Fissures related to nuclear energy are developing in the monolithic movement known as Environmentalism. The Breakthrough Institute has published a good introduction to the schism titled The Great Green Meltdown: How Economic Arguments Against Nuclear Highlight Environmentalist Delusions.
Though this is a simplification, it is generally accurate to describe two sides of the movement that are separating with increasing speed.
One side is led by people that have full time employment — with pensions, health care, and career paths — in major non governmental organizations (NGOs) that long ago declared an official position in opposition to nuclear energy. The professionals — especially the professionals that are engaged in the specific task known as “development” (aka fund raising) — are aware that a substantial portion of their donor base is strongly opposed to the use of nuclear energy. They worry that those donors may reduce their giving if the group stops campaigning against the use of nuclear energy or stops taking action designed to discourage its active development and growth.
Most “rank and file” members of the major environmental organizations do not think deeply about each position taken by the organizations that they have joined; they have many competing demands on their time. For them, membership in the group is a result of general agreement about the stated mission and perhaps group affinity and friendships developed over many years of pleasant community-based activities. They usually trust the leaders and the official positions of the groups they have chosen to join, so they remain opposed to nuclear energy because their leaders and friends remain opposed.
On the other side of the growing gulf are people who care so much about the cleanliness and health of the environment that they devote a large portion of their time, talent and wealth to finding ways to address many of the ills imposed by human society. They have questioning attitudes, engage in research, and are willing to question the statements of the organizational professionals.
Many of the people on this side have become convinced that one of the most important issues of our time is the threat to human society posed by the uncertain effects of continuing to add more than 30 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every single year. They are also concerned about some of the other challenges associated with the effort to provide reliable energy supplies to a large and growing population of fellow human beings. An increasing number of people on this side of environmentalism have decided that nuclear energy is a capable tool whose use should be encouraged, and whose value cannot be dismissed.
The people I know on the pronuclear side of environmentalism are active scientists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, or academics whose careers are associated with environmental issues, but whose income is not from environmental organizations.
Aside: For those who have developed short attention spans or who enjoy interspersing visual and audio information with your reading material, I thought it might be a good time for a little break. One of my correspondents, Gordon McDowell, has created a tight, creatively edited montage that provides a good summary of the reasons why some environmentally concerned people have become strong nuclear energy advocates. The fundamental reason is that they have recognized that the benefits of using nuclear energy substantially outweigh the cost of using nuclear energy, which are measured in far more than dollars. They have also compared the cost of using nuclear energy to the cost of all other alternatives and decided that nuclear is one of the best available options.
Over the past several months, I’ve been closely following the controversy between the environmentally concerned who favor nuclear energy and the professional Environmentalists who are defending their organizational position against the expanded use of nuclear energy. Here are links to important pieces establishing various positions in this discussion:
Eduardo Porter, New York Times (August 20, 2013) Coming Full Circle in Energy, to Nuclear
Christopher Paine, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) (August 21, 2013) NRDC Response to “Coming Full Circle in Energy, to Nuclear,” by Eduardo Porter, New York Times, August 21, 2013
James Hansen, Tom Wigley, Ken Caldiera, Kerry Emanuel (November 3, 2013) Open Letter: To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power
Kevin Begos, Huffington Post (November 3, 2013) Nuclear Power Needed To Slow Climate Change, Experts Say
John Upton, Grist (November 3, 2013) More nukes: James Hansen leads call for “safer nuclear” power to save climate
Dale Bryk, NRDC (November 5, 2013) Response to an Open Letter on the Future of Nuclear Power
Ralph Cavannah and Tom Cochran (both from NRDC), Special to CNN (November 6, 2013) Nuclear energy film overstates positives, underplays negatives
Frances Bienecke, NRDC (November 7, 2013) The Clean Energy Way to Fight Climate Change
Allison Willmore, IndieWire (November 7, 2013) Why Divisive Pro-Nuclear Power Film ‘Pandora’s Promise’ is the Right Kind of Doc for CNN to Air
Naomi Oreskes, New York Times op-ed (November 14, 2013) We Need a New Manhattan Project
Ben Heard, Decarbonise SA (November 18, 2013) No right to deny. No time to delay.
Eduardo Porter, New York Times (November 19, 2013) Unavoidable Answer for the Problem of Climate Change
The NRDC decided to join with Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) to host a “National TeleSalon” as one of its responses to the growing volume of discussion about the use of nuclear energy as a tool in the battle against climate change. The November 13, 2013 event was billed as an invitation-only opportunity to gain information about an important question – “Is There a Role for Nuclear Power in Addressing Climate Change?”.
