The Fission Division – Can Nuclear Power Be Green?
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 the uranium rods that power the plant's 4-Loop turbines. Voles, coyotes, and bobcats roam the meadows and oak glens stretching for miles behind the power station. The sound of the surf obscures any electricity 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 1978, some 1,500 people demonstrated at the plant gates to demand a halt in construction; a year later, the number of protestors 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 US anti-nuclear struggle.
Today the mood toward nuclear power may be changing. Atomic energy — once the bête noir of the environmental 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. Industry insiders expect that utilities will file applications with federal regulators for about 30 new atomic reactors by the end of the year.
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 US environmental groups, there is nearly 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 has written: "We environmentalists must rethink our opposition to nuclear power. Those who have opposed the building of new nuclear power plants in the US over the past twenty 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 dedicated environmentalists to re-examine their beliefs about how best to defend the Earth. Since any deliberation about trade-offs is fundamentally a discussion of priorities, the debate over nuclear power is, at its heart, part of a much larger argument about how to balance ecological sustainability with our lifestyle expectations. Whether environmentalists decide to support nuclear power will play a large role in influencing the shape of the emerging 21st-century green economy.
"I think it's a metaphor for how our country will move into the future," says Betsy Taylor, the former head of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and founder of The Center for a New American Dream. "It gets back to the debate about whether we want an economy and an energy system that is highly centralized and benefits the few, versus an economy and an energy system that is more locally rooted and that unleashes the creativity and the economic ownership of our energy by many more small owners, businesses and even households. … There has been a fight over who benefits and who matters. With nuclear power, there was this idea that a small group of people would take care of everything."
Back from the Dead
By the mid-1990s, it appeared that the US nuclear industry was destined for a long, steady funeral. Federal officials had not licensed a new plant since 1973, and the last plant to come on line, Watts Bar in Tennessee, had taken 22 years to build. Memories of the 1979 Three Mile Island scare, combined with the long shadow of the Chernobyl disaster, had the industry on the defensive. Public support for nuclear power was near an all-time low, with just 40 percent of respondents to an industry poll saying they were in favor of atomic energy. Major cost overruns in plant construction had made the industry unpopular on Wall Street, which wasn't enthusiastic about funding any new multi-billion-dollar power stations.
Then the Bush administration threw nuclear power a lifeline. Embedded in the 2005 Energy Bill was a provision granting the nuclear industry $10 billion in new tax credits and loan guarantees; $200 million was set aside for the first utilities that filed applications for new plants. The subsidies allowed utilities, insurance companies, and investors to begin rethinking nuclear power's future.
The industry now had the money; what it needed was an argument. According to a 2005 ABC News survey, only one-third of Americans approved of "building more nuclear plants to generate electricity." Nuclear proponents needed a way of convincing people that atomic energy deserved a second shot.
Enter climate change. While nuclear power generation isn't entirely carbon neutral — uranium mining, and especially uranium enrichment, require vast amounts of fossil fuel energy — atomic plants are certainly cleaner, at least from a carbon standpoint, than natural gas or coal-fired power stations. Posing nuclear energy as a response to global warming seemed a useful way to re-introduce nuclear power to a public that hadn't been forced to think about it for years.
"If you're serious about carbon emissions, you have to be serious about nuclear power," says Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon Energy, a Chicago-based company that is planning to submit applications for new reactors. "You can't meet carbon goals without nuclear power. It cannot be done. There is no other technology that can do what nuclear does, and that's produce large amounts of electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with no carbon emissions."
To help make this argument more compelling, the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, gave PR firm Hill & Knowlton an $8 million contract to reframe the issue in the media. The PR consultants created an organization called the "Clean and Safe Energy Coalition," and enlisted former EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman and Greenpeace co-founder (and corporate consultant) Patrick Moore to chair it. Hill & Knowlton helped Moore and Whitman pen opinion essays that found their way into influential newspapers such as The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, which in turn ignited a torrent of other media stories.
Moore has been an especially effective voice for the nuclear industry. By highlighting his rabble-rousing days with Greenpeace, Moore has been able to portray his embrace of nuclear power as a Damascus-road style conversion. "Yes, I was an opponent of nuclear energy all through my Greenpeace years," Moore says. "But when I do the math, it's very clear to me that renewables can't do the job themselves, and that's why nuclear has to be part of the mix. … As an environmentalist, I choose nuclear."
Moore's pretensions to high-mindedness may be disingenuous; he is, after all, a paid flack for the nuclear industry. And — as his public support of pesticide spraying, genetically modified organisms, and logging make clear — he is a long way from his Rainbow Warrior days. Some in the environmental community have labeled Moore an "Eco-Judas," to which he responds that no one has "any right in the world to define who is and who is not an environmentalist."
