It was June 2016 when the closure of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant had just been announced and Heather Matteson and Kristin Zaitz sobbed as they felt their world collapsing around them. 

After hearing rumors that the plant would close, Matteson and Zaitz founded Mothers for Nuclear and planned a march in support of Diablo Canyon.

Upon the closure’s announcement, those who would be impacted began to plan for how to best minimize the negative effects of the close of the second largest employer in San Luis Obispo County. And while the county and state prepare for the closure, Mothers for Nuclear are fighting for the opposite.

When Matteson graduated from Cal Poly in 2002 with a materials engineering degree, she started to look for a job that would satisfy her desire to help heal the environment. When Diablo Canyon came on her radar, she said she assumed it would be wrong for her to work there. She said she asked herself, “aren’t environmentalists supposed to be against nuclear?”

However, after taking a job at Diablo Canyon out of curiosity, she said she discovered her initial assumptions were wrong. 

Similarly, Zaitz graduated Cal Poly in 2003 with a civil engineering degree and assumed, as an environmentalist, opposing nuclear power was her only option. She said she too began her employment at Diablo Canyon promising herself she would ask as many questions as she could to find the truth. 

Over the years, they said they came to view nuclear power as a safe, beneficial and zero greenhouse gas emission source of power.

So when rumors began to circulate that their employer, Pacific Gas & Electric, would close Diablo Canyon, they founded Mothers for Nuclear and planned a march in support of the plant. But when the closure was officially announced in June 2016, the march’s supporters – which included many of their coworkers – fell away, feeling there was no use in marching if the plant was closing.

“It was like a gut punch,” Zaitz said.

Matteson and Zaitz said if California’s goal is to reduce emissions, then the focus should be on tracking and reducing actual emissions, not on increasing renewable energy sources. Currently, renewable energy excludes nuclear and large hydropower, both of which are emission-free energy sources.

Zaitz said she believes replacing Diablo Canyon’s energy output with renewable energy upon the closure is not an improvement, but rather stagnation. Instead of reducing emissions, they will remain the same. Emissions may even increase because renewable energy must be backed up with natural gas energy generation during downtimes, like nighttime for solar or low-wind times for wind power.

Despite the arguments against nuclear power, Matteson and Zaitz both said it is unarguable that nuclear emits no greenhouse gases and reduces the grid’s dependence on fossil fuels. 

So Mothers for Nuclear’s mission is to “develop a global community of support for clean energy,” Zaitz said.

Why Mothers for Nuclear?

The name of Matteson and Zaitz’s organization is a nod to Mothers for Peace, one of the key groups who originally protested Diablo Canyon’s opening and who fought to close it. However, Matteson and Zaitz said they wanted to show it was not contradictory for mothers to support nuclear. They said Mothers for Nuclear’s mission is to teach the community nuclear power is not malicious nor environmentally detrimental. 

Matteson and Zaitz, both as females and as mothers in the industry, said they felt that they were in a special position to speak on the issue.

“We can speak to more unique audiences about nuclear – people that are typically scared of nuclear, like mothers and women,” Matteson said. “They need someone like them to talk to them about nuclear energy, instead of guys in suits.” 

The two said they felt the industry had made nuclear power seem too big, scary and complicated for people to support. 

Mothers for Nuclear decided to influence change by providing information and focusing on public opinion. 

Matteson said Mothers for Nuclear talks about nuclear power and Diablo Canyon differently, by discussing clean energy, lowering emissions and the importance of preserving Diablo Canyon’s roughly 12,000 acres of open space.

Along with changing the conversation, Matteson and Zaitz said they focus on providing opportunities for fellow mothers and women to meet like-minded people and learn from one another. They said they provide information and share their personal stories through their website, social media, op-eds and public speaking to build an international community.

Local motherhood life coach Maria Elsea, a friend of Zaitz, said she originally said nuclear seemed like a dirty word with negative connotations. However, through her friendship with Zaitz, she began to ask questions.

“Truth and evidence are important to me, and especially if I can look at the truth and evidence above the drama that might unfold about a certain industry or word,” Elsea said.

Elsea said with Zaitz’s and Mothers for Nuclear’s informative approach, she began to view nuclear as a beneficial emission-free energy source, and one that was quite safe under American regulations and oversight.

Zaitz said with five years before the closure remaining, their organization is optimistic the shutdown will be prevented, despite the plans already set into motion. 

Although their mission began with Diablo Canyon, it will not end with the plant’s closure. 

“We don’t just care about Diablo Canyon, we care about every nuclear power plant, everywhere,” Matteson said. “Because climate change has no borders.” 

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