Diablo Canyon’s Control Room Turned This Mom Into A Nuclear Advocate
Heather Hoff was working in the control room of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant near San Luis Obispo County, California when an earthquake triggered a tsunami that knocked out power cooling three nuclear reactors at the plant nuclear plant at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. Three nuclear reactor cores in Fukushima have melted.
“It was super scary,” Hoff told CNBC in a video interview. “It’s my worst nightmare as an operator – to be there and think about these other operators just across the ocean. They don’t know what’s going on with their factory. They don’t have a electricity. They don’t know if people are hurt.”
In the first few days after the crash, “what I was hearing on TV in the media was pretty scary,” Hoff said.
Heather Hoff, co-founder of Mothers for Nuclear, worked at the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor for 18 years. Here she is seen circa 2014 in the control room simulator.
Photo courtesy Heather Hoff
But as time passed and information about the collapse became more available, the consequences of the accident became clear. While three employees who worked for the Tokyo Electric Power Company died from the earthquake and resulting tsunami, no one died from the nuclear reactor accident.
“Three factories had meltdowns and it’s scary and horrible and expensive, but it really didn’t hurt anyone,” Hoff said. “And that was really surprising to me.”
In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, Hoff shifted from fear of having to quit her job to a commitment to nuclear’s potential as a safe and clean contribution to the world’s energy supply.
“Now I’m even more convinced that nuclear is the right thing to do and that the damaging parts of nuclear are actually not the technology itself, but our fear, our human responses to nuclear.”
After going through her own evolution in her thinking about nuclear energy, Hoff co-founded an advocacy group, Mothers for Nuclear, in 2016 with colleague and friend Kristin Zaitz.
“There’s so much fear and so much misinformation…it’s a practical villain,” Hoff said. “It’s normal to be scared, but it’s not the same as dangerous.”
Why Hoff started working at Diablo Canyon
Hoff had not anticipated his career in nuclear energy.
Hoff came to San Luis Obispo, California to attend California Polytechnic State University, where she graduated in 2002 with a degree in materials engineering. After graduating, she took on “random jobs around town,” she said, including working in a clothing store, winery and making animal thermometers for cows.
Hoff applied for and was granted a job as a factory operator at Diablo Canyonn in 2004. From the start, Hoff was unsure of what her job would entail and what she would think of it, and her family was nervous about the idea of her taking a job at a nuclear plant. So she decided to deal with the uncertainty by looking for information herself.
“I had heard a lot of stories of scary things — and I didn’t really know how I felt about nuclear,” Hoff told CNBC. “I spent probably the first six years of my career there asking tons and tons of questions.” For a moment, she assumed it was only a matter of time before she discovered a “nefarious thing” going on at the nuclear reactor facility.
His change of opinion on nuclear energy was a gradual process. “I started to feel proud to work there, proud to help produce such a large amount of clean electricity on such a small footprint of the land,” she told CNBC. Nuclear power is actually “in very good alignment with my environmental and humanitarian values,” she said.
Heather Hoff, co-founder of Mothers for Nuclear
Photo courtesy Heather Hoff
As of now, Hoff has worked at Diablo Canyon for 18 years, and she’s been clear with herself that she believes in the importance of nuclear power.
From 2006 to 2008, Hoff took training courses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be able to operate the reactor. She now writes operating and engineering procedures for Diablo Canyon, a job she’s had since 2014.
Diablo Canyon provides 8% of California’s total electricity and 15% of California’s carbon-free electricity, which is enough to power about 3 million homes, she told CNBC.
Nuclear is a “nasty practice”
Hoff and Zeitz founded Mothers for Nuclear in 2016 to share what they had learned about nuclear energy.
“We’re not utility executives. We’re not guys in suits. We’re not mad scientists,” Hoff told CNBC. They are mothers. They understand the doubt and fear nuclear power brings, and then educate people about the science of nuclear power in compassionate language.
The group Mothers for Nuclear has several thousand followers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The group has evolved since its inception.
“When we started Mothers for Nuclear, I think I imagined our job as being primarily about raising awareness, but we’ve also become advisors to our own industry, and we spend a lot of time sharing about how we should all communicate differently,” she told CNBC.
Not only is the nuclear industry doing a poor job of advertising the benefits of nuclear energy, but it has in many ways damaged its own image by focusing on safety precautions. These extra layers of backup increase costs, are often instances of operational redundancy, and send a subtle message that nuclear power must be terrifying and dangerous.
“It completely shot us in the foot,” Hoff said.
Heather Hoff, co-founder of Mothers for Nuclear, stands next to the Unit 2 main transformer during regular maintenance and refueling circa 2017. Steam behind Hoff is not typical during normal operation , she said.
Photo courtesy Heather Hoff
Given that Diablo Canyon is facing a highly controversial shutdown, she knows some might think her nuclear advocacy group is a cover for a public effort to protect her own job.
But she says it would be “much easier for me” to get a job working on a plant decommissioning or at another nuclear plant elsewhere.
Instead, she says, she thinks it’s her calling to tell the story of nuclear power as a solution to climate change.
“The more I learn about nuclear and our energy options, the more worried and excited I become, and the more I feel it is my duty to speak out and help change mindsets and help us realize that keeping existing plants open can help us fight climate change — can help us meet our energy goals,” Hoff told CNBC.
Despite all the obstacles, Hoff is optimistic about some of the new advanced nuclear reactor technologies being developed. And she says the energy industry really needs to have “a new bad guy.”
Notably, Hoff doesn’t want to target fossil fuels like this villain.
“I don’t want fossil fuels to be the enemy either, because I think energy is so important for people to have a good quality of life and we need more energy,” Hoff said. . “I don’t know, maybe the enemy is extremism – like people who don’t want to talk about the options and the best combination of whatever we need to do to improve people’s lives while protecting the planet.”
—CNBC Madeleine Petrova contributed to this report.