Hendrik Hertzberg’s Nuclear Option

New Yorker Editor Endorses the Atom

Tucked into his New Yorker column on Congressional filibuster reform, Hendrik Hertzberg admitted his support for the expansion of nuclear energy: “Nuclear power plants have their drawbacks, as we’ve learned from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima,” Hertzberg wrote. “But global warming has changed the picture.” Echoing a recent letter written by four leading climate and energy scientists, which acknowledges the scaling challenges of solar and wind, the New Yorker senior editor argued, “breezes and rays are not enough.” In terms of a realistic alternative to fossil fuels, Hertzberg says, “the nuclear option, though not the best of all possible worlds, is better than the one we’re living in.”

Neither a lengthy or glowing endorsement of nuclear power, the column nevertheless points to a shift in the conversation, bolstered in part by the climate scientists’ letter and the release of the pronuclear documentary Pandora’s Promise, which documents the anti- to pro-nuclear conversion of environmentalists and writers. Over the past several years, Hertzberg has cautiously documented how “global warming has punched holes in the green wall.” His 2010 column “Some Nukes,” which discusses Obama’s backing of a federal loan guarantee to build two new reactors, was perhaps the first inkling. The New Yorker’s editors were sure to publish a reader response, expressing the “dismay” of those who work on nuclear-proliferation issues. “It can be shown statistically that countries that receive nuclear assistance are more likely to build nuclear weapons,” the letter states.

The reader’s letter, however, is reflective of the news magazine’s historic stance on the atom: in the past 10 years alone, an overwhelming number of articles that discuss nuclear focus largely on safety and proliferation issues and the threat of nuclear terrorism. Consider articles such as “The Silent Strike,” “The Unthinkable,” “The Cold Test,” and Hertzberg’s “Fire and Rain.” Staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert is the New Yorker’s most vocal critic of nuclear energy. In her 2003 article “Indian Point Blank,” she wrote: “An attack on a nuclear power plant would seem to fulfill, almost perfectly, Al Qaeda's objective of using America's technology against it.” And later: “As potential targets go, Indian Point seems almost too obvious… several hundred thousand reside within seventeen and a half miles, in the so-called ‘peak fatality’ zone.” In the aftermath of Fukushima, the magazine published a column by Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe, who wrote, “To repeat the error by exhibiting, through the construction of nuclear reactors, the same disrespect for human life is the worst possible betrayal of the memory of Hiroshima’s victims.”

The urgency of climate change and the prospect of rising energy demand, however, have disrupted this logic of fear. Siding with Hertzberg is New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter, who in June of this year argued that it's time to go nuclear. “We can let our ideals suffocate us or we can survive,” he wrote. “Being opposed to nuclear power, as [Richard] Rhodes points out, means being in favor of burning fossil fuel. It’s that simple. Nuclear energy—now in its fourth generation—is at least as safe as any other form of power.”