American Women Debate Safety of Nuclear Power

03 September, 2017

Kristin Zaitz believes that her nuclear power plant is safe.

Zaitz is an engineering manager at Diablo Canyon Power Plant, California's only working nuclear power center. She believes it is so safe that she worked there during both of her pregnancies. She has also gone diving in waters off the California coast to inspect the plant.

Zaitz wears jewelry with a small piece of uranium inside, something that often leads to questions about nuclear power.

In a few years, Diablo Canyon will suspend operations, like many nuclear plants around the country. A combination of lower natural gas prices and efforts to cut energy waste has reduced the need for nuclear power in recent years.

There have also been concerns about public safety. Worldwide, nuclear plants have been in operation for less than 60 years. Yet, there have been major environmental disasters connected to three nuclear plants: Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan; Chernobyl in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union); and Three Mile Island in the United States.

In addition to the possibility of power plant accidents, critics of nuclear note that its waste can remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.

Nuclear is 'cleaner' than coal and gas

But supporters of nuclear, like Kristin Zaitz, say it is clean, safe and good for the environment.

And, they argue that, when a nuclear plant closes, not enough wind and solar power is available to replace it. They are unhappy that power companies often move to coal and natural gas, which produce environmentally harmful emissions.

Together, Zaitz and her coworker Heather Matteson, a reactor operator, started a non-profit group called Mothers for Nuclear. The group hopes to prove to Americans that nuclear power is better for the environment than some alternative energy sources.

Matteson says, when she took the job at Diablo Canyon, she was afraid of nuclear.

"And it took me six to seven years to really feel like, okay this is something good for the environment. I don't want other people to take six years making that decision, and we don't have that long."

Like Zaitz, Matteson also wears uranium jewelry in hopes of speaking with others about nuclear energy. "Nuclear is fun," she said. She said her jewelry produces less radiation than a banana.

Women seen as powerful voices

Nuclear industry experts say that women in the industry can be powerful voices for nuclear. They say these women can help influence other women about the value of nuclear energy.

At the recent U.S. Women in Nuclear conference in San Francisco, women working in the industry talked about how to demonstrate the value of nuclear power.

Heather Matteson says she and others think women may be the right people to do this.

"As mothers, I think we also have an important role to play in letting the public know that we support nuclear for the future and for our children."

Their message is that nuclear energy is cleaner than coal or gas because it does not release heat-trapping gases into Earth's atmosphere. And, that message is aimed at women. Industry experts say that women who support nuclear are seen as more believable than men.

But critics of nuclear energy say it doesn't matter who is expressing support for it.

Kendra Klein is a scientist with Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.

"Using mothers' voices to argue for a technology that is fundamentally dangerous and that has been demonstrated by disasters like Fukushima to be not safe for the communities that surround nuclear power plants or even cities that are hundreds of miles away is disingenuous."

Still, some younger women are looking to careers in the nuclear industry.

Lenka Kollar works for NuScale, an Oregon business that designs and markets small nuclear reactors.

"I went into this wanting to do something good for the world, wanting to bring power to people. There are still over a billion people in the world that don't have access to electricity."

While the future of nuclear power in the United States may be unclear, the women here say they have a positive story to tell.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Michelle Quinn wrote this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

power plantn. a building or group of buildings in which electricity for a large area is produced

uraniumn. a radioactive element that is used to make nuclear energy and nuclear weapons

solaradj. of or relating to the sun

emissionn. the act of producing or sending out something (such as gas)

alternative energyn. any electrical power produced by energy sources other than coal and gas

fundamentally – adv. at the simplest level

reactor – n. a large device at nuclear power plants to produce nuclear-based energy