Regardless of Moore's green credentials, the fact is that in politics, perception is everything, and Moore's carefully calculated stumping in favor of nuclear power has succeeding in shifting discussion on the issue. Twenty-five years ago, the buzzwords in the nuclear debate were "safety" and "sustainability;" today they are "coal" and "carbon."
That, at least, is how Stewart Brand sees it. While Moore's support of nuclear energy seems like little more than sophisticated greenwashing, it's more difficult to dismiss the carefully considered arguments of Brand, who is a founder of the Whole Earth Catalog.
"Some people have said it's nuclear versus renewables or it's nuclear versus conservation," Brand says. "But it's the [electricity] grid we are talking about, so it's nuclear versus coal. Across the board, comparing the problems of spent nuclear fuel and spent coal fuel, it's 1,000 or 100 to one, in terms of nuclear being more safe…Climate change is the worst thing that can happen to biodiversity. It puts the environmental movement in a different situation. It changes priorities. Suddenly, worrying about radiation 6,000 years from now kind of goes down the list."
Among leading environmentalists, Brand is not alone in his cautious embrace of nuclear power. Dr. Bill Chameides, chief scientist at Environmental Defense, also says that nuclear energy deserves a fair shot. While careful to say that the nuclear industry must be able to compete without government subsidies, Chameides is open to keeping the technology an option. "Given the potential of generating energy carbon-free from nuclear, I think it's disingenuous for someone concerned about climate change to say it should be taken off the table," he says. "My feeling is: If you want to build a couple of new plants, I think it's foolhardy. But I don't see it as being a disaster."
These voices, among others, have had a demonstrable impact in influencing opinion. A chorus of pundits, among them New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristoff, have said it's time to expand nuclear power production to head off carbon emissions. Some members of Congress are rethinking their position. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) has long been a skeptic about nuclear energy. But she appears to be shifting, and recently said in a statement that, "If we can be assured that new technologies help to produce nuclear energy safely and cleanly, then I think we have to take a look at it." Al Gore says nuclear should be a "small part" of the climate solution.
Dirty, Dangerous, and Expensive
Even as debate churns in the newspapers, there is a striking amount of unanimity among the leading environmental organizations that nuclear power does not represent a smart way to address climate change. The National Wildlife Federation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are among the many groups arguing there are quicker and cheaper ways to reduce greenhouse gases. What the industry heralds as a "revival," these groups dub a "relapse."
"Nuclear power is the most expensive way to make minor emissions cuts," says Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "You add this to all of nuclear power's other problems — safety and proliferation and radioactive waste — and it's not a good solution."
Josh Dorner, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club, agrees. "It's kind of like the industry is putting lipstick on a pig here," he says. "Solving one problem and creating another problem really isn't a solution that's very durable. It doesn't make sense to solve global warming by creating a ton of nuclear waste that we don't know what to do with."
More than 50 years after the establishment of the civilian atomic energy program, the country still lacks a way to safely handle the radioactive waste formed during the fission process. All of the radioactive materials created during electricity generation are stored at the individual power stations, an arrangement that no one — including the nuclear plant operators — believes is a long-term solution. "Long-term" in this case means 10,000 years, the amount of time the government says a waste repository needs to contain spent nuclear fuel. Many environmentalists say even that mind-boggling geological time frame is too short, since some waste will be dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years more.
Industry representatives and federal officials have fought to build a single national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert. Recent studies, however, show that the mountain, formerly believed to be bone dry, may leak water, which would make it an unacceptable vault. Another major concern about waste storage is the problem of relocating tons of spent fuel to Yucca Mountain, a logistical nightmare that invites deadly accidents. The most optimistic scenario doesn't envision Yucca Mountain's opening until 2021.
The industry could reduce the need for waste storage by "reprocessing" the fuel, but that would lead to another problem — the creation of weapons-grade radioactive material. While the industry has made real improvements in plant management and design since the Three Mile Island near-meltdown, post-911 fears have created a new set of safety worries. There is, first, the possibility of a terrorist attack on a plant. Then there's the worry about nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands. Spent nuclear fuel can be used to make so-called "dirty bombs." Reprocessed fuel in the form of enriched uranium or plutonium can make atomic weapons. More plants means more opportunities for atomic materials to slip out of a reactor unnoticed.
The challenges around waste storage and safety force a third and more pressing issue: cost. Even with the government subsidies, nuclear power is not cheap. The complicated reactors cost between $2.5 and $4 billion each; the Watts Bar plant was years behind schedule and ended up with a price tag of $7 billion. The capital costs of atomic expansion are so high that one nuclear executive told The New York Times that his CFO "would have a heart attack" if he proposed constructing a new reactor.
