What is the Future for Eco-Pessimists and Pro-Nuke Greens?

By Keith Kloor | April 29, 2014 12:32 am

George Monbiot, Britain’s most popular environmental writer, has arrested himself. Four prominent climate scientists recently issued a pleading letter to greens to stop opposing nuclear power.

And now an influential non-profit that for years has focused on climate change is all but begging that we not close down aging nuclear reactors. What the hell is going on?

I can’t wait for James Hansen and his fellow pro-nuclear, climate-concerned greens to face off against the anti-nuclear, climate-concerned greens outside one such aging nuclear power plant that a popular Democratic governor wants to shut down. Imagine this scene: The pro-nuke climate activists chaining themselves to the fence of the nuclear plant, protesting in favor of carbon-free nuclear power.

Or imagine this: A joint statement from the Group of Ten–a loose network consisting of the biggest, most established environmental organizations–vowing to enthusiastically embrace nuclear power to help solve the climate problem. (Why a joint statement? Because no major green group is likely to go out on a limb by itself.) Perhaps the foundation for such a large-scale conversion is being established with the steady drip of individual converts.

Or maybe not, CNN suggested last year:

Are we witnessing the birth of a mutiny within the environmental movement? Will typical 21st-century environmentalists eventually embrace the power of the atom? A leading environmental group opposed to nuclear power says no.

“I don’t think it’s very significant that a few people have changed their minds about nuclear power,” said Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Well, it’s more than a few people, but I take his point.

Let’s be honest. At this stage, the green movement is somewhat like the Democratic party just before Bill Clinton became president: Stale, rudderless, and unable to offer a compelling vision for the future. (The collapse of civilization has a nice ring to it, but it’s no I have a dream.) If environmentalists had been wise, they would have spent the green-friendly Obama years reinventing their brand. (If Radio Shack can do it, anyone can.) Instead, they’ve been content to snarl at the usual enemies (say no to oil and gas! ) and coalesce around climate change as the movement’s signature issue of the day. What has that vision for the future looked like?

Don’t worry, there’s still time to avoid imminent planetary collapse, kinda, sorta. But only if we act now! (The above image is from this cheery learning module.) You get the gist.

Look, I’m not sure if pro-nuclear greens will ever overcome the fright factor of a technology that includes the occasional Fukushima. But if eco-pessimists continue to shape the green message, painting a relentlessly grim portrait of the future, then I wouldn’t expect people to rally around that, either.

Besides, that’s the picture (over-population, global famines, ecocide, etc) that’s been painted over the past forty years. The shock value of it has worn off.

It’s time to paint a new picture.

  • Russell

    I find it a bit strange that those environmentalists are coming in favor of nuclear power now. It stacked up much better in the past. Modern renewables are now cheaper and easier to install. Wind power is cheaper than new nukes almost everywhere in the world, and in China, a country that is pro-nuke, wind has overtaken and extended its lead in terms of the amount of electricity produced.
    The most recent evidence all points to renewables being easier to scale than nukes. Yes that wasn’t the case 10 years ago, or perhaps 5 buts irrelevant now.

    Sure opposing nukes isn’t a good idea but saying they are somehow essential just isn’t true anymore. If you have a finite amount of money which you do, then it is better spent on renewables.

    • Michael Cugley

      The main problem with Wind and Solar is that they’re unpredictable. You can’t tell how much energy you’re going to get today, or a week on Tuesday. We *also* need a carbon-free power source that is reliable and constant. And nuclear fits that bill rather nicely.

      • Russell

        Battery storage solves the reliability issue. Wind/solar + battery is reliable and constant
        There are many battery companies that expect to ship commercial quantities in the next few years at a reasonable price:
        e.g. http://www.eosenergystorage.com/technology-and-products/

        Wind/solar doesn’t need any storage until it gets over 30% say and battery storage will very likely be ready much before then.
        Its likely if you want the cheapest baseload asap then wind + battery will likely be cheaper and built faster than a new nuke from start to finish even though the batteries havn’t been mass produced yet because nuke plants take so long to build.

        Do you have any calculations or estimates on the itmeframe for nukes to scale up to the size necessary? its something like 100GW completed that needs to be added to the grid annually. Even optimistic nuke scenarios seem to be decades away from that.