It should not surprise anyone to learn that the passionate, public discussion is only a small portion of what is happening in offices, conference rooms, restaurants, telephone calls and via other forms of less public communications. (I almost wrote “private communications” but then remembered that there really is no such thing these days.) I’ve been fortunate enough to have been included in some of the back channel conversations, and received permission to share portions of that discussion.
Based on the make up of the panel for the E2/NRDC event, it was immediately apparent that the sponsoring organizations had already answered their own question. The invited presenters included Greg Jaczko, the recently deposed Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a avowed antinuclear activist, Matthew McKinzie and Geoffrey Fettus, both of the NRDC’s nuclear program. I watched a replay of the recorded event; Greg Jaczko dominated the allotted time and there were few questions from whatever audience was assembled.
Several of my correspondents are on the right mailing lists to have seen the invitation; their responses are worth sharing.
(Nov 13, 2013) EB: Did you see this? Thought you might be interested in it. Hope you had a nice Veteran’s Day!
RR: Looks like a reaction to last week. (Referring to the November 7th airing of Pandora’s Promise and the associated discussions leading up to the event.)
Robert Stone: Yes but they’ve already answered their own question and that answer is decidedly No.
Hardly puts one on pins and needles awaiting an enlightening debate, does it?
Steve Kirsch: Robert, that was my reaction as well. This is why I quit both E2 and NRDC.
If NRDC and E2 wanted a real debate they would have invited you or Michael or Jim Hansen or Nathan or Tom Blees or Ray Rothrock instead of 2 two NRDC people, but if they did that, they would lose the debate.
They want to keep NRDC members in the dark because if people learned the truth those members would be pissed they have been misled for so long just like I was.
There is no question there is a role. Why would that be a debate??!?
The real debate should be about how to best restart nuclear like Nathan and Bill Gates are doing so we have more zero carbon options. That’s our best move to avoid climate change.
It’s sad that by controlling the message, the NRDC is, in effect, coal’s best friend. Really sad.
Steve Kirsch then sent the following message to some of his contacts at the NRDC – an organization to which he once belonged.
I think NRDC is insane to be investing energy into trashing nuclear power as with this seminar below. What are you thinking?
All you have to do is look what is happening in any country that shuts down nuclear. Energy becomes more expensive and CO2 emissions always increase.
France has the lowest electric power rates in Europe and one of the lowest CO2 emissions per capita.
Why aren’t we copying France? The US is 3X more CO2 per capita than France.
The debate you should have would address the REAL question “In France, they have a high standard of living, but the lowest power cost in the EU, no accidents, and one of the lowest CO2 per capita emissions of any industrialized country in the world. Why is the US so far behind? When is the NRDC going to wake up and change its thinking to recognize reality?”
If you are concerned about the environment, why don’t you host THAT debate?
I’m tired of hearing the promise of renewables and seeing the lack of results. We’ve been hearing this for decades.
Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold are really really smart guys. Gate’s TED talk on Innovating to Zero was one of the best TED talks I’ve ever seen. In Bill’s talk, he explains why renewable can’t cut it and why he’s investing in fast nuclear. Bill didn’t come into this debate with any bias or baggage. He simply takes a completely objective look at the facts and then figures out the best solution. That is what NRDC should be doing.
All the NRDC arguments on safety and cost and waste disposal are based on really old nuclear technology. We haven’t put any serious US brainpower and effort on nuclear innovation in FIVE DECADES. There are many alternatives to safely disposing of the nuclear waste…it all depends on which expert you ask. The best way in my opinion is using fast reactors for the actinides and boreholes for the rest.
We’ve had 50 years of safety actual results in the US. No deaths. And that is with OLD ANCIENT nuclear technology. And even if there might be deaths, that is still going to be better than the guaranteed deaths from fossil fuel.
You guys really need to look at the data, the results, and re-think your stance on nuclear. Seriously. If you haven’t watched the movie or listened to Bill’s TED talk, I think you would find them enlightening.
With the email that Steve shared, he wrote, “Not that it will change anyone minds, but someone has to start hitting these guys over the head with the facts.” I concurred and asked for his permission to share the correspondence, he responded with “Absolutely!!!!!!!!!!”.
Serendipitously, before I could follow through with my promise to do what I could to “hit these guys over the head with facts”, I had a chance to talk directly with Tom Cochran, one of the protagonists on the other side of the debate. We were both attendees at an event titled National Academies Keck Futures Initiative: The Future of Advanced Nuclear Technologies. The event included about 100 attendees and lasted for about three days with numerous opportunities for frank discussion.