From a market standpoint, constructing new plants does not appear economically competitive. Most estimates put nuclear-generated electricity at around 8 to 11 cents/kilowatt-hour (kWh). By comparison, wind prices currently average 5 cents/kWh. Energy efficiency improvements — for example, swapping out incandescent lightbulbs for compact fluorescents — cost less than 4 cents/kWh.
"Just financially, it won't happen," says Geoff Fettus, a senior attorney at the NRDC. "The question we pose to people is not whether you are for or against nuclear power, but whether you are for or against new subsidies for nuclear power. We think they are a terrible waste of money. If you move away from the subsidies for nuclear, the debate ends right there."
The very challenges of financing and building new reactors reduce the potential for atomic energy to make a meaningful dent in carbon emissions. Currently 104 nuclear power plants produce about 20 percent of the United States' electricity. To make a real reduction in US carbon emissions would require building as many as 250 additional power plants. To make significant cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, the world's nations would need to build 21 new reactors every year for the next 50 years. Given that it takes about 10 years to build a nuclear reactor, the first new nuclear plants wouldn't start contributing to carbon reductions until 2017. Too late to be effective, if you accept NASA climate scientist James Hansen's prediction that we have a decade to take action.
A June 2007 statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists sums up the sentiments of the major environmental organizations: "There are faster, safer, and significantly cheaper ways to meet our energy needs. Nuclear power is not a current solution for global warming."
The Lesser of Two Evils?
The anti-nuclear consensus among environmental policy professionals, however, does not extend to the grassroots. Rank-and-file environmentalists are divided on whether building new reactors can serve as an antidote to spiraling greenhouse gas emissions. While there is not quite a vocal grassroots movement in favor of green nuclear power, the ambivalence among many environmental activists shows that the nuclear industry's hopes for convincing Americans to embrace atomic energy are not unwarranted.
A review of some of the most popular green news and opinion Web sites reveals a lively discussion about the merits of expanding nuclear power generation. For example, when Grist.org asked readers, "In the light of the mounting threat of climate change, does nuclear power deserve another look?", 54 percent of respondents voted "Yes." A poll on Treehugger.com showed 59 percent of readers conditionally in favor of atomic energy.
Whenever the issue comes up in green forums, an energetic back-and-forth ensues. During one online discussion, a visitor to a blog hosted by Earthjustice Legal Defense wrote: "I have been an ardent foe of nuclear power generation for over three decades.…However, in the last two years I have reversed my position, and now support the building of a new generation of nuclear plants in the USA. The reason is that global warming is such a huge and imminent issue, that I think we must accept the lesser evil of nuclear power generation."
When the subject came up on the Web site WorldChanging.com, readers were split roughly 50-50. One wrote: "Folks, the 100,000 year fear of nuclear waste…is a non sequitur when we hold the fate of our children's future in our hands before 2040.…Centralized nuclear power is our children's option and we have a responsibility to help them prepare for whatever they will have to do to survive."
The willingness of some environmentalists to expand nuclear power production can be explained, in part, by the fact that the issue has been out of mainstream debate for so long. The environmental policy analysts' arguments — however well-honed they may be — have not received a hearing from the public in decades. The industry's arguments, on the other hand, have earned a great deal of attention lately. The nuclear industry's media offensive means that green groups are playing catch-up.
"It's difficult when you are going up against a well-financed PR campaign," says Jim Riccio of Greenpeace USA, which is staunchly opposed to building any new reactors, "especially when most of the major groups are focused on climate change right now, and not focused as much on nuclear power. It has been the nuclear industry's attempt to play up on that."
The green grassroots' interest in nuclear power can also be explained by demographics. For an entire generation of environmental advocates, nuclear power is an unknown. The vanguard of the climate justice movement largely comprises college activists who have never had to confront the arguments for and against nuclear energy.
"I think the issue is off the radar for a lot of people," says Tyler Dawson, a student at Ohio University and an active member of the Campus Climate Challenge. "I would say that a lot of students, if they don't understand how nuclear works, they at least know there is a danger to it. But I've heard from a lot of students who say, ‘You know, Europe and France run a lot of nuclear.' They have heard that nuclear power doesn't produce any greenhouse gas emissions….The issue is received differently by different people."
When not studying for a degree in political science, Dawson is busy campaigning to stop mountaintop removal coal mining and to increase his campus's use of renewable energy. Until very recently, nuclear politics did not touch his activism. Dawson was born in 1986 — the same year as the Chernobyl disaster.
"I work with a lot of young people, and they don't have the same kind of experience and memory of working with nuclear power," says Matt Reitman, 23, a recent Syracuse University graduate now employed by the Energy Justice Network. "The people I'm working with have never formed an opinion on the issue because they have never been confronted with the issue. So now they are saying, ‘I want to learn about it, I want to talk about it and hear the pros and cons.'"
