Atomic Dreams

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


| January / February 2008



Nuclear Power

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.

john morgan
9/20/2012 3:49:28 AM

Going the conservation route to reducing CO2 will take generations just like it has taken 100 years to produce all the urban sprawl of North America. When I last attended a public meeting to reduce automobile use the main door of the place it was held was locked and I had to weave through cars with alrams going off because owners are too lazy to lock the doors manually - let alone travel the few blocks on foot as I did - yet the majority of those people who drive to the corner store in my city (Ottawa which is despite the rhetoric very much an American donut) think nuclear is not the solution to society's energ problems problems , not realizing one alternative - conservation - is not going to happen soon - given they cannot leave their vehicles behind for a trip of under a few kilometres and that the other alternative - coal - is an industry where every other months hundreds of people die in mining accidents (while Fukushima has not resulted in a single direct death and Chernobyl killed under 50.


greenhope_2
2/17/2010 10:02:57 PM

Our first knee-jerk reaction to Obama's recent decision to build the first US nuclear power plant in 30 years was "no more nukes!" To some, nuclear power is the face of the future; to others the ticking time bomb of the past. Are the facts that you know three decades out of date? We were surprised to find out ours were. Published author and EcoHearth staff writer, Steven Kotler, examines the evolution of nuclear technology and explains the new generation of nuclear power that is cleaner, safer and less vulnerable to terrorist attack in Meltdown or Mother Lode: The New Truth About Nuclear Power. http://tinyurl.com/yjfheb4 Revisit the complex issue and update your nuclear power information.


mistydawn
2/2/2008 12:00:00 AM

"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." I'm glad to see the author state what most environmentalists appear to be avoiding. Most people don't want to make do with less material goods. I suppose that's human nature... bigger, better, faster, more... but I think it's also our downfall. Recently I checked out Treehugger.com for the first time. I thought it sounded like a site a could relate to. The first thing I saw on the site was a cooler with wheels and a motor attached. If this is what "green" means to people, I want no part of it!


poor journalism
1/29/2008 12:00:00 AM

From the article: "Nuclear plants could reduce the need for waste storage by “reprocessing” the fuel, but that would create weapons-grade radioactive material." My understanding is that during fuel reprocessing the waste is reduced by re-refining it into more usable nuclear fuel. The concern, and reason Carter banned the facilities in the 70's, was that the same equipment can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium/uranium. The article is misleading when it states weapons-grade material is a necessary by-product. The issue is a security/control one.


tom owens
1/9/2008 12:00:00 AM

I've given nuclear a lot of thought. I'm not so much against it as I am against fighting it. The worst danger is doing nothing and I fear a stalemate in which we neither build nuclear power plants nor develop alternatives and conservation. Those of us who are concerned ab out global warming, cannot use up our energy preventing something. We need to use all our energy to develop another way. The danger or nuclear power lies in things might possibly happen. The greater danger is global warming and the things that definitely will happen if we don't do enough.


randal leavitt
12/27/2007 12:00:00 AM

An objective review of the available data has certainly convinced me that nuclear power is safe, clean, reliable, sustainable, inexpensive, and has a lot of potential for even more progress in all these areas. It holds the promise of a significant step forward, leading to a world wide improvement in everyone's standard of living. That is what I have concluded after spending the last five years studying it. This obvious finding leaves us in a delicate situation - how to assuage the guilt and embarrassment of the green celebrities who have delayed its introduction, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths as a result of coal combustion pollution and coal mining, and perhaps even pushing the planet past the brink in its global heating crisis. These people were well intentioned, I believe, and definitely energetic. But they were wrong. What will they do now? Will they dig in, and keep coming up with ever more extreme and unbelievable justifications for their destructive leadership, or will they change and now try to do the right thing? I really hope that they choose change, along with the evidence based reasoning, scientific knowledge, and inclusive compassion that is needed. But you can't always get what you want. So here we have Mr. Mark digging in. His first shovel full throws out the myth that nuclear power is the same as big central government. Sorry, this is just not so. Nuclear power can be produced using small systems in a widely distributed pattern. In fact this is exactly what is happening in South Africa. Why is this approach going so slowly there? Answer: fanatical opposition from greens. So the greens oppose nuclear power because they say it looks like big centralized government, and then when it does not look like big central government they oppose it anyway. This is disingenuous. It is just this kind of twisting and verbal squirming that has totally put me off. Falsely categorizing nuclear power as forcing centralized


rod adams
12/26/2007 12:00:00 AM

The 104 nuclear power plants that are currently operating in the US produce about 780 terawatt-hours each year. That is the energy equivalent of more than 4 million barrels of oil per day and represents 20% of the electricity produced and consumed in the US. Essentially all of the construction for those plants took place in just 30 years between 1963 and 1993. When those plants were started, the world had little experience in constructing and operating large nuclear plants. Engineers and draftsmen did design work using T-squares, compasses, paper and slide rules. The resulting plants are now operating with an average capacity factor of more than 90% (that is flat out for about 7900 hours per year out of a possible 8760). Most of them will operate for at least 60 years. The average production cost from those plants is 1.72 cents per kilowatt hour while the average production cost from coal is 2.37, natural gas is 6.75 and petroleum is 9.63. Wind power from huge wind farms costs in excess of 7 cents (once the production tax credit is included back into the costs) and small wind and solar systems produce unreliable power that costs in excess of 20 cents per kilowatt hour under any reasonable assumption for interest costs on the initial investment. The waste products from atomic fission have been safely handled for more than fifty years without a known incident anywhere in the world where a person was injured by accidental exposure to the high level waste. The really good news is that the used fuel still contains about 95-97% of its original potential energy and we KNOW how to recycle that fuel to produce more energy and other useful products. Why do many people who are terribly concerned about the impending disaster of global warming advocate ignoring the potential of atomic fission? As a former submarine Engineer Officer, I have an intimate and personal understanding of the fact that atomic fission power plants are very useful in closed e