        • JH

          Elon Musk recently floated the idea of a massive battery factory to supply Tesla. The reason? Batteries aren’t making the progress he expected. He desperately needs some kind of unanticipated economy of scale or technical innovation to fall out of the process of bringing battery production into a single facility, or Tesla will remain an expensive oddity.

          I doubt batteries will contribute anything significant to the grid for a decade or more, if then.

        • Bearpants42

          Energy storage capability and environmental impact issues continue to plague energy storage plans. Batteries that use rare-earth metals are tremendously dirty for the Earth, and we will need a huge leap in technology in order to use them on a wide-scale. Additionally, nuclear is going to be needed for areas where there is not enough sunlight or wind to generate sufficient power.

        • Tom Scharf

          This is a bit of an optimistic view, and quite unrealistic. You believe nuclear power replacing existing base load is harder than solar/wind? Hmmmmm……

          Storage hasn’t been solved. It’s not even close. Have you ever looked at how big a battery needs to be to power Chicago over night? It’s not a D-cell.

          Intermittency and the requirement for base load backup are still the Achilles heel here, and not much progress has been made. It has been “5 years away” for the last 20 years.

          • Russell

            It doesn’t sound like you have looked at the latest in battery storage. EOS plans to mass produce this year or next, and so does Ambri. Thats not 5 years away. Anyway its pretty clear it won’t be believed by skeptics until they actually do so little point in trying to argue further.

          • Tom Scharf

            Do you have any idea how many battery tech announcements have been made over the last 10 years only to fizzle out to inability to scale, manufacture, or other problems? Super capacitors, nano tech, etc. I’m not rooting against storage, I’m all for it. There is huge money to be made in improved battery tech. It’s a hard problem. But yes, I’ll believe it when I see it.

      • Ben

        Nuclear power is not Carbon Free. In order to get the required material to keep the power plant going you need to mine millions of cubic feet to find enough ore, then you need to refine it to a more useful concentration, both of which require fossil fuels. Also the waste products of nuclear power plants are endemic
        problems, what do we do with the waste? Wind power and Solar power are far less problematic than nuclear power. You can compensate for the lack of power at one location or other by having more locations, also offshore wind power is another method that can compensate for the lack of land based wind. If we keep working on those techniques we won’t have anything to worry about.

    • Christopher Willis

      The IEA disagree and suggests the nuclear will be one of the larger options for a significant period of time.

      http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/media/weowebsite/2013/energyclimatemap/RedrawingEnergyClimateMap.pdf

      And IPCC says pretty much the same, that we need to triple nuclear over the course of the next decades…that is a lot of nuclear power.

  • David Skurnick

    If the climate catastrophists are right, then we must urgently develop wind and solar and nuclear energy. It’s not a case of one or the other. Even all three together may not allow us to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent disaster. This assumes that people aren’t willing to reduce our overall energy consumption, which does seem to be the case.
    In calling for nuclear development, Hansen and his ilk are being consistent. People who preach climate disaster, but who recommend inadequate response, just aren’t paying attention to the numbers.

    • WilliamAshbless

      Canadian Green Party change their mind on nuclear power
      https://www.greenparty.ca/new-members/topic/288970

    • Smarter than Your Average Bear

      Exactly – I admit I’m a climate pessimist, I don’t think we are going to survive this crisis, not because it’s too late to halt the build up (although it might be) but because I don’t see the politicians taking action soon enough (if at all). That, however, doesn’t mean I believe we should give up, Fighting to our dying breath is a hallmark of our species and why, outside of blind luck, we have survived this long. We need to do whatever we can to fight this – go with nukes and everything else and worry about what to do with the nuclear wastes later.

  • JH

    The nuclear issue is a very difficult one. Overall, if nuclear power production and waste can be managed safely, nukes have the smallest environmental footprint.

    Nuke plants in the US are being operated safely. But we have no established method or facilities to store waste from nuclear power production. Lots of ideas on how to do it, none of which are technically proven: we have the half-completed and now closed facility at Yucca Mountain, and the incessantly delayed and technically-plagued vitrification plant at Hanford, WA. The technical feasibility of waste storage and remediation is so bad that the Feds recently balked at an agreement proposed by Washington State to finish cleanup at Hanford by 2048.

    If we can’t even agree on a process and site to remediate and store the waste we have, I can’t see how we can go forward with a major increase in nuclear power.

    Obviously, Hansen thinks the risk of nuclear contamination is less than the risk of climate disaster. IMO, climate effects are mostly subject to remediation but, as Chernobyl shows, nuclear disasters aren’t.

