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Special Report
Last Updated: 01/04/2008
Our Nuclear Future?
Brit Peterson

Seeking a solution to climate change, some environmentalists are now controversially advocating nuclear power.

Originally Published in Seed Magazine, April 26, 2006.

In the summer of 1981, Ken Caldeira found himself in jail after protesting the slated opening of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant on Long Island, NY. Caldeira, then a freelance software developer working on Wall Street, was an ardent member of the anti-nuclear movement: In 1979, he was arrested at a weapons demonstration just a few blocks away from his office, wearing the same suit he had worn to work. As part of a group called Mobilization for Survival, he helped coordinate a 500,000-person demonstration in Central Park on June 12th, 1982, against nuclear weaponry and power.

Fast-forward 20 years: Caldeira is a climatologist with the Carnegie Institution of Washington at Stanford University, and a specialist in energy and global warming. And he has flip-flopped his stance on nuclear power in the face of the mounting dangers of climate change, though his change of mind comes with some ambivalence.

"I'm kind of a reluctant supporter to the expansion of nuclear power," Caldeira said. "It's not my favorite choice, but it's not as bad as burning coal,"

Caldeira is not alone. He is part of a new guard of nuclear supporters made up of climate change scholars and environmentalists who fear that the impact of fossil fuel emissions on the Earth's ecosystems is so dire that they are willing, if hesitantly, to regard nuclear power's own environmental offenses—such as waste and the risk of contamination—as the lesser of two evils.

"We are already in a situation in 2006 where alpine glaciers are melting; we've lost about half the ice in the Arctic ocean, the tundra is melting at high latitudes," said Martin Hoffert, a retired NYU physicist and expert on alternative energy technologies, who is another reluctant supporter of developing nuclear power. "If that's what's happening now in 2006, how bad are things going to be by 2020? How bad are they going to be by 2050? We think they're going to be very bad. We think the second half of the 21st century is an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen."

Public opinion towards nuclear power has been largely negative since the meltdowns at Three Mile Island, in 1979, and Chernobyl, which occurred 20 years ago today. In fact, in the mid-'70s, prior to the Three Mile Island accident, the US government pulled back on the construction of approximately 40 new facilities. A Washington Post-ABC News nationwide poll taken in 1980 found a tepid 47% approval for building more new power plants. Nuclear's popularity unsurprisingly dipped to an all-time low of 19% in a Washington Post-ABC News poll just after Chernobyl, but since that nadir, the percentage rose gradually, peaking at 42% in 2001, though as of the middle of 2005, only 35% of Americans supported new plants.

However, following President Bush's announcement during his January State of the Union address that the US is "addicted to oil," support for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels rose to 44% from 39% in September of 2005, according to a Pew Center poll.

Governments around the world are responding to this reluctant interest in nuclear power. Finland is in the process of constructing a new reactor, the first built in Western Europe in over a decade. English Prime Minister Tony Blair is believed to favor building new power plants as part of a UK scheme to cut carbon emissions by almost 20%. China has announced plans to build 25 to 35 new plants by 2050, and projections based on their current energy needs suggested that many more will be necessary as the country's population swells.

In America, many proponents of nuclear power are members of the energy industry who would like to see an end to dependence on Middle Eastern oil reserves. Although no new nuclear power plants have been built since the 1979 incident, the newly formed NuStart Energy Development consortium, which includes nine of the country's largest utilities, have announced plans to build 20 or so new plants, relying on $3.1 billion in tax breaks and subsidies added in Congress's 2005 energy bill.

But these energy merchants are suddenly finding kindred spirits in people who used to protest outside of their facilities. True, these recent converts would prefer to see an emphasis on developing renewable sources like biomass, wind and solar energy technologies, but they lament the current inadequacies of renewable energy to cover a broad and rapidly expanding need for energy.

"There are possibilities of advanced renewables that could play the role," said Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution. "I think, given the existing set of technologies, that fission energy can provide a baseload of power supply that then could be supplemented by renewables, but that the renewable technologies and the storage technologies that we have for that energy are not enough to provide that baseload power."

Several of these scientists point to safer and more efficient reactor technologies, such as breeder reactors, which extend limited uranium reactors, and pebble bed reactors, which reduce the risk of a meltdown, as evidence that nuclear power is more dependable and less threatening to the public than it was in the days of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

"[Chernobyl was] very, very horrible and frightening, but now it's 20 years later, and there's kind of an awareness that the Russian reactors were poorly managed, with poor controls on them," said Tyler Volk, an environmental scientist in the biology department at NYU and another former anti-nuclear power activist who is now cautiously looking towards nuclear energy as a potential savior. "No one would ever build or recommend building a reactor like that now."

Patrick Moore, an early member of Greenpeace and another former anti-nuclear activist, announced April 24 that he will co-chair Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, an industry-funded pro-nuclear lobby, with former Administrator of the EPA, Christine Todd Whitman. On April 16th he published an editorial in The Washington Post that serves as a manifesto of sorts for the growing pro-nuclear sentiment among environmentalists.

"Imagine if the ratio of coal to nuclear were reversed so that only 20 percent of our electricity was generated from coal and 60 percent from nuclear," he wrote in his op-ed piece. "This would go a long way toward cleaning the air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Every responsible environmentalist should support a move in that direction."

Moore's editorial met with some dissent from the left, evidence that mainstream environmentalists are still very much against nuclear power, for practical and economic reasons—such as the risks of nuclear terrorism and the sheer cost of building new power plants and repairing aging ones every 30 years, as much as their primary gripe: the long-term environmental problem of storing nuclear waste.

"Do I think [subsidizing nuclear power plants] will help solve global warming?" said Thomas Cochran, director of the National Resources Defense Council's nuclear program. "No, I think actually it will make it more difficult because it took R&D money away from alternatives that could get us there quicker, and in the long term, be more effective."

The NRDC recently published a report detailing the conditions under which they would support the development of nuclear power to combat global warming, but their standards are high almost to the point of exclusion. In addition, The Sierra Club has strongly criticized Bush's nuclear energy initiative this year, while the World Wildlife Fund criticized Blair's version last year. Greenpeace remains trenchantly opposed.

"I think it's very difficult to say nuclear power is an acceptable form of [energy] generation because of climate change when it's got its own personalized raft of problems that go with it," said Bridget Woodman, a professor at the University of Warwick Business School and a former Greenpeace staff member, who recently published a report on the economic issues surrounding nuclear power in the UK. "You can't justify one environmentally damaging technology by saying, OK, it doesn't damage the environment in this specific way because it does damage it in other ways."

But NYU's Volk disagrees, calling the classic environmentalist response shortsighted and impractically hopeful.

"These issues are not going to go away," Volk said. "One can have knee-jerk opinions, but we really need to be looking at all the options and considering them very carefully at this point."