Atomic Dreams

How the nuclear lobby is spinning liberals, lawmakers, and grassroots environmentalists

Nuclear Power

Content Tools

Situated on a tall sea cliff above pounding waves, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant enjoys the kind of stunning ocean view typical of Central California’s rugged coast. Rolling hills—bright green in winter, fading to gold by summer—surround two Westinghouse reactors that generate electricity for 1.6 million homes. Pacific Ocean waters cool some of the plant’s components. Voles, coyotes, and bobcats roam the meadows and oak glens stretching for miles behind the power station. The sound of the surf obscures any electric hum.

A generation ago, the scene wasn’t as calm. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Diablo Canyon was at the center of a national grassroots movement against nuclear power. Inspired by the mass protests organized at the Seabrook power plant in New Hampshire, thousands of California residents struggled for years to halt the construction of Diablo, which they said was too dangerous, given that a major geological fault lies just three miles away. In 1977 some 1,500 people demonstrated near the plant to demand a halt in construction; a year later, the number of protesters had tripled. By September 1981 the crowds had swelled to 20,000, and 1,960 people were arrested as they sought to occupy the construction site. It was the largest mass arrest in the history of the U.S. antinuclear struggle.

Today the attitude in the environmental movement toward nuclear power may be changing. Atomic energy, once the bête noir of the movement, is receiving a second look from many dedicated ecologists who are suggesting that, in a world threatened by climate change, splitting the atom may be preferable to burning the carbon. Many people are beginning to wonder: Can nuclear power be green?

Nuclear industry officials, who have long sought to resuscitate their flagging businesses, are eagerly fueling the debate as they seek to position their reactors as a solution to global warming. Nuclear power promoters are feeling more bullish than they have in years. Utilities have filed applications with federal regulators for 32 new atomic reactors, according to the Nuclear Information and Research Service.

The possibility of a nuclear power renaissance is causing strains in the environmental movement as organizations and individuals grapple with the pros and cons of using nuclear power to check carbon emissions. A number of prominent environmentalists—among them Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jared Diamond, and Gaia-theory promoter James Lovelock—have come out in favor of atomic energy as a response to climate change. Among mainline U.S. environmental groups, there is near unanimity that nuclear power remains as bad an idea today as it was during the heyday of the Diablo Canyon protests. But at the grassroots level, opinion is split. As one green blogger wrote: “We environmentalists must rethink our opposition to nuclear power. Those who have opposed the building of new nuclear power plants in the United States over the past 20 years have actually forced the use of a filthy alternative—coal combustion—that releases millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”

Such sentiments reveal the degree to which the all-consuming threat of planetary climate change is altering green politics, forcing environmentalists to reexamine their beliefs about how best to fight global warming. The debate over nuclear power is, at its heart, part of a larger argument about how to balance ecological sustainability with our lifestyle expectations. Whether environmentalists decide to support nuclear power will influence the shape of the emerging green economy.

“It’s a metaphor for how our country will move into the future,” says Betsy Taylor, former head of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and founder of the Center for a New American Dream. “It gets back to the debate about whether we want an economy and an energy system that are highly centralized and benefit the few, versus an economy and an energy system that are more locally rooted and that unleash the creativity and the economic ownership of our energy by many more small owners, businesses, and even households. . . . There has been a fight over who benefits and who matters. With nuclear power, there was this idea that a small group of people would take care of everything.”

 

By the mid-1990s, it appeared that the U.S. nuclear industry was destined for a funeral. Federal officials had not licensed a new plant since 1973, and the last plant to come on line, Watts Bar in Tennessee, had taken 23 years to build. Memories of the 1979 Three Mile Island scare, combined with the long shadow of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, had the industry on the defensive. Public support for nuclear power was near an all-time low, with just 40 percent of respondents to an industry poll saying they were in favor of atomic energy. Major cost overruns in plant construction had made the industry unpopular on Wall Street.

Then the George W. Bush administration threw nuclear power a lifeline. Embedded in the 2005 Energy Bill was a provision granting the nuclear industry $13 billion in new tax credits and loan guarantees; $2 billion was set aside for the first utilities that filed applications for new plants. The subsidies allowed utilities, insurance companies, and investors to begin rethinking nuclear power’s future.

The industry now had the money; what it needed was an argument. According to a 2005 ABC News survey, only one-third of Americans approved of “building more nuclear plants at this time.” Nuclear proponents needed a way of convincing people that atomic energy deserved a second shot. Enter climate change. While nuclear power generation isn’t entirely carbon neutral—uranium mining and enrichment require vast amounts of fossil fuel energy—atomic plants are cleaner from a carbon standpoint than natural gas or coal-fired power stations. Posing nuclear energy as a response to global warming seemed a useful way to reintroduce nuclear power to a public that hadn’t been forced to think about it for years.