    • Bearpants42

      The newest generations of nuclear reactors generate less waste than plants built 60 years ago. It’s important to note that many criticisms of nuclear power are based on the incorrect assumption that the technology hasn’t advanced since the 1960s. Will waste be an issue moving forward? yes. However, it’s much easier to deal with concentrated nuclear waste than it is continuing to spew radioactive coal dust into the atmosphere where there is no containment at all.

      • JH

        “It’s important to note that many criticisms of nuclear power are based
        on the incorrect assumption that the technology hasn’t advanced since
        the 1960s.”

        But my criticism isn’t based on that. It’s based on the fact that there is no proven technology to store N waste and that no such technology is on the horizon – with the closing of the Yucca Mountain site, we’re actually going backwards on this problem.

        Indeed reprocessing waste reduces the amount of waste that must be stored and extracts more energy from the waste. That’s great, but we still need a waste storage facility. If we were even making progress in the right direction, I’d be much happier.

        “continuing to spew radioactive coal dust into the atmosphere”

        I assume you mean “radioactive” in a metaphorical sense? The amount of actual radioactivity in coal dust is so small it’s irrelevant.

        • gcowan49

          “The amount of actual radioactivity in coal dust is so small it’s irrelevant” — true, but over a 30-year period, the world’s coal-burners have emitted about as much as Fukushima.

          • JH

            And if that much was spread over the surface of the earth, would it even be detectable? :)

    • Tom Scharf

      We can’t agree on nuclear waste removal because of the same mindless opposition that exists against nuclear power to begin with. Burying it deep underground in Nevada poses little threat to society. Transportation paranoia is replaced with the status quo where we have spent nuclear rods distributed at multiple sites where they are more difficult to protect and pose an even greater threat of an accident. It’s mental.

      The best argument against nuclear is cost. Gas is now significantly cheaper than nuclear. Could improved nuke plants be stamped out assembly line style for a cheaper implementation, probably.

      The debate on nuclear is played out on emotional and moral grounds. Nuke power = Nuke bombs = radiation = scary.

      For the greens, it is always a hard question to answer as they seem to be saying that the risk from nuclear power is greater than the professed certainty of planetary doom from CO2 emissions. It doesn’t add up. Hansen may be a bit loopy, but at least his logic is consistent.

      • JH

        Whether the waste situation is a political problem or not isn’t really relevant. The point is that there’s no operating storage facility, and there’s not a lot of room for hope that one will be available soon.

        • gcowan49

          No operating storage facility? It must be causing a lot of public deaths and injuries, then, harms that correspond to those caused by carbon monoxide and by coal ash heaps.

          (It has of course caused none. But it has deprived governments of trillions of dollars in fossil fuel tax revenue, millions of dollars per life saved, and somehow a lot of people are willing to say very odd things about it. Guess what: the world is full of nuclear waste storage facilities, including those seen at http://goo.gl/maps/gDwia and at https://www.dropbox.com/s/o6mrb62bfe8seww/uww.jpg .)

          • JH

            “Guess what: the world is full of nuclear waste storage facilities”

            Sure, I can store it in my back yard too if you want. I have a shed.

            Spare me the Save-The-Polar-Bear Just-so stories.

  • newstat

    I’m linking here to the BGR’s latest estimates of global fossil fuel resources and reserves. http://j.mp/FF_RR_2013

    • JH

      Well said.

  • Tom Scharf

    Throwing some red meat to the skeptics today? Chomp. Chomp. Ha ha.

    If you ask what have the greens accomplished over the past two decades, does anything immediately come to mind? In the 70’s saving the whale worked out, but eliminating nuclear power fell to the law of unintended consequences. The irony here is hard to overstate.

    Environmentalism is a victim of their own success, which has been significant over the past 50 years. There just aren’t that many high level environmental hazards to protest in the West anymore. Gotta protest something…we’ve always hated the fossil fuel industry…let’s invent a scenario where they are dooming the planet somehow.

    I wonder what else could have been accomplished with all the money that has been thrown into the climate change money pit. Lobbying, public outreach, conferences, communication “research”, ethanol, supercomputers for a bunch of different climate models, etc. What a monumental waste for the most part.

    Aren’t there any Snowy Owls left to protect?

