Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben insists that nuclear is a nonstarter

Headshot of Bill McKibben

photo by Nancie Battaglia

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As the author of the first major book on global warming, The End of Nature (Random House, 1989), Bill McKibben is a well-respected voice in the environmental movement. His recent book Deep Economy (Times Books, 2007) challenges the ideal of unlimited growth and proposes a future in which we return to localized economies and energy generation. McKibben has considered, and largely rejected, nuclear power as a part of this future. He shared his views on the subject with Utne Reader.


Why is nuclear back on the table?

Because it’s low-carbon—and that’s the only reason. Everybody’s scrambling to find low-carbon sources of power, and nuclear fits that part of the bill.

You write in Deep Economy that the global warming situation is so desperate that “it’s wrong to rule anything out,” including nuclear power.

It’s wrong to rule anything out, including cosmic rays from outer space. The problem is that we have to make an enormous change in a short period of time and with limited resources. So the question becomes, where do you get the biggest bang for your buck? Analysis of risk changes over time, so you might say at this point that the risks presented by a nuclear power plant are smaller than those presented by a coal-fired power plant. One has a huge risk of something going wrong; the other has a guarantee of something going wrong, that is, the disruption of the earth’s climate system.

I don’t think that nuclear power is going to be an important part of the solution, because the biggest risk it carries is an opportunity risk: The time and attention and money that we would waste pursuing nuclear power would give us two, three, or four times the carbon bang for the buck doing other things. The only reason we’re pursuing nuclear power is that there are people who stand to make a great deal of money from it, especially if they can get the government to subsidize all the potential downsides for them.

Is nuclear energy a divisive issue in the environmental community?

I don’t think there is that much ferocious debate about it. Much of the support for nuclear power comes from people who haven’t looked at it closely and tend to have an engineering background and like big engineering solutions to things. Most environmentalists I know aren’t particularly interested in nuclear power. They’re working on other things that show more promise because they’re taking a very utilitarian view of what needs to be done.

The first thing to do in our society for the next 20 years that can fruitfully occupy all the money we can throw at it—much more fruitfully than nuclear power—is energy conservation. That’s cheap. The only problem is that nobody stands to get really rich from it.

You write in Deep Economy about nuclear fitting neatly into the government’s scheme that favors large, centralized power plants rather than smaller-scale, more local energy sources.

One of the big tragedies of nuclear power is that it is an effort to prolong for another generation or two the idea of centralized, large-scale power plants instead of the much more supple and durable and logical system of what engineers now call distributed generation. That’s where the big trend really is. Amory Lovins [of the Rocky Mountain Institute energy think tank] has studied the economics of nuclear versus distributed generation and concludes that markets left to their own devices are placing all their bets on distributed generation and none on nuclear power.