Sprott Radio Podcast

How to Save a Nuclear Power Plant

Tuesday, 14 May 2024 | 46 | 24.12

Respect for the mothers! Heather Hoff joins host Ed Coyne to discuss her career at Diablo Canyon Power Plant and how her organization Mothers for Nuclear contributed to saving the facility.

Podcast Transcript

Ed Coyne: Hello, and welcome to Sprott Radio. I'm your host, Ed Coyne, Senior Managing Partner at Sprott Asset Management. I'm pleased today to welcome a new and very special guest to our podcast, Heather Hoff, co-founder of Mothers for Nuclear and operations procedure writer for Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant based in California. Heather, thank you for joining Sprott Radio today.

Heather Hoff: Thanks so much for having me. I love talking about nuclear, and I'm excited you want to talk about it too.

Ed Coyne: Of course. I did some research on both you and your organization. Reading about your background is absolutely fascinating. For our listeners who don't know you or Mothers for Nuclear, can you give us a little bit of insight into your background and how you found your way to nuclear?

Heather Hoff: Yes. I grew up in rural Arizona and would call myself an environmentalist and a nature lover, and I wanted to save the planet. I thought I was going to do that by living off the land and conserving resources using as little as possible. I'm very obsessed with picking up trash, even to this day, composting, all those things. It's a long journey to nuclear power because that's seemingly the opposite of some of those things.

As I grew up and as I got frustrated with other people who did not want to be like me, did not want to conserve electricity, or use less water, I got frustrated. I realized that people don't want to go backward in terms of their energy use or their resource use. We want a higher quality of life for people, and the life I grew up in was kind of hard, out in the boonies. We had a composting toilet, which was hugely embarrassing when I had friends over. It's not necessarily ideal.

I shifted away from my environmental save the earth roots for a while and went to college, getting a degree in engineering. After I graduated, I couldn't find a job in engineering and reluctantly ended up with a job at my local nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon. Even after that, it was not like I was raring to go on nuclear. It took me about six years of asking a lot of questions. I was in operations, which was great. I got to learn all about the different systems and the plant, and I had access to many people who knew a lot, so I could dig in on all my questions and fears and get some good answers.

After about six years, I said, "Wow, nuclear is amazing." That's not what I thought before, and it sounded scary. Many of my family members made me nervous about working at the plant because of the radiation, so I was surprised to realize this. As I worked there as a reactor operator, I became more and more proud of generating 10% of California's electricity on this tiny little footprint of land in harmony with nature, and I just realized more and more how special that was and how it did agree with my save the earth kind of upbringing. This is the best thing I could do is operate a nuclear power plant.

Ed Coyne: I can't even imagine the pushback you might have gotten when you said, "Hey, I got a job going to the nuclear power plant." What did your friends and family say to that, knowing you are an environmentalist with an engineering background? That probably helped you, but what kind of pushback did you get when that first all went down?

Heather Hoff: Yes, I'm a very curious person, and I love big equipment. My dad always wanted to hear about our main generator and how that worked. Yes, that was the easy part of it, just being curious, but the hard part was the comments about scary things in nuclear. My uncle told me that a lot of people had died from inhaling hot particles, and I didn't know what that was. My mom asked me, "Do you think you should be working there in your reproductive years?" I just said, "I don't know. I don't know what that means. I don't know what the risks are. I'll just go and ask a lot of questions and hopefully be okay at the end of this journey."

Little did I know that I would end up starting a nonprofit, specifically to advocate for the continued operation of Diablo Canyon and the protection and expansion of nuclear around the world.

Ed Coyne: First, what a great name: Mothers for Nuclear. That makes it feel nice and calm and warm, and we will be safe. We've got Mothers for Nuclear on this. Talk about that.

Heather Hoff: Yes, I'm glad you have that idea. It took us a long time to go out on that limb, which it is, and it's a good thing because some people hear that, and they're just jolted, like, "What you're for nuclear? A mother can be for nuclear?" It's just a surprising thing. I still remember one of our first interviews, where the reporter asked us, "You started Mothers for Nuclear." We started to answer, and he's like, "Wait, wait, hold on. Everyone in my office is laughing right now."

