Atomic Dreams

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

| January / February 2008

  • Nuclear Power

  • 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.

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. Revisit the complex issue and update your nuclear power information.

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 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!

Facebook Instagram Twitter

click me