Greens Still See Red on Nuclear Power

Major environmental groups are rejecting pleas from climate scientists to embrace reactors.

COVENTRY, ENGLAND - MARCH 19: Climatologist and NASA scientist Dr James Hansen poses next to a mock grave stone declaring 'Climate change-a matter of life or death' outside the ruins of Coventry Cathedral on March 19, 2009 in Coventry, England. The symobolic head stone is the first stage of a climate change campaign action day. Organisers Christian Aid, CAFOD and others will later take part in a New Orleans style funeral through the streets of Coventry. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Feb. 2, 2014, 8:14 a.m.

A lot of people fol­low­ing the on­go­ing fight over the Key­stone XL pipeline have heard the words of re­tired NASA cli­mate sci­ent­ist James Hansen.

It was Hansen who said fully ex­ploit­ing Canada’s oil sands would be “game over for the cli­mate,” a phrase that be­came a battle cry in the move­ment against the pipeline.

But while Hansen is a hero to many with­in the green move­ment, en­vir­on­ment­al groups are non­ethe­less hos­tile to an­oth­er Hansen view: that nuc­le­ar power is es­sen­tial to at­tack­ing cli­mate change as glob­al en­ergy de­mand rises.

Along with three oth­er prom­in­ent cli­mate sci­ent­ists, Hansen penned an open let­ter to en­vir­on­ment­al groups in Novem­ber about nuc­le­ar power, warn­ing that “con­tin­ued op­pos­i­tion … threatens hu­man­ity’s abil­ity to avoid dan­ger­ous cli­mate change” and ur­ging them to push for “de­vel­op­ment and de­ploy­ment of safer nuc­le­ar en­ergy sys­tems.”

No sale. Ma­jor groups such as the Si­erra Club, Green­peace, and the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil haven’t budged in their op­pos­i­tion to a nuc­le­ar build-out.

“The [Si­erra] Club re­cently re­viewed our en­tire en­ergy policy, in­clud­ing nuc­le­ar, and con­cluded that it is not only a bad deal for pub­lic safety and the en­vir­on­ment, but it also doesn’t work eco­nom­ic­ally,” said Mag­gie Kao, a spokes­wo­man for the Si­erra Club, one of the coun­try’s biggest and most polit­ic­ally in­flu­en­tial green groups.

The un­waver­ing op­pos­i­tion among sev­er­al ma­jor en­vir­on­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tions isn’t sit­ting well with Hansen, and he’s com­par­ing them to, yes, the very glob­al warm­ing skep­tics they of­ten lam­poon.

“It is ana­log­ous to cli­mate den­iers. Their minds are made up, facts don’t mat­ter much,” Hansen said in an email ex­change.

Hansen told Na­tion­al Journ­al he hasn’t had dis­cus­sions with green groups on the top­ic since he wrote the let­ter along with sci­ent­ists Ken Caldeira, Tom Wigley, and Kerry Emanuel.

“I can­not change their po­s­i­tion. That change will re­quire pres­sure from en­vir­on­ment­al­ists. People need to un­der­stand the situ­ation and put pres­sure on the en­vir­on­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tions, for ex­ample by with­hold­ing fin­an­cial sup­port un­til they be­come (hon­estly) open-minded and sci­entif­ic,” said Hansen, who left NASA last year but re­mains af­fil­i­ated with Columbia Uni­versity’s Earth In­sti­tute.

Hansen doesn’t think get­ting en­vir­on­ment­al groups to em­brace re­act­ors is a lost cause. “I am hope­ful that some of them are be­gin­ning to change, but it is too early to tell.”

He also be­lieves that there’s more sup­port among the green-minded than the form­al po­s­i­tions of en­vir­on­ment­al groups might sug­gest. “En­vir­on­ment­al groups and en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are two very dif­fer­ent en­tit­ies,” said Hansen, who first test­i­fied about glob­al warm­ing be­fore Con­gress in the 1980s.

“It seems to me that there are a lot of en­vir­on­ment­al­ists who are be­gin­ning to look in­to the facts and ap­pre­ci­ate the po­ten­tial en­vir­on­ment­al ad­vant­ages of in­tel­li­gent de­vel­op­ment of nuc­le­ar power,” he said, call­ing re­jec­tion of nuc­le­ar a de facto ac­cept­ance of hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing for gas and con­tin­ued re­li­ance on coal.

To be sure, there’s a long list of fin­an­cial and polit­ic­al bar­ri­ers to build­ing new re­act­ors in the United States.