“If you’re serious about carbon emissions, you have to be serious about nuclear power,” says Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon Corp., a Chicago-based company that plans to apply for a license to build new reactors. “You can’t meet carbon goals without nuclear power. It cannot be done. There is no other technology that can do what nuclear does: produce large amounts of electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with no carbon emissions.”

To help make this argument more compelling, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry group, gave public relations firm Hill & Knowlton an $8 million contract to reframe the issue in the media. The PR consultants manage the NEI’s Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and enlisted former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman and Greenpeace cofounder (and corporate consultant) Patrick Moore to chair it. Hill & Knowlton helped Moore and Whitman disseminate opinion essays that ignited a torrent of other media stories.

Moore has been an especially effective voice for the nuclear industry. By highlighting his rabble-rousing days with Greenpeace, Moore has portrayed his embrace of nuclear power as a road-to-Damascus-style conversion. “Yes, I was an opponent of nuclear energy all through my Greenpeace years,” Moore says. “But when I do the math, it’s very clear to me that renewables can’t do the job themselves, and that’s why nuclear has to be part of the mix. . . . As an environmentalist, I choose nuclear.”

Moore’s pretensions to high-mindedness may be disingenuous; he is, after all, a paid flack for the nuclear industry. And—as his public support of pesticide spraying, genetically modified organisms, and logging make clear—he is a long way from his Rainbow Warrior days. Some in the environmental community have labeled Moore an “eco-Judas,” to which he responds that no one has a right “to define who is and who is not an environmentalist.”

Regardless of Moore’s green credentials, his carefully calculated stumping in favor of nuclear power has helped shift discussion on the issue. Twenty-five years ago, the buzzwords in the nuclear debate were safety and sustainability; today they are coal and carbon.

That, at least, is how Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog founder, sees it. While Moore’s support of nuclear energy seems like little more than sophisticated greenwashing, it’s more difficult to dismiss Brand’s carefully considered arguments.

“Some people have said it’s nuclear versus renewables or it’s nuclear versus conservation,” Brand says. “But it’s the [electricity] grid we are talking about, so it’s nuclear versus coal. Across the board, comparing the problems of spent nuclear fuel and spent coal fuel, it’s 1,000 or 100 to 1, in terms of nuclear being more safe. . . . Climate change is the worst thing that can happen to biodiversity. It puts the environmental movement in a different situation. It changes priorities. Suddenly, worrying about radiation 6,000 years from now goes down the list.”

A chorus of pundits, among them New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof, have said that it’s time to expand nuclear power production to head off carbon emissions. Some members of Congress are rethinking their positions. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, long a skeptic of nuclear energy, appears to be shifting. She recently said in a statement that “if we can be assured that new technologies help to produce nuclear energy safely and cleanly, then I think we have to take a look at it.” Al Gore says nuclear energy should be a “small part” of the climate solution.

 

Even as debate churns in the newspapers, there is a striking amount of unanimity among the leading environmental organizations that nuclear power is not a smart way to address climate change. The National Wildlife Federation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are among the many groups arguing that there are quicker and cheaper ways to reduce greenhouse gases. What the industry heralds as a “revival” these groups dub a “relapse.”

“Nuclear power is the most expensive way to make minor emissions cuts,” says Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “You add this to all of nuclear power’s other problems—safety and proliferation and radioactive waste—and it’s not a good solution.”

Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, agrees. “The industry is putting lipstick on a pig here,” he says. “Solving one problem and creating another isn’t a durable solution. It doesn’t make sense to solve global warming by creating a ton of nuclear waste that we don’t know what to do with.”

More than 50 years after the establishment of the civilian atomic energy program, the country still lacks a safe way to handle the radioactive waste formed during the fission process. Waste is stored at the individual power stations, an arrangement that no one—including the nuclear plant operators—believes is a long-term solution. “Long term” in this case means 10,000 years, the time the government says a waste repository needs to contain spent nuclear fuel. Many environmentalists say even that mind-boggling time frame is too short, since some waste will be dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years.

Industry representatives and federal officials have fought to build a single national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert. Recent studies, however, show that the mountain, formerly believed to be bone dry, may leak water, which would make it an un­acceptable vault. Another major concern about waste storage is the logistical nightmare of relocating tons of spent fuel to Yucca Mountain. The most optimistic scenario doesn’t envision Yucca Mountain’s opening until 2017.

Nuclear plants could reduce the need for waste storage by “reprocessing” the fuel, but that would create weapons-grade radioactive material. While the industry has improved plant management and design since the Three Mile Island near-meltdown, post-9/11 fears have created new safety worries, including the possibility that terrorists could attack a plant or obtain nuclear materials to make “dirty bombs” or atomic weapons.

