The Death of Anti-Nuclearism

Green groups’ anti-nuclear efforts are losing ground—here’s why

The Death of Anti-Nuclearism
Joslynn Gallant

One of the under-appreciated aspects of the growing momentum behind nuclear energy has been the ineffectiveness of the resistance from the mainstream environmental movement.

The movement’s feebleness has not been due to a major shift in attitude toward the technology. The gamut of opinion among the organized and institutionalized environmental movement toward nuclear energy still mostly runs from “not anti-nuclear but…” to determinedly opposed. Even among moderate green groups that profess openness to nuclear energy, you will not find anything approaching advocacy for the technology. And a significant sector of the environmentalist movement, roughly from the Sierra Club and NRDC leftward, remains adamantly opposed.

There are, in my view, several reasons the mainstream environmental movement has failed to effectively oppose efforts to keep existing nuclear plants on line and commercialize a new generation of new advanced reactors. Most obviously, it is difficult to sustain the claim that climate change is an existential threat demanding rapid action to cut emissions while simultaneously trafficking in too cute by half rationales as to why nuclear energy is not really low carbon or doesn’t actually reduce emissions. At the same time, explicit claims that modern economies could be powered entirely by wind, water, and solar have been broadly debunked since 2017, when leading energy scholars published an extensive reanalysis and expose of Mark Jacobson’s famous 100% renewable analysis in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Real world events have further discredited the idea that global energy needs might be met entirely, or even primarily, with variable sources of renewable energy. Post-Fukushima closures of nuclear plants have resulted, in virtually every instance, in significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions, putting the lie to claims that even at far lower levels of grid penetration, variable sources of renewable energy could fully replace fossil fuels. More recently, energy shortages in the wake of the pandemic recovery, and most especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have further shifted public and elite opinion toward nuclear.

But most of all, a movement long accustomed to having its way on all matters nuclear simply didn’t believe that anything would ever change. Most nuclear opponents never considered that anyone would take a new generation of pro-nuclear activists seriously, whom they dismissed as industry shills or annoying but ultimately irrelevant “nuclear bros.”

This is what happens when political movements succeed. They become arrogant and complacent and lose touch with both popular sentiment and the challenges of the present, as opposed to the halcyon victories of the past.

So it was a shock to California’s environmental community over the last few years when it found itself significantly outnumbered by pro-nuclear activists at public meetings held by state agencies considering a delay to the planned closure of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. And it was even more of a shock when the governor and heavily Democratic legislature reversed course and voted nearly unanimously, and in the face of monolithic opposition from the state’s environment lobby, to keep the plant open.

The same dynamics have been in play at the federal level. In 2019, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation directing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to modernize its licensing procedures for a new generation of nuclear plants. In 2020, Congress committed billions to support the demonstration of the first advanced nuclear reactors. In 2022, Congress provided substantial support for the civil nuclear tax credit. The vote tallies on these measures—361 to 10, 86 to 14—read like the annual resolution that Congress passes on Mother’s Day, not votes on politically contested technology policies.

Green groups appear to have finally figured out that significant change is afoot. But the response has so far been underwhelming. Two groups that had long campaigned for the closure of Diablo Canyon, Friends of the Earth and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), filed a Hail Mary lawsuit earlier this year challenging the state law authorizing continued operation of Diablo, preposterously claiming that an agreement in 2016 among private parties to close the plant was a contract that bound the State of California to follow through.

That gambit was followed last week by an equally preposterous report published by EWG claiming that continuing to operate Diablo Canyon could cost the state as much as $45 billion over the next 20 years. EWG’s intrepid researchers arrived at this figure by turning a benefit, low cost, zero carbon, reliable power for the state’s electricity consumers, into a cost, adding up all of the retail sales of energy from the plant and assuming that, in its absence, a similar amount of energy—but free of charge—would materialize to meet California’s electricity demand.

Green groups’ anti-nuclear efforts are losing ground at the federal level as well. Congressional Democrats don’t appear to take groups like Union of Concerned Scientists and NRDC seriously on nuclear energy any longer. Last month, NRDC pulled out the stops to oppose an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in the Senate that would include significant Congressional funding to support U.S. nuclear fuel processing and enrichment capabilities, which will be necessary to produce the fuels that advanced reactors will need domestically. The Senate nonetheless passed the amendment 96 to 3.

More than halfway through the year, Democrats on the key committees that oversee civilian nuclear energy programs at the Department of Energy and nuclear energy regulation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have yet to call any representative from the national environmental groups as a hearing witness, preferring instead to call representatives from pro-nuclear environmental groups, such as Clean Air Task Force, rather than someone such as Ed Lyman, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ long time anti-nuclear gadfly, who has been a staple Democratic witness for decades.

Instead, Lyman was reduced to posting his objections in an oped for The Hill, where he simply repeated longstanding tropes of the anti-nuclear movement: exaggerations of the public health risks associated with low-dose radiation, fear-mongering about nuclear accidents and waste, and insistence that the nuclear industry’s long-standing difficulties building plants on-time and on-budget had nothing to do with the NRC’s baroque regulatory apparatus. A few days later, Allison Macfarlane, the last Democratic Chair of the NRC appointed by Nevada’s Harry Reid and something of an anti-nuclear crusader herself these days, posted a long and rambling attack on advanced reactors at the website of the Institute of Art and Ideas.