Steve Kerekes, a spokes­man for the Nuc­le­ar En­ergy In­sti­tute, the in­dustry’s main trade group, said en­vir­on­ment­al op­pos­i­tion isn’t any­where near the biggest hurdle to build­ing the first new U.S. re­act­ors in dec­ades.

Even a ma­jor an­ti­nuc­lear group isn’t claim­ing that act­iv­ists are what’s hinder­ing the in­dustry’s long-hoped-for but slow-to-ma­ter­i­al­ize “renais­sance” of new U.S. con­struc­tion. “Wall Street and Main Street have both rightly aban­doned nuc­le­ar power,” said Jim Ric­cio, a nuc­le­ar-power ana­lyst with Green­peace.

The U.S. nat­ur­al-gas boom has driv­en down gas costs and helped make the fuel highly at­tract­ive to power com­pan­ies, while re­new­ables like wind and sol­ar — though still a very small frac­tion of U.S. elec­tri­city — are on the march too. The Ja­pan­ese nuc­le­ar dis­aster also put a spot­light on safety con­cerns.

And growth in U.S. power de­mand is slow, which Kerekes points to as a key reas­on why the num­ber of re­act­ors un­der de­vel­op­ment is at the lower end of the in­dustry’s earli­er fore­casts.

Just a small hand­ful of nuc­le­ar pro­jects are go­ing for­ward. Power com­pan­ies South­ern and SCANA are build­ing four new re­act­ors in Geor­gia and South Car­o­lina, while the Ten­ness­ee Val­ley Au­thor­ity is com­plet­ing con­struc­tion of a re­act­or that it had aban­doned in the late 1980s.

Would sup­port from green groups help spur de­vel­op­ment of more plants? “It couldn’t hurt,” Kerekes said.

Hansen ar­gues that an­ti­nuc­lear act­iv­ists have “surely” been a key factor be­hind the slow pace of new re­act­or de­vel­op­ment.

Right now nuc­le­ar plants provide roughly one-fifth of U.S. elec­tri­city. The En­ergy De­part­ment’s stat­ist­ic­al arm, in a re­cent fore­cast, pre­dicted that nuc­le­ar’s share will ac­tu­ally dip in com­ing years and then rise after 2025 as more gen­er­at­ing ca­pa­city comes on­line.

But the in­crease won’t be enough to make nuc­le­ar a big­ger part of the over­all U.S. mix. The de­part­ment pre­dicts that nuc­le­ar plants will sup­ply 16 per­cent of U.S. power in 2040. Kao, the Si­erra Club spokes­wo­man, said the nuc­le­ar ar­gu­ment is a sideshow. “Out­side of a couple nuc­le­ar plants, noth­ing is mov­ing for­ward, and this is only a live de­bate for pun­dits and in­dustry lob­by­ists,” she said.

“I don’t know when our next as­sess­ment will be, but the eco­nom­ics, pub­lic safety, and en­vir­on­ment­al factors go­ing against nukes seem un­likely to change for some time,” Kao ad­ded in an email.

However, a few con­trari­an en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are con­tinu­ing to try and move the needle on nuc­le­ar en­ergy. They ar­gue that it’s a cru­cial tool to bring the re­duc­tions in car­bon emis­sions needed to avoid the most dan­ger­ous warm­ing scen­ari­os. New re­act­or tech­no­lo­gies, they say, mit­ig­ate the safety risks and ad­dress waste prob­lems.

The 2013 doc­u­ment­ary Pan­dora’s Prom­ise makes the case for nuc­le­ar power on cli­mate grounds. The film in­cludes pro­nuc­lear com­ment­ary from Mi­chael Shel­len­ber­ger, cofounder of the Break­through In­sti­tute, an en­vir­on­ment­al think tank prone to telling big green groups that, ba­sic­ally, they’re do­ing it wrong.

Ted Nord­haus, Break­through’s cofounder, said en­vir­on­ment­al groups’ hos­til­ity to­ward nuc­le­ar power gives them a big cred­ib­il­ity prob­lem when it comes to of­fer­ing a “plaus­ible path to mit­ig­ate emis­sions.”

But he also sees a subtle shift. “We’re not hear­ing much of the old scare tac­tics about low-level ra­di­ation ex­pos­ure and melt­downs but now greens are just doub­ling down on the eco­nom­ic ar­gu­ments,” Nord­haus, the group’s chair­man, said in an email. “This, sadly, still con­sti­tutes pro­gress.”

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