Faces of Nuclear - Heather Matteson

Heather Matteson is a nuclear plant operator and procedure writer at Diablo Canyon, co-founder of Mothers for Nuclear, and mother of a bright 8-year old girl named Zoe. She began working at Diablo Canyon 15 years ago, before she actually believed that nuclear was a clean energy source vital to our success against climate change.  In 2016,  after realizing that her job, community, and California’s 

largest source of clean energy was at risk, Heather founded Mothers for Nuclear with a coworker (and now BFF) Kristin Zaitz, a civil engineer who knows personally (after using science) that her power plant can withstand a large earthquake and tsunami with virtually no damage.  

Before she started working at Diablo, friends and relatives told Heather that working there was a bad idea. “Before I went to work there, my uncle, a physics professor, told me he had heard stories of workers getting ‘hot’ particles in their lungs, and dying from cancer. Some other relatives said it’s not a good place for a young female to be working.” But this only prompted her to want to learn and understand everything there was to know about nuclear, and see if the stories were valid.

“What I generally tell people is that I happened upon my career at Diablo and was scared at first, but realized I wanted to figure out what it was all about. So I started asking as many questions as I could about the plant and completely annoyed all my co-workers by asking so much.”

Heather explains that it took her about six years to realize how important her job is for the planet. Helping the plant to run efficiently and reliably is immediately essential in order to provide affordable, emissions-free energy to society. She grew to love her job at Diablo Canyon. “I thought, ‘I’ll just keep doing this, and that will be enough to satisfy my life and goals."

After San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) closed, she began to notice a change in the air from the plant management.  The managers seemed to be going out of their way to stamp down any enthusiasm for improving plant operation and the perception of nuclear in the public. “We’re told that it's someone else's job to advocate, and that we should keep our heads down and just do our jobs,” Heather said.

Understandably, this made her pretty annoyed. Why couldn’t a group of dedicated employees be both hardworking and also advocate for the continued operation of their plant?

As Heather started getting more vocal, rumors swirled that PG&E was going to announce something — something big.

When the announcement came in June 2016 that PG&E would not renew the operating licenses of the two reactors at Diablo Canyon, Heather and her coworkers were shocked. Diablo Canyon was in excellent condition, and could run for another 60 years, at least.

Heather also realized that the retirement of the plant would take away her personal “mechanism” of helping the world — and it became clear that keeping nuclear plants running was something she should fight for, to help the world.  

“It may have taken me six years to figure out why nuclear is so important, but I didn’t want everyone else to take six years too. That’s why I’m trying to communicate how nuclear supports our common values through my work with Mothers for Nuclear, so more people can accept nuclear and fight to save it."

While Heather and Kristin were still only acquaintances and coworkers, they were both determined to help fight for the plant. They egged each other on to pursue advocacy to save Diablo Canyon, until finally they banded together to create Mothers for Nuclear — a project which also became the start of a life-changing friendship. “There’s never any amount of jealousy between us,” Heather explains. “The more we do together and separately the more happy and supportive we are of each other."

Mothers for Nuclear helped organize the March for Environmental Hope in 2016 along with Generation Atomic founder Eric Meyer (working with Environmental Progress and Michael Shellenberger). After five days of marching from San Francisco to Sacramento, Heather gave an impassioned testimony (Zoe in arm) to the State Lands Commission to save the plant. They’ve also made campaign videos with their kids in support of passing the New York Clean Energy Standard and saving Fitzpatrick, Ginna, and Nine Mile Point nuclear plants. They continue to grow their movement and fight tirelessly for the planet every day.

Now, Heather and Kristin have been traveling to lots of different energy groups giving talks about how to communicate about nuclear differently. Just this week, Heather spoke at the 8th Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in St. Louis about how to change public perception of nuclear. As a mom, she believes changing minds starts with speaking to the things that make us human — including the need to give our kids a healthy future. “We want to show that nuclear advocacy means pulling at people’s heart strings instead of making them scared.” And we need all nuclear workers to become advocates in this new way. The climate won't wait.

She argues that we need to change how we teach nuclear in schools by focusing on topics like energy poverty and air pollution — not radiation. Environmental science curricula typically emphasize “sustainability” and conservation of energy and resources, following a central theme of halting population growth and economic prosperity to curb climate change. Nuclear energy is left out of the picture as students are presented with a limited set of tools to address climate change.

Heather struggled with the mainstream environmental thought that in order to preserve the planet, humans need to use less energy. “The conservation life is hard. But it doesn’t have to be that way — nuclear can help us power and develop our world in a healthy way. We can make technological advances that will make lives better and easier everywhere."

That’s why she’s devoted countless hours to changing the way we have conversations about nuclear energy. “We need to communicate common values and concerns, instead of defending and combating. I believe we care about and want the same things as most Sierra Club moms and members. We want to protect the planet for the future, but also enable people both now and in the future to have high quality lives. Nuclear is the best of all worlds.”

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  • commented 2017-09-05 15:26:30 -0500
    I am a mother, an environmentalist with 50 solar panels on my home, and also someone who has spent the last few years taking classes, going to lectures and hearing from all sorts of experts about what scaleable solutions to climate change there are. I, too, have come around to recognizing that we cannot solve humanity’s growing energy needs with just renewables. Nuclear, for better or worse, needs to be part of the clean energy solution if we have any hope of eliminating our use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels any time soon, since they still are the source for over 80% of all energy used. We can’t afford to allow our planet to keep on heating up by trying to force every type of energy use to be filled by wind or solar. Given their inefficiency and intermittentcy, It just won’t work. So, I applaud Heather and Kristin for their efforts to help spread the word, despite the natural reluctance to promote from within the industry. Frankly, I’d rather be someone who was working for a nuclear plant and was pleasantly surprised to learn that nuclear is actually very safe and good for our climate, than someone working in fossil fuels, who was shocked to learn that their work helps to destroy our planet’s and our children’s future.