I’m a tree-hugger. Yep, an environmentalist, but I wouldn’t care to be known as such. Just the word suspiciously signals virtue, and environmentalists and their movement haven’t always been on the side of the environment.
In the 1970s and 1980s, I sat through many meetings when environmentalists advocated for coal over nuclear. That’s like their original sin.
Today, quite a few who care about the environment realize that that was a mistake — a bad mistake. Reluctantly, many have come to see that nuclear is a carbon-free and a very compact source of a lot of electricity.
But long years of environmental opposition have taken their toll on public acceptance and on the economics of new plants. Delay, obfuscations and untruths about both nuclear safety and nuclear waste came together to hobble the industry over the past 40 years.
Waves of anti-nuclear campaigners, like Ralph Nader and Amory Lovins, have been so keen to oppose nuclear that they’ve allowed the environment to receive untold millions of tons of carbon, which wouldn’t have been the case if they hadn’t chosen to wage war on a single technology.
Blame some of this on the 1960s. It was the decade in which the establishment was under attack as never before.
It was a decade in which the young, faced with the draft and Vietnam, started to look at society and the powers that controlled it. They found that the establishment and its institutions could be held accountable for much that was wrong.
Foremost was the war in Vietnam. Then there was the civil rights movement, where it was seen that large institutions had condoned, if not promoted, racial segregation and oppression. Along the way, there was the start of the women’s movement with books like Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique,” published in 1963.
And, of course, there was the environmental movement itself, ignited by Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” in 1962. The establishment, the grownups, had been weighed and found wanting.
Meanwhile the utility industry was happily buying into nuclear power. Growth rates in electric demand had been at 7.5 percent a year for most of the post-World War II period, and utilities thought they needed a huge amount of new power. Actually, demand was leveling off. Nuclear looked like the solution, and the utilities were unrecognizing of the complexity of the technology. One Atomic Energy Commission member, Lewis Strauss, even predicted electricity “too cheap to meter.”
Proponents of nuclear gave its enemies a devastating advantage, a lethal handle. They created a licensing procedure that gave the public unrestricted access to intervene in nuclear licensing.
Nuclear was a fundraising gift to the environmentalists — a gift that kept on giving.
The environmental movement, having found the devil back then, has found twin holy grails today: solar and wind. The movement is promoting them with the same fervor, the same blind certainty with which they once opposed nuclear.
Is the movement going too far again? Certainly, improvements in batteries will overcome the intermittent nature of both sources. But they can’t overcome the second law of thermodynamics: You can’t get more electric energy out of a square meter of a solar cell than sunlight falls on it. That’s absolute. Likewise, with wind: No more energy can be extracted from the wind than it contains. More research won’t change that.
On the other hand, more nuclear research will produce everything from better power plants, to ships and submarines, to nuclear waste-eating reactors. That’s saying nothing about medicine or space exploration.
A few windmills are delightful. Thousands of them are terrifying ugly. Hundreds of thousands of them are being installed.
Likewise, solar panels. Those on the roof at Walmart are great. Thousands and thousands of acres of Southwest desert or good farmland anywhere going down to solar farms is less appealing.
Low density in electricity production means heavy, possibly abusive land use, as demand for wind and solar is pushed. By contrast most nuclear problems will be solved by science, including waste.
Group-think in