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As she leafed through a stack of books in the university library, one preconception after another shattered. When she researched wind, solar, and other renewable sources, she began grappling with the amount of land solar panels would require to replace fossil fuels, the thousands of birds that wind turbines kill, and the damage hydropower dams do to river ecosystems.
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When she graduated in , a door opened for an internship at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant just up the road, and she tiptoed through. Zaitz soothed her qualms about her internship decision by telling herself that maybe she could serve as a watchdog on the inside and help anti-nuclear advocates pounce on problems at the plant. Older engineers were encouraging, kind, and often staunch environmentalists. Because she was a civil engineer, Zaitz got to scuba dive in the kelp forest around the plant to inspect the water intake system and rappel down the reactor containment domes looking for cracks while taking in the beauty of her surroundings.
Humpback whales played in front of her workplace. She marveled at the way nature and reactors producing as much electricity as three coal plants could exist in harmony. As the years passed, she came to believe that plants like this produced the most environmentally friendly, and safest, source of energy.
In , when the state of California and Pacific Gas and Electric, which owns the Diablo Canyon plant, began talking about shutting the reactors down, it hit Zaitz like a punch to the gut. She knew she could get another job easily enough, but she was worried about the climate. The thought of it made me feel sick. In , Zaitz and her colleague Heather Matteson, a reactor operator, decided it was on them to stop that from happening.
They made a trip to Fukushima last February to see for themselves what a nuclear accident looked like. What I find most moving is the willingness of everyone to not just listen but also to ask questions. Naoto Kan, who became prime minister of Japan in , was an ardent foe of nuclear weapons, but nuclear energy was another matter. That seemed safe and necessary.
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After all, Japan lacked its own fossil fuel resources, and the power of the atom looked like the solution. When Kan took office, Japan was generating some 60 percent of its electricity from imported coal, oil, and gas, while getting 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants.
The country had plans to scale up nuclear power to meet its climate change commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and other agreements while simultaneously decreasing its dependence on imported fossil fuels. Then, in March , an earthquake sent colossal foot waves crashing over the towns of northeastern Japan killing some 16, people.
That disaster changed everything for Kan, including his mind. He resigned his post in the summer of and has since become a nuclear energy abolitionist, traveling the world and speaking at protests. Before Fukushima, most Japanese people were convinced that a nuclear disaster would never occur in a country as detail-focused and technologically advanced as Japan, one under the watch of its savvy engineers, Kan explained in his book, My Nuclear Nightmare.
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If everything went wrong, the chair said, everyone within miles of the plant would have to evacuate. Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, is just miles from the plant, and its proximity to an irradiated area would have crippled the country. Nothing approaching this kind of disaster came to pass. A little more than a year after the earthquake , Japan had shut down all 50 of its nuclear power plants.
Several have restarted in the years since, and the country has began building more renewable energy facilities.
But the country replaced much of that missing nuclear power by burning more fossil fuels, which supplied 83 percent of its energy in Norris McDonald. In the early s, Norris McDonald accepted it as an article of faith that nuclear power was evil. You can download a high resolution photo of him by clicking here. TED: How fear of nuclear hurts the environment , Nuclear power: Unexpected health benefits :: April 3, Britain has a chance to rethink its nuclear energy policy :: March 30, Colbert Report.
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