Cost is another pressing issue. Even with government subsidies, nuclear power is not cheap. The complicated reactors cost between $2.5 billion and
$4 billion each; the Watts Bar plant ended up with a price tag of $7 billion. The capital costs of atomic expansion are so high that one nuclear executive told the New York Times that his firm’s chief financial officer “would have a heart attack” if he proposed constructing a new reactor.

From a market standpoint, constructing new plants does not appear to be economically competitive. Most estimates put nuclear-generated electricity at around 8 to 11 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). By comparison, wind prices currently average 5 cents per kWh. Energy efficiency improvements can cost even less—for example, swapping out incandescent lightbulbs for compact fluorescents amounts to less than 4 cents per kWh.

“Just financially, it won’t happen,” says Geoff Fettus, a senior attorney at the NRDC, about an expansion of nuclear power. “The question we pose to people is not whether you are for or against nuclear power, but whether you are for or against new subsidies for nuclear power. We think they are a terrible waste of money. If you move away from the subsidies for nuclear, the debate ends right there.”

The very challenges of financing and building new reactors reduce the potential for atomic energy to make a meaningful dent in carbon emissions. Currently, 104 nuclear power plants produce about 20 percent of the United States’ electricity. To make a real reduction in U.S. carbon emissions would require building as many as 250 additional power plants. To make significant cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, the world’s nations would need to build 21 new reactors every year for the next 50 years. Given that it takes about 10 years to build a nuclear reactor, the first new nuclear plants wouldn’t start contributing to carbon reductions until nearly 2020. Too late to be effective, if you accept NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s prediction that we have only a decade to take action.

A June 2007 statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists sums up the sentiments of the major environmental organizations: “There are faster, safer, and significantly cheaper ways to meet our energy needs. . . . Nuclear power is not a current solution for global warming.”

 

The antinuclear consensus among environmental policy professionals does not extend to the grass roots. Rank-and-file environmentalists are divided on whether building new reactors can serve as an antidote to spiraling greenhouse gas emissions. While there is not quite a vocal grassroots green movement in favor of nuclear power, the ambivalence among many environmental activists shows that the nuclear industry’s hopes of convincing Americans to embrace atomic energy are not unwarranted.

A review of some of the most popular green news and opinion websites reveals a lively discussion about the merits of expanding nuclear power generation. For example, when Grist.org asked readers “In light of the mounting threat of climate change, does nuclear power deserve another look?” 54 percent of respondents said yes. A poll on Treehugger.com showed 59 percent of readers conditionally in favor of atomic energy.

Whenever the issue comes up in green forums, an energetic back-and-forth ensues. During one online discussion, a visitor to a blog hosted by Earthjustice wrote: “I have been an ardent foe of nuclear power generation for over three decades. . . . However, in the past two years I have reversed my position, and now support the building of a new generation of nuclear plants in the U.S.A. . . . Global warming is such a huge and imminent issue that I think we must now accept the lesser evil of nuclear power generation.”

When the subject came up on WorldChanging.com, readers were split roughly 50-50. One wrote: “Folks, the 100,000 year fear of nuclear waste . . . is a non sequitur when we hold the fate of our children’s future in our hands before 2040. . . . Centralized nuclear power is our children’s option and we have a responsibility to help them prepare for whatever they will have to do to survive.”

The willingness of some environmentalists to expand nuclear power production can be explained, in part, by the fact that the issue has been out of mainstream debate for so long. The environmental policy analysts’ arguments have not received a hearing from the public in decades. The industry’s arguments, on the other hand, have earned a great deal of attention lately. The nuclear industry’s media offensive has green groups playing catch-up.

“It’s difficult when you are going up against a well-financed PR campaign,” says Jim Riccio of Greenpeace USA, which opposes building new reactors, “especially when most of the major groups are focused on climate change right now, and not focused as much on nuclear power.”

The green grass roots’ interest in nuclear power can also be explained by demographics. For an entire generation of environmental advocates, nuclear power is an unknown. The vanguard of the environmental movement consists largely of college activists who have never had to confront the arguments for and against nuclear energy.

“The issue is off the radar for a lot of people,” says Tyler Dawson, a student at Ohio University and an executive committee member of the Sierra Student Coalition. “A lot of students, if they don’t understand how nuclear works, at least know there is a danger to it. But I’ve heard from a lot of students who say, ‘You know, Europe runs a lot of nuclear.’ They have heard that nuclear power doesn’t produce any greenhouse gas emissions.”