They didn't believe that there could be such a thing. Yes, part of it is the shock factor, and part is that we believe mothers have a special investment in the future and future generations. We do want to have a good planet to leave for our children and our children's children, and being a mother for nuclear is very powerful. Being for something is powerful, rather than protesting something. It's easy to tear ideas down but hard to build support. When Kristin and I started Mothers for Nuclear, we said, "Yes, we're strong. We can do this. We're going to be for this unpopular thing that will make us lose friends."

We're just going to do it because we were so convinced that the story of how we changed our minds and how we reevaluated the importance of nuclear and started talking about it differently, and how we had to share that with other people, hopefully, people like us that were also skeptical.

Ed Coyne: When you start that, is it before or after Diablo Canyon was running the risk of being shuttered? Talk about that a little bit because in the state of California, I can't even imagine dealing with it at the state level, but also the federal level. Walk us through that process. When did this all start? Was it chicken or egg? What made you start Mothers for Nuclear?

Heather Hoff: Like I said, I took a long time to come around about nuclear. Also, after realizing nuclear was amazing, I had several setbacks in my career, where I was scared again. When Fukushima happened, I was terrified and almost quit my job. I had to go through a whole other cycle of questioning, like, "What happened? What are the impacts?" After realizing that a lot of it was because of the rushed and panicked evacuation and that the events at the plant hurt no one, I started feeling a lot better and that that event specifically was a case for why we should do nuclear and also a case for communicating about how we avoid that in the future in terms of our overreaction to fears.

I went through a couple of those cycles, and then I was fully on board with nuclear as the right thing to save our planet. Then, we started hearing rumors that our company wasn't going to relicense the plant, and that's when we started getting concerned. Kristin and I went to some gatherings with other employees, and we were always the last two in the room, saying, "What are we going to do about this? Someone's got to do something."

Ed Coyne: What year was that?

Heather Hoff: In Late 2015, we started hearing rumors and noticing a change in the behavior of our plant management. The tone just shifted, and we could tell that something was going on and being planned. We didn't know what it was, but we decided that we had to ramp up our activities and try and speak out in a bigger way. We had always been a part of the Diablo Canyon Women in Nuclear chapter. We'd been going out to schools. We would hold public info sessions and talk to people in our community, but we thought, "That's not working. We need to go bigger. How do we do that, and how do we have the most impact?"

I think it was around then that we both started realizing how unique we were. We had a different story. There are not a whole lot of women or mothers that work in nuclear, especially liberal-leaning kind of hippie environmentalists and nature lovers in a nuclear plant. It was a bit of a weird thing. We're like, "Okay, how do we make sense of this, and how do we tell the story in a way that will resonate with other people like us who might potentially be driving this shutdown?"

Then, two months later, they announced the joint proposal to shut down Diablo Canyon and framed it as a groundbreaking thing with partnerships with environmental groups and labor and very anti-nuclear groups as well. They said it was best for California to plan for the gradual transition of losing Diablo Canyon or replacing it with other clean energy.

When our company announced, "This is what we're going to do," many of our other employees and co-workers said, "Okay, there's nothing we can do now. The decision's made." A lot of our community members said, "The decision's made. There's nothing we can do." Kristin and I decided to keep fighting our hearts out because we felt like that was the wrong decision. It was obvious to us that the plan wouldn't work, so we feel vindicated now.

Also, around 2019, it became obvious that California was having a lot of struggles with not just our clean energy but also our electricity, generally, and was under threat of blackout. We decided to start pushing hard at that point in California and teamed up with many other people to hold a big rally to save clean energy in San Luis Obispo. We wrote to Governor Newsom, did letters, did technical and scientific studies, and helped support anyone who cared about this issue to help us bring to light that there is still time to change the outcome. It's the best thing for Californians, humans, and our planet. It's been quite a journey.

