Moderate Environmentalists Go Nuclear

The Incremental, Pragmatic, and Prudent Shift in Green Attitudes

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Certain environmental leaders have countered the claim that support for nuclear power is growing. But in the last two weeks alone, moderate and mainstream members of the environmental movement – including Mark Tercek, Carol Browner, and Eileen Claussen (left to right) – have publicly stated that the world needs more nuclear if it is to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A recent New York Times editorial narrated this incremental shift, calling for prudence and pragmatism in all future discussions of nuclear energy.

May 06, 2014 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Last year, many scoffed at the suggestion that support was growing for nuclear power. Before the release of pro-nuclear documentary Pandora's Promise, green magazine Grist wrote, "Of the 10 leading enviro groups in the US, zero support new nuclear power plants." In response to an open letter sent by climate scientists to environmental leaders last fall, Ralph Cavanaugh told CNN, "I've been in the NRDC since 1979. I have a pretty good idea of where the mainstream environmental groups are and have been. I have seen no movement.” 

But the last two weeks has seen new support for nuclear come from moderate, mainstream elements of the environmental movement. "I used to be anti-nuclear," wrote Carol Browner yesterday, who was head of the EPA under President Clinton and oversaw climate and energy policy for President Obama. "But, several years ago I had to reevaluate my thinking because if you agree with the world’s leading climate scientists that global warming is real and must be addressed immediately then you cannot simply oppose clean, low-carbon energy sources." 

Last week, Eileen Claussen joined Browner at a press conference in Washington, DC, to raise the alarm about the closure of US nuclear power plants. Claussen helped negotiate the 1988 treaty to protect the ozone, and heads the Center for Climate and Energy, formerly the Pew Center for Global Climate Change. "Until large-scale energy storage is commercially viable," said Claussen, "renewables will only be able to meet a small portion of our baseload needs … and you'd need roughly 7,600 wind turbines, or 3.7 million solar rooftops to generate the same amount of electricity as five nuclear reactors."

Now, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the world's largest environmental organization, has called for traditional green opposition to nuclear to be, at the very least, reconsidered. "Given the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report warning that we have only a decade to halt the worst ravages of climate change on nature and the natural systems people depend on," wrote TNC's CEO and Chief Scientist yesterday, "should nuclear power be off the table as an energy option?" 

Traditionally, the anniversary of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl is an occasion to warn of the dangers of splitting the atom. But instead, the strongly environmentalist New York Times used the occasion to call for more energy from the atom:

The dangers of nuclear power are real, but the accidents that have occurred, even Chernobyl, do not compare to the damage to the earth being inflicted by the burning of fossil fuels — coal, gas and oil. The latest dire warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should leave no doubt that reducing carbon emissions must be an urgent priority and that nuclear energy must be part of the mix.

Traditionally, environmental groups have claimed nuclear is unnecessary. But the experience in Germany in recent years has undermined such confidence. The electricity Germany gets from the wind and sun pales to the electricity it gets from hydroelectric dams and burning biomass, two renewable energy sources rightly criticized as environmentally devastating. In phasing out nuclear, Germany has increased its reliance on coal, and seen its greenhouse gas emissions, and energy costs, rise. 

Behind the scenes, energy analysts have been telling environmental leaders for years that greenhouse gas emissions cannot be significantly reduced without more nuclear power. In her statement, Browner pointed to reports by the National Academies of Science, Electric Power Research Institute, the EPA, and US Energy Information Administration. A 2011 study funded by the state of California concluded that nuclear would need to provide one- to two- thirds of the state's energy to meet its climate commitments. 

To aid the shift in green attitudes, the head of the Clean Air Task Force, a respected research group that works for many environmental organizations and foundations, came out of the nuclear closet in December.

"I can tell you it wasn't easy for me — who, as a lawyer back in the '80s, started my career fighting nuclear power — to come around to the view that it actually may be one of the things in the portfolio that may be necessary to save us," Armond Cohen told NPR. "But that's where the facts lead you."

To be sure, these are baby steps. Cohen made clear that he views nuclear as less than ideal. ("Unfortunately we're in a world of 'choose your poison.'") Browner and Claussen mostly emphasized maintaining rather than significantly increasing nuclear energy. And TNC called for a discussion but stopped short of endorsing nuclear. 

But all of this is relatively rapid change given that most paradigm shifts do not take years but decades to unfold. Change starts from the margins, and gradually wins over the center. When such change finally arrives, it is framed not as radical but rather as incremental, pragmatic, and prudent. The new consensus was eloquently summed up by the Times.   

The watchword here and in the world at large should be prudence. Prudence in the design, maintenance, and operation of all nuclear facilities. Prudence also in the sense that policy makers not be spooked into shutting down a vital source of clean energy in a warming world. The great shield over Chernobyl should also entomb unfounded fears of using nuclear power in the future.


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About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, climate, security, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.

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