When he’s not studying for a degree in political science, Dawson is busy campaigning against the dirty practices of the coal industry. Until recently, nuclear politics did not touch his activism. Dawson was born in 1986, the same year as the Chernobyl disaster.

“I work with a lot of young people, and they don’t have the same kind of experience and memory of working with nuclear power,” says Matt Reitman, 24, a Syracuse University graduate now working for the Energy Justice Network. “They have never formed an opinion on the issue because they have never been confronted with the issue. So now they are saying, ‘I want to learn about it, I want to talk about it and hear the pros and cons.’ ”

Climate activists’ nuclear curiosity presents a challenge to the country’s environmental leadership. Thanks to its PR attack, the nuclear industry appears to have the rhetorical advantage for now. If the debate is carbon-heavy coal versus carbon-light nuclear, the atomic argument will win. The task facing the environmental movement, then, is to start a different discussion. Environmental groups need to shift the conversation away from an argument of specific carbon reduction strategies and toward a broader discussion about long-term ecological sustainability. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, that won’t be easy.

 

Embedded in the energy debate is a deeper discussion of expectations and ecology. That is, what kind of world do we want to live in?

The argument over nuclear power reveals a long-standing tension in the environmental movement between those who say there are technical fixes to the greenhouse gas challenge and others who believe that we need a wholesale restructuring of society if we are to avoid global meltdown. To embrace a new round of nuclear reactor construction is to say that we can have our climate and eat all the energy we want, too; it is, in some ways, maintenance of the status quo. To oppose nuclear power is to suggest that we need to reform the ways in which we live, for if we can find a way to create lifestyles that don’t demand as much electricity, then the nuclear question is moot.

The notion of reducing the United States’ energy usage is laughable to those in the energy industry. “We have never seen a decrease in electricity use,” Exelon’s Nesbit says. “To think otherwise is just putting your head in the sand. We can slow the growth of demand, but we are not going to reverse it.”

Many environmentalists, however, see reducing electricity use as the easiest, and cheapest, way to cut carbon emissions. For example, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has convincingly demonstrated that we can maintain many of our modern conveniences while using a fraction of the energy we currently expend.

The dilemma for environmental organizations is that the word conservation is sometimes interpreted to mean compromise—and asking Americans to sacrifice has become the untouchable third rail of U.S. environmentalism.

“If you say something like that [cutting back on energy consumption], you sound almost un-American,” Greenpeace’s Riccio says.

Asked whether energy conservation would require Americans to change their manner of living, the Sierra Club’s Dorner is careful to distance his organization from any suggestion of discomfort: “It’s about changing the backdrop as opposed to changing the fundamentals. Instead of people having a ton of lights on in their house that are wasting a ton of energy, they will have a lot of efficient lights on that are wasting less energy. . . . People will be able to continue living their lives without having to make big sacrifices.”

Other environmental activists aren’t so sure. They say that long-term sustainability—a vision that doesn’t include radioactive waste stored for hundreds of generations—will require some deeper changes. If we want to preserve the climate without relying on atomic energy, we will need to rethink our modes of transportation, our ways of eating, the size of our houses, and the generation and distribution of our energy.

 “As we make the arguments over nuclear energy, we’re about to reenter the historic debate about how power is structured,” says the Center for the American Dream’s Taylor. “If you look at the nuclear story in particular, it was always this utopian vision that we would take care of everything—we could have our American way of life and not worry about energy. When we got into that dream, it had some real darkness to it. . . . I do think we are coming back to the old celebration of self-reliance and alternative technology at the local level. If we have a future with less oil and less nuclear, we will live differently, with less stuff and less energy consumption, but with more joy and more security. But we will have to rethink the McMansions and the two SUVs in the garage.”

Energy Justice Network organizer Reitman agrees. “We are going to have to face some kind of cultural shift,” he says. “The culture we have created for ourselves, a society based on a lot of excess and consumerism, really has let a lot of people down. The prospect of getting together in a serious way as a country [to stop climate change] is a great opportunity to get back to the roots of what it means to be an American, which is to be neighborly. It’s a great way to reenergize our culture, as well as our economy and our power grid.”

That kind of vision makes nuclear power irrelevant. If we can reach a societal consensus that what we desire is a slower and smaller way of living, a reconceived notion of success, then we can fundamentally reformulate our energy system. In any discussion involving a redefinition of “progress,” nuclear power is not simply dangerous or dirty—it’s pointless. That’s a conversation the nuclear industry is unlikely to win.

 

Jason Mark is editor of Earth Island Journal, a publication of the environmental group Earth Island Institute. Mark is also coauthor, with Kevin Danaher and Shannon Biggs, of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007). Reprinted from Earth Island Journal (Autumn 2007). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues), includes institute membership, from 300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, CA 94133; www.earthisland.org.