Ed Coyne: I'm assuming it's worked because I went on the website today, and not only are they open for business, but they're open 24/7, which I thought was cool. When you Google Diablo Canyon, it says hours of operation: 24 hours. It doesn't say seven days a week. You have to click on 24 hours, and then it shows you every day they're open, so it's 24/7. To me, that's the crux of nuclear power, right? It's a 24/7 base load energy source, and it's clean. Talk about that for a minute because where are we? Is it mission accomplished? Is it still a conversation? What's going on with Diablo Canyon today?

Heather Hoff: There’s still so much work to do. Our state has agreed to extend the operation of Diablo Canyon by five more years, so the company did this knee-jerk reversal, which we call a pivot, to relicense the plant. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants that license. The process for that is a 20-year license extension. That's just what they're set up to do. We're going to have a 20-year license from the NRC, and only the state is allowing or disallowing longer-term operations at this point.

We continue to fight for not just five or ten years but the full 20-year period. We continue to message: we're going to do 20 more years. After that, a subsequent relicensing process. Plants around the country are already doing that, and these facilities are built to last. It's the best bang for our buck for existing clean energy infrastructure to keep running like Diablo Canyon. It will be way harder to take that facility down than the maintenance required to keep running it. Yes, it's a hugely valuable facility, and our state's not quite there yet regarding how they talk about it.

Ed Coyne: You mentioned something interesting. More and more plants are extending their operating license, and that's different than the technology. They're not shutting it down because the technology isn't there; they're shutting it down just from an operating standpoint. Can you just clarify that a little bit? What does that mean? You said these things are built to last, so talk about that if possible.

Heather Hoff: Where do you start on that one?

Economics, yes. I took two economics classes in college and really loved them, but I'm not an expert in that. As I've been running Mothers for Nuclear for the last seven years, I've learned a lot about how, in California specifically, we run our economics. There are a lot of hidden mechanisms in place to reward certain technologies. It's not just a supply and demand thing, or it's not just a capitalism thing; there's all these other competing forces that we've created legislation to help drive technology adoption in a certain way, specifically for solar and wind, for renewables.

A lot of people have questions about the cost of nuclear. For one, I think climate action is important, so we should be willing to pay for hugely powerful, reliable, clean energy. It might be more expensive, but we should be willing to pay for that. Number two, economics are what we make them. If we design some of those similar policies to reward nuclear power in addition to solar and wind power, or instead of solar and wind power, I think that would shift things a lot. Part of the value proposition of nuclear energy is not just this huge existing clean energy infrastructure that's already built and very robust, but it's very valuable in the future. How do we value it? Maybe not the best right now in terms of our economics, but we could shift that.

Ed Coyne: When you talk about wind and solar, are you seeing the conversation or the narrative be wind and solar versus nuclear, or are you starting to see more people embrace the fact that it's wind, solar, and nuclear? What's going on in the state? Because it seems globally, people are starting to accept it's “and” not versus. What are you seeing?

Heather Hoff: Yes, I love it. There's a huge shift globally, and it's super exciting. So many great conversations are happening now about building new nuclear and how we need all clean energy sources. I hope California will get there eventually. They're saying, "Oh, maybe we should look at SMR, small modular reactors." We don't know how to have this conversation. They don't even know where to start at this point, but I'm excited that we're trending in that direction.

My company originally started trying to reduce emissions and address climate change by getting renewables contracts. That's partly what led to some of our high electricity prices now. PG&E was an early adopter of renewable technologies, and they got locked into some long-term contracts for renewables that ended up being expensive. California has some lofty goals in terms of clean energy, and they want to keep pushing that and have as much clean energy as possible.

When the joint proposal was announced to shut down Diablo Canyon, I think part of the driver was that we had just seen the closure of San Onofre, which was largely replaced with natural gas. Emissions went up, and our state policymakers wanted to avoid something like that happening in the future, so they said, "We're going to replace Diablo Canyon with clean energy." That's not great. I don't know what to say about it, except we should be replacing the gas first, and why are we even talking about replacing existing clean energy with other clean energy? People know that we need clean energy, but they still have this idea that certain clean energies are better than others. I think they have it a little backward.

