly debated topic. Perhaps efforts to extend nuclear power will also be followed by efforts to invest in reprocessing technology and long-term storage solutions. 

Whatever the future holds, closing the waste pathway is important if our state decides to call on nuclear power to avert climate disaster. Arguments over technology or the costs and benefits are lost on communities straddling both nuclear waste and rapid climate change. Maybe Humboldt, in writing its own nuclear destiny, can follow the precedence of the people who saved Diablo Canyon despite the long trajectory toward nuclear dismantlement. Maybe these place-based studies can help reconcile deep societal differences by sharing experiences and transforming how we view and approach the climate-nuclear nexus.