During one of the breaks, I asked Cochran about his organization’s responses to Pandora’s Promise and to the open letter that Hansen, Wigley, Caldeira, and Emanuel addressed to environmental groups. That question initiated an emotionally charged discussion that lasted long after the break ended. Here is a summary of the points that Cochran emphasized as representing NRDC’s position. The points he made are reduced to bullet format in regular type; a summary of my responses are in italics.
- The cheapest and fastest way to reduce emissions is through energy efficiency.
Cochran did not buy my argument that human society has been improving the energy efficiency of its power sources and machinery for about 200 years, yet that effort has only helped to increase our overall energy use. He pointed to the efficiency gains of refrigerators; he scoffed at my anecdotal evidence that many people now have the high efficiency refrigerator in their kitchen and still use the replaced refrigerator in their garage to store cold drinks.
- Nuclear energy costs too much and takes too long to consider it as a tool in fighting climate change.
Cochran disagreed with my rebuttal that NRDC has invested 40 years into an effort to use the court system to increase the ability of often ill-informed members of the general public — including industrial competitors to nuclear energy — to intervene and burden nuclear projects with unpredictable, costly delays. He also expressed skepticism about my assertion that there are some people who have studied the lessons from the first nuclear age and will be applying the learning available to achieve substantial cost reductions in the future. He pointed to the first of a kind (FOAK) projects at Olkliluto and Vogtle as evidence that I am too optimistic; I believe he has little understanding of the fact that FOAK costs are almost unavoidably high in all large construction projects.
- Recycling used nuclear fuel is a waste of money since the extraction cost of minerals almost always declines and since uranium costs less in nominal dollars today than it did in 1978. At current prices, recycled fuel might cost 2-3 times as much as fuel produced from newly mined uranium.
(Note: During the period from 1977-1980, the spot price of uranium was about $40 per pound. Since August 2013, the spot market price has ranged from $34-$36 per pound.)
Cochran dismissed my response that recycled paper is also more costly than paper produced from newly harvested trees and that recycling is simply the right thing to do for future generations. He scoffed at my assertion that money is not the only measure of effectiveness that should be used in making decisions.
- Breeder reactors have a spotty history. After all, Fermi I and EBR I both suffered partial meltdowns.
Cochran did not like my response that EBR I was a first generation experimental reactor and that we made substantial improvements with EBR II, which operated for 30 years with a good performance record. He also minimized the importance of the fact that both Fermi I and EBR I were repaired and operated after their partial melts.
- Breeder reactors are even more expensive than light water reactors and would never be able to compete with them.
Cochran did not appreciate my logic that the best reason for building at least some sodium cooled breeder reactors was to demonstrate their ability to turn “waste” into emission-free electricity. He sputtered when I expressed my optimistic interpretation of his statement that we would need hundreds of reactors and several centuries to burn through all of the waste material; I thought that sounded pretty good to me, considering all of the clean energy that would be a byproduct of the disposal effort.
- Breeder reactors would make the world dependent on plutonium.
I agreed, but wondered why that would be worse than being dependent on fossil fuels.
- Pandora’s Promise, the letter from the four climate scientists, the efforts of the Breakthrough Institute and the efforts of Science Council for Global Initiatives (SCGI) seem to be part of a coordinated effort all funded by Steve Kirsch. Of course the NRDC is going to push back, since the effort is in opposition to what the NRDC has been trying to do.
I said there were a lot more people involved in the effort and that they are motivated by making the world a safer, cleaner, and more prosperous place.
At the end of our conversation, I told Cochran that we should try to arrange a similar discussion in public. He chuckled and told me that he thought it would be a long debate. I agreed; we have both spent several decades honing our arguments and developing our professional knowledge. My advantage, however, is that my “book learning” is backed up by a bit more practical experience. I’ve seen, first hand, the incredible capabilities of well designed nuclear power systems. I’ve also seen, first hand, the limitations of solar, wind, distributed diesel, storage batteries, energy efficiency and “conservation”.
I’ll interrupt this post with one more video. This is a brief interview of Robert Stone conducted by CNN’s Becky Anderson. It is closely related to the issue of how mainstream environmental groups still tend to reject nuclear energy, despite all evidence and argument to the contrary.
Now I’ll leave the floor and open the comment thread with a question: “Besides the natural, human nature, response of resistance to change, do you think there is any other reason why large budget environmental groups are resisting the idea of rethinking their long standing opposition to nuclear energy?”