Ed Coyne: If you talk about technology, whether it's data centers or artificial intelligence, talk a bit about the technology that's going on right now and how tech and nuclear are starting to be married together because that's something I'm seeing a lot of right now. I'm fascinated by it as someone as well-known as Amazon is buying land next to nuclear power plants for data centers. Can you talk a bit about that and what's going on there?

Heather Hoff: I was going to bring up that example, which I think is super exciting. The financial risk right now of building a large nuclear plant is intimidating for anyone who would want to build a nuclear plant. I think tech companies are in a great position to assume some of that risk, and so I love seeing Amazon scooping up that nuclear capacity. I hope to see more of that.

Regarding plants using technology to modernize, most of my experience is with Diablo Canyon; it's such a weird mix. These amazing upgraded digital control systems are just top-of-the-line and advanced. I'm eager to see many more technology solutions to help plants be even more efficient than they already are.

Ed Coyne: Let's go back to your organization, which has started to expand globally. Are you seeing similar efforts now happen around the globe, not just in California? Are you touching multiple plants in multiple stages of potential closures or extending life expectancies from an operating standpoint? What's happening right now with Mothers for Nuclear?

Heather Hoff: We're small. We want to say that we have some arms and tendrils in other countries and states. Generally, we're full-time working moms, and we don't have a whole lot of time and capacity to go gallivanting around saving nuclear plants, but at the same time, that's exactly what we try to do. We partner with a lot of other pro-nuclear organizations. Specifically, you probably know a little bit about Pickering. They've decided to refurbish those plants and build more nuclear in Canada. We've enjoyed working with Chris Keefer and Canadians for Nuclear Energy on some campaigns.

Palisades is completely epic. Nothing like this has ever happened before where a plant has shut down or been sold to the company that will supposedly decommission it. Then that company says, "Actually, we're going to keep running it."

That is super exciting, and it just got finalized. A few weeks ago, they would have money from the federal government to help them restart operations at Palisades and keep running that plant. That's in Michigan. We have an informal group called Save Diablo Canyon, which we've been meeting weekly for a few years now, planning these rallies, going out and talking to legislatures, and teaming up with people from a group called Stand Up for Nuclear and Generation Atomic. We've been having those meetings for years and years, and then, more recently, a Save Palisades group formed and is doing the same thing for Palisades. Now, a group in Colorado, the Colorado Nuclear Alliance, is trying to support the idea of new nuclear in their state and how we make legislation that supports new nuclear. It's been super exciting to see all of this come to fruition.

Regarding some of our international groups, in Germany, they're fairly anti-nuclear, but there are people, like women, that work in nuclear there, and some of them reached out to us and said, "Oh, hey, you're mothers for nuclear. I want to be a mother for nuclear. How can I do it?" They had rallies over there not to protest but to bring attention to how Germany was shutting down their last three nuclear plants and instead choosing to burn more coal. It's great to have people in other countries with good examples of what not to do. How do we talk about it, and how do we encourage different outcomes? We're not successful in Germany yet. I'm hopeful that there can be some shifts there.

A lot is happening in Spain right now, which is they're thinking about shutting down some of their nuclear in Portugal, but pretty much everyone else is like, "Yes, we're building more nuclear. We're going to build dozens of new reactors." Everyone's talking about it. I'm excited to see that positive momentum and keep helping push in those last few remaining holdout areas.

Ed Coyne: It sounds like you're bringing reality into the conversation of perception. For our listeners who'd like to learn more about Heather and many of her team members, I encourage you to visit their website, mothersfornuclear.org, and read some of the stories. The stories are amazing here and abroad, and they see some of their partners. It's a cool site, and I think your work is fascinating. Heather, thank you again for making the time today to join Sprott Radio.

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Ed Coyne
Ed Coyne
Senior Managing Partner, Global Sales
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Heather Hoff
Co-founder of Mothers for Nuclear, Operations Procedure Writer for Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant


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