Still, it would be a mistake to count out the anti-nuclear movement just yet. Explicitly anti-nuclear green groups possess, according to one recent estimate, annual budgets of more than $2 billion dollars. One can quibble about the exact figure, but it almost certainly dwarfs political spending by the nuclear industry, much less the comparatively tiny budgets of the handful of pro-nuclear environmental groups that have led the fight to keep nuclear plants online and commercialize a new generation of advanced reactors over the last decade. Moreover, the anti-nuclear environmental movement remains a key constituency within the Democratic Party.

The closer we get to actually deploying advanced reactors, the louder and more organized anti-nuclear forces are likely to become, an effort that will almost certainly be accompanied by increasingly unhinged rhetoric about nuclear risk. That’s because today’s “not anti-nuclear but…” environmentalists and progressives are only able to ground their case in objections to the cost of nuclear energy because they stand upon the shoulders of the 1970s-era anti-nuclear movement, which succeeded in massively increasing the cost of nuclear energy by stoking public fears about radiation.

That legacy allows progressive “not anti-nuclear but…” voices today to play multiple double games: acknowledging that the anti-nuclear movement’s claims about radiological health risk are exaggerated while insisting that America’s overwrought nuclear regulatory policies are necessary to maintain public confidence in the safety of nuclear energy; touting the efficacy of public policies in driving solar, wind, and battery learning curves while insisting that public regulatory policy has nothing to do with nuclear costs (which they claim are “intrinsic” to the technology); and claiming that nuclear is not feasible because it cannot compete in competitive energy markets while advocating for heavy subsidies for renewable deployment in competitive energy markets.

All of these postures have been predicated, implicitly, on two things: first, the conceit that nuclear energy is a uniquely and exceptionally dangerous technology and, second, the concomitant belief that a serious reconsideration of regulatory policy toward radiological health risk would never happen. But nuclear advocates have now begun to chip away at both presumptions. Last month, a bipartisan group of over 60 members of Congress, including majority and minority leadership of the Senate Environment and Public Works and Energy and Natural Resources committees, and a full majority of members of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expressing concern about the slow pace and limited scope of the commission’s regulatory modernization efforts. The letter takes aim squarely at the NRC’s proposal to include epidemiologically outdated and indefensible radiological risk standards in its proposed licensing framework for advanced reactors.

When anti-nuclear environmentalists, like Lyman, and Democrats, like Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders, warn that regulatory modernization and efficiency will compromise reactor safety and needlessly expose the public to “high risks from radioactive contamination,” as Lyman argued in The Hill last month, what they are actually defending is regulation of entirely theoretical public health risk so infinitesimally small that the negative consequences of exposure could not be observed epidemiologically, even in a very large population tracked carefully over the course of many decades.

Despite this, there is a belief among some left-leaning nuclear advocates that a confrontation with anti-nuclear progressives and environmentalists over radiological risk and nuclear regulatory reform should be avoided. Confrontation, in this telling, risks undermining public confidence in nuclear regulation, and hence safety.

This argument both misinterprets public opinion on these subjects and presumes that nuclear advocates will ultimately have a choice. In reality, there has never been much evidence that opinions about nuclear safety and risk are strongly held by most members of the public. There is a small, vocal, and organized segment of the public that is strongly anti-nuclear. And there is a similarly small, although less vocal and organized, segment of the public that is strongly pro-nuclear. But most people simply don’t have strong views on the topic one way or the other.

The main reservoir of anti-nuclear sentiment, rather, has always been elite opinion. Public confidence in nuclear safety, such as it is, does not operate independently of elite opinion and indeed has always reflected attitudes and conflict on the subject among elites. Insofar as public confidence in nuclear safety might wane, that waning will be driven by elites opposed to nuclear technology, not a disembodied “public” assessing some unspecified diminution of safety due to regulatory efficiency or reform.

Elite anti-nuclear opinion about nuclear risk, meanwhile, is not based on a dispassionate analysis of nuclear safety and plausible public health consequences. It is tied up instead with broader ideological commitments to various notions about ecological and egalitarian social arrangements. Most elite opposition to nuclear, in other words, is not the result of misunderstandings of radiological health risk. Rather misinformation about radiological health risk is promoted by anti-nuclear elites and motivated by opposition to nuclear energy, and the implicit understanding that the economic and regulatory barriers to nuclear deployment are predicated upon those misunderstandings.

For this reason, I expect many nuclear skeptics, including those who claim to be “not anti-nuclear but” for its costs, to return to fear mongering as nuclear advocates start to strip away the indefensible assumptions about nuclear risk that undergird the current nuclear regulatory paradigm. The death of anti-nuclearism, unfortunately, does not mean that the multi-billion dollar green lobby will cease opposing nuclear energy. Most nuclear skeptics understand as well as everyone else that the entire nuclear regulatory apparatus is built upon a foundation of epidemiological sand. But there is far too much invested in the anti-nuclear project, ideologically, institutionally, and, for some, financially, to ever acknowledge that. And so, the environmental movement and many of its progressive allies are likely to persist in their anti-nuclearism. They will need to be defeated.