Climate activists' nuclear curiosity presents a real challenge to the country's environmental leadership. Thanks to its PR attack, the nuclear industry appears to have the rhetorical advantage for now. If the debate is carbon-heavy coal versus carbon-light nuclear, the atomic argument will win. The task facing the environmental movement, then, is to start a different discussion. Environmental groups need to shift the conversation away from an argument of specific carbon reduction strategies and toward a broader discussion about long-term ecological sustainability. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, that won't be easy.
Toward a Culture Shift
Embedded in the energy debate is a deeper discussion of expectations and ecology. That is, what kind of world do we want to live in?
The argument over nuclear power reveals a long-standing tension in the environmental movement between those who say there are technical fixes to the greenhouse gas challenge, and others who believe that we need a wholesale restructuring of society if we are to avoid global meltdown. To embrace a new round of nuclear reactor construction is to say that we can have our climate and eat all the energy we want, too; it is, in some ways, a maintenance of the status quo. To oppose nuclear power is to suggest that we need to reform the ways in which we live. For if we can find a way to create lifestyles that don't demand as much electricity, then the nuclear question is moot.
The notion of reducing the US's energy usage is laughable to those in the industry. "We have never seen a decrease in electricity use," Excelon Energy's Nesbit says. "To think otherwise is just putting your head in the sand. We can slow the growth of demand, but we are not going to reverse it."
Many environmentalists, however, see reducing electricity use as the easiest — and cheapest — way to cut carbon emissions. For example, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has convincingly demonstrated that we can maintain many of our modern conveniences while using a fraction of the energy we currently expend.
"I would argue that it's entirely possible to close the nuclear plants, close the vast majority of fossil fuel plants, and use renewables and energy efficiency to meet our energy needs to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and nobody's lifestyle has to change," says Mariotte of the Nuclear Information Research Service.
The dilemma for environmental organizations is that the word "conservation" is sometimes interpreted to mean a "compromise" — and asking Americans to sacrifice some of their lifestyle has become the untouchable third rail of US environmentalism.
"If you say something like that [cutting back on energy consumption], you sound almost un-American," Greenpeace's Riccio says.
When asked whether energy conservation would require Americans to change their manner of living, Josh Dorner of the Sierra Club was careful to distance his organization from any suggestion of discomfort: "I think it's about changing the backdrop as opposed to changing the fundamentals. Instead of people having a ton of lights on in their house that are wasting a ton of energy, they will have a lot of efficient lights on that are wasting less energy. … People will be able to continue living their lives without having to make big sacrifices."
Other environmental activists aren't so sure. They say that long-term sustainability — a vision that doesn't include radioactive waste stored for hundreds of generations — will require some deeper changes. If we want to preserve the climate without relying on atomic energy, we will need to re-think many of lifestyle assumptions — our modes of transportation, our ways of eating, the size of our houses, and the generation and distribution of our energy.
"As we make the arguments over nuclear energy, I think we're about to re-enter the historic debate about how power is structured," says veteran activist Betsy Taylor, author of Sustainable Planet: Solutions for a 21st Century. "If you look at the nuclear story in particular, it was always this utopian vision that we would take care of everything — we could have our American way of life and not worry about energy. And when we got into that dream, it had some real darkness to it.…I do think we are coming back to the old celebration of self-reliance and alternative technology at the local level. If we have a future with less oil and less nuclear, we will live differently, with less stuff and less energy consumption, but with more joy and more security. But we will have to rethink the McMansions and the two SUVs in the garage."
Energy Justice Network organizer Reitman agrees. "I think we are going to have to face some kind of cultural shift," he says. "I think the culture we have created for ourselves, a society based on a lot of excess and consumerism, really has let a lot of people down. I think the prospect of getting together in a serious way as a country [to stop climate change] is a great opportunity to get back to the roots of what it means to be an American, which is to be neighborly. It's a great way to re-energize our culture, as well as our economy and our power grid."
That kind of vision makes nuclear power irrelevant. If we can reach a societal consensus that what we desire is a slower and smaller way of living, a re-conceived notion of success, then we can fundamentally reformulate our energy system. In any discussion involving a redefinition of "progress," nuclear power is not simply dangerous or dirty — it's pointless. That's a conversation the nuclear industry is unlikely to win.
"If we're going to make it safely into the future," Taylor says, "we want to reclaim the vision of energy production and of an economy that is primarily rooted locally, even though there will be and should be a global system of trade and the most amazing technological developments. But above all there should be energy production and economic production that is controlled by people in their communities."
Jason Mark is the editor of Earth Island Journal. "Fission Division" originally appeared in fall 2007 Earth Island Journal. His second book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots, is now available. Visit www.earthisland.org for more information.