rod adams
12/26/2007 12:00:00 AM

The 104 nuclear power plants that are currently operating in the US produce about 780 terawatt-hours each year. That is the energy equivalent of more than 4 million barrels of oil per day and represents 20% of the electricity produced and consumed in the US. Essentially all of the construction for those plants took place in just 30 years between 1963 and 1993. When those plants were started, the world had little experience in constructing and operating large nuclear plants. Engineers and draftsmen did design work using T-squares, compasses, paper and slide rules. The resulting plants are now operating with an average capacity factor of more than 90% (that is flat out for about 7900 hours per year out of a possible 8760). Most of them will operate for at least 60 years. The average production cost from those plants is 1.72 cents per kilowatt hour while the average production cost from coal is 2.37, natural gas is 6.75 and petroleum is 9.63. Wind power from huge wind farms costs in excess of 7 cents (once the production tax credit is included back into the costs) and small wind and solar systems produce unreliable power that costs in excess of 20 cents per kilowatt hour under any reasonable assumption for interest costs on the initial investment. The waste products from atomic fission have been safely handled for more than fifty years without a known incident anywhere in the world where a person was injured by accidental exposure to the high level waste. The really good news is that the used fuel still contains about 95-97% of its original potential energy and we KNOW how to recycle that fuel to produce more energy and other useful products. Why do many people who are terribly concerned about the impending disaster of global warming advocate ignoring the potential of atomic fission? As a former submarine Engineer Officer, I have an intimate and personal understanding of the fact that atomic fission power plants are very useful in closed e


david eisenberg
12/22/2007 12:00:00 AM

In the ongoing debate about nuclear power, we constantly are told that nuclear power is carbon-free, has no carbon footprint, and that it offers the only real solution to energy generation at a scale that could address our growing energy needs. The article makes that point that because it ten years or more to build a nuclear power plant, any climate benefit will not start until around 2020 for the first new plants to come on line. The reality is worse. When you realize the enormity of the carbon footprint of building the hundreds of nuclear plants required, as well as from the mining and transporation and processing and reprocessing of the fuel needed to power them, you see that we would be adding a gigantic carbon spike for the next fifteen to twenty years - using up valuable petroleum and other finite resources, long before we would get ANY climate benefit. It not only takes 10 or 12 years to get these things built and up and running, but they aren't carbon neutral for years - they have to repay the carbon that was put in the atmosphere in order to get them up and running and even when they are up and running, they are still not carbon neutral because operating them requires a lot of other systems and processes that are not solely energy-related. To say that this is a solution is ludicrous for a problem that needs to be solved in the next decade or two at best. Then, you add in the insanity of the economics, particularly with so much steel, cement, other metals and resources flowing to China and India, which is already driving up the cost of construction for such plants to two or three times the projected costs, and questions about peaking uranium supplies, terrorism, waste storage, and the vulnerability of an ever more centralized power system and the fact that these things produce the most toxic substance known to man in great quantities doesn't even have to be brought into the conversation. This is the legacy solution for ou


k. barsotti
12/20/2007 12:00:00 AM

I bought Utne Reader just for the article on nuclear power. What a disappointment! 1. The concern over waste is a valid one, especially transportation, but the French method seems to be working well. Around 75% of their energy is nuclear. They vitrify the waste and have a staging process for security and storage. Evidently, it's secure, affordable, and working. If it's not, your article should have addressed their failures or obstacles. We have a model to examine and should do so, for our own understanding. 2. Some people quoted in the article made disparaging comments about engineers or the nuclear industry, as being interested only in making money or in engineering solutions. One could just as easily reply that environmentalists are only interested in environmental solutions. Of course these firms want to make money, but they have to make bids and be accountable for meeting reasonable costs. Engineering firms also, typically, do not have an outrageous rate of return on their efforts, just a respectable one. The businesses is cyclical, expensive, and complex. Other industries do less and make more in profit. 3. The article was long on vision and short on details. I was interested to learn more about conserving energy as the main way of reducing emissions. All for it. But how do you enforce such a measure? A few examples would have been quite enlightening. Just saying that we should make sacrifices and re-think our entire society might be laudable, but it's also frustrating. Such wholesale changes tend to be driven by costs, when the current lifestyle is too expensive, or from health, when the current lifestyle becomes deadly. Or from legislation, from laws and penalties. OK. Fine. What, exactly, is your suggestion for taking that approach? Is there some sort of truly realistic plan out there? If it's all about local solutions, how does the entire nation embrace a new way of life? One of the reasons that I dislike readin