A New Day for Nuclear Advocacy… and Environmentalism?

Union of Concerned Scientists Becomes First Major Environmental Group to Publicly Back Policy Support for Nuclear Energy

Today’s release of a Union of Concerned Scientists reportcalling for policies to support continued operation of nuclear power plants marks a watershed. UCS is the first major environmental NGO to recognize that nuclear energy presently, and for the foreseeable future, is a key climate mitigation technology. It is also the first to publicly and explicitly call for policies to support nuclear energy.

Importantly, the report acknowledges, as we have long claimed, that shuttered nuclear power plants have reliably been replaced primarily with coal and natural gas fired generation, not renewable energy. Through the use of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s ReEDS model, UCS also concludes that future closures are likely to be replaced predominantly with fossil energy as well.

This represents a marked break from many other major environmental groups, who continue to argue that shuttered nuclear plants can be replaced entirely with energy efficiency and renewables, even as those technologies scale to replace fossil energy as well. For this reason, UCS endorses our long-standing call for Clean Energy Standards at the state and federal level in place of Renewable Portfolio Standards.

That UCS would become the first major environmental group to acknowledge an important role for nuclear energy in climate mitigation efforts is particularly symbolic. The organization was founded in the late 1960’s by veterans of the scientists movement, which had mobilized in the 1940’s and 50’s in response to concerns about the use and misuse of nuclear technology.

But in recent years, it has become increasingly evident that efforts to address climate change solely through reduced energy use and deployment of wind, water, and solar energy will not be nearly sufficient to meet global energy needs while dramatically slashing emissions.

Heroic efforts to shift to renewable energy, in Germany, California, Denmark, and elsewhere, established important beachheads for wind and solar energy in the global energy economy. But no large economy in the world has managed to power all or even most of its electrical grid with variable forms of renewable energy. Closures of nuclear plants in Germany, Japan, and California have made clear that renewable energy technologies, despite progress, were not yet ready to fully replace either nuclear or fossil energy.  

Against this background, continuing efforts by many in the environmental community to close nuclear power plants already producing enormous quantities of zero carbon energy, or even simply standing by as peers continued to do so, has become increasingly untenable for groups arguing that climate change represents an existential threat to human societies, one that demands immediate action to deeply slash carbon emissions.

To their credit, UCS took a cold, hard look at the facts and changed its mind. Under pressure from colleagues in the environmental community not to go soft on nuclear, late drafts of the report added language on NRC safety ratings, new subsidies for renewables, and the emissions impact of the Diablo Canyon closure. But despite these sops, the report marks a remarkable shift.

Today is also a credit to my many colleagues in the pro-nuclear environmental movement, who have patiently and respectfully engaged their colleagues within environmental NGO’s in recent years, digging into the difficult and sometimes frustrating work of getting to yes.

It should, as well, give pause to nuclear advocates, including my former partner, who have too often demonized environmental groups, arguing that they were too dogmatic, compromised, and cowardly to ever acknowledge the need for nuclear energy. And it is a rebuke to leaders within the environmental movement who have privately acknowledged that nuclear would be necessary but have begged off from doing so publicly over concerns that it would divide the movement. In reality, most environmentalists are capable of hearing the truth and won’t abandon the climate cause. What has been lacking is clarity and leadership. Today, UCS provided it.

There is, of course, still much work to do. UCS is but one prominent environmental NGO, and far from the largest. But after almost five decades of monolithic resistance to nuclear energy from the institutional environmental movement, the dam has finally broken. This sort of thing often happens slowly, even imperceptibly, and then all at once. What was once verbotten can become, virtually overnight, conventional wisdom. It is likely in my view, although by no means guaranteed, that other major green groups will follow UCS’ lead on the issue.

Today’s announcement is a testament to the importance of principled civil society advocacy for nuclear energy, from early voices in the wilderness like Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas, to my current and former colleagues at the Breakthrough Institute, Michael Shellenberger, Jesse Jenkins, Jessica Lovering, and Alex Trembath, to prominent climate scientists, like James Hansen and Kerry Emanuel, who risked their reputations to deliver a different inconvenient truth to the environmental movement.

It should also remind all of us that times and circumstances change, and as they do, so must we. For environmentalists, it is time not just to recognize the importance of nuclear energy but also that making it so is not someone else’s job. If you care about the climate, you need to care about nuclear energy.

For my conservative friends, it is time to demonstrate that your commitment to a nuclear future goes beyond trolling environmentalists over their climate hypocrisy.

And for nuclear advocates, it’s time to stop complaining about environmentalists, satisfying as that sometimes might be. Whatever role the environmental movement played in the 1970’s and 80’s in derailing the nuclear project, the challenges that the technology faces today cannot be laid solely, or even primarily, at their feet. How far UCS or other environmental groups will go will likely depend in significant part upon what we do now.

Are we willing to engage the legitimate concerns that many still have about the technology constructively? Will we do the hard work of figuring out the right assemblages of technologies, institutions, policies, economics, and business models that would be necessary for nuclear to play a much larger role in the global energy economy than most current projections envision? Can we offer a plausible vision for nuclear energy for developed economies that are unlikely to return to the centralized, state-led model of nuclear deployment that is the only one that has ever succeeded? What about for developing economies that have neither the technical and institutional capacities nor the infrastructure to support large conventional reactors? The answers to these questions will determine what sort of future nuclear will have beyond the plants that we’ve already built, at least in the United States and many other parts of the world. It’s time to lean in.