  • WilliamAshbless

    I think the original environmentalist argument against nuclear power was a rebellion against “energy too cheap to meter”[1] based on the idea that: If we are to live in harmony with nature we can’t have cheap energy – it encourages us to consume more not less. Renewables were based on having just enough hard to get energy. It made sense when powering a few frugal greens . Most people are not greens and won’t be cutting down their energy consumption much. When trying to power an industrial civilization renewables are senseless. Wind, solar, and tidal collect energy from very dilute energy sources (compared to fossil fuels and nuclear power). Consequently, huge resources must be turned into collection devices and vast land areas used to farm energy from nature. Combine that with the abomination that is biomass, and I can understand why there’d be a backlash against renewable technologies. I think more environmentalists will turn to nuclear power as they come to recognize just how destructive renewables are to the environment.

    Note: [1]: Amory Lovins, himself, never obsessed with radiation danger. Likewise, when I was a peace activist in the early 1980s most of my fellow activists were environmentalists. Our argument against nuclear power was that it only existed to allow the authorities to make atom bombs. After Chernobyl, the arguments focused far more on risk. 28 years later, we know just how wrong the science, based on LNT, was in predicting widespread harm from radiation. Mainstream science went wrong in accepting LNT: linear no-threshold model of harm. New findings continue to expose flaws in LNT: “Chronic exposure to low-dose radiation at Chernobyl favors adaptation to oxidative stress in birds”, Functional Ecology http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2435.12283/abstract

  • Fryd001

    Just scroll through the headlines at Enenews dot com to learn what happens when nuclear energy goes wrong.

    Very eye-opening!

    • Christopher Willis

      You are looking at horrible sources of information then, might as well go to wattsupwiththat for climate issues.

  • Fryd001

    The U.S. already uses twice as much Renewable Energy as nuclear energy.

    The U.S. is quietly very successful with Renewable Energy.

    Every state can be powered by ENTIRELY by Renewable Energy according to www thesolutionsproject dot org

    • JH

      “The U.S. already uses twice as much Renewable Energy as nuclear energy.”

      95% of which is hydro? :)

  • J M

    It would be stupid to see Greens simply as prophets of doom. The fear-mongering serves the economic interests of two growing industries, organic food and renewable energy. Environmentalists were instrumental in creating these industries.

    In Europe, Greens have been successful in promoting subsidies in EU CAP for organic farming. Organic farms receive on average 100% more subsidies than conventional farms. CAP budget is 55 billion euros. The European subsidies for solar PV alone amount to hundreds of billions of euros.

    There are loads of money to be made by supporting those spreading misinformation about nuclear power and GMOs. Vote Green!

  • JH

    “The shock value of it has worn off.”

    No doubt. So when the greens suddenly want to rush to nuclear, why are they any more credible than when they wanted to kill nuclear three decades ago and have since wanted to kill every other form of energy – including hydro – except solar and wind? :) And when they want to rush to solar and wind, is it safe to presume that they’ve thoroughly studied the matter and have wisely foreseen and rationally balanced all the potential outcomes? :)

    The lesson here is that greens rush to the whatever the supposed solution is to the scare of the moment. Their solutions are usually short-sighted responses to fear, not rational assessments of the situation at hand, much less rational assessments that acknowledge the tremendous uncertainties in predicting future technological and market developments and physical and ecological responses to changes in complex systems.

    Which leaves us right back where we started. In light of the fact that we can’t predict the future, why would we dump immense resources into forcing uneconomic technologies to market?

    Mr. Market wins after all. Isn’t that what greens really hate?

  • Paul Davidson

    “He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense” John McCarthy (Stanford). Case in point, renewable energy accounted for 9% of the total energy we used in 2012, of that 9%, hydro power was 30%, wood was 22%, bio-fuels was 22%, wind was 5%, and solar was 2%. Wind and solar as much as I like them just isn’t the solution to replace the total carbon based energy we consume, the only viable non-carbon based solution to such orders of power is nuclear.

  • http://cendax.wordpress.com/ Norbrook

    One correction for you, Keith. It’s the Democratic Party, not the Democrat Party.

  • Matthew Slyfield

    “What is the Future for Eco-Pessimists and Pro-Nuke Greens?”

    Right or wrong, they have no future.

    If they are right, no one has a future. If they are wrong, then eventually, people will wake up to that fact and they personally have no future.

  • Safely001

    Just scroll through the headlines on Enenews dot com to learn what happens when nuclear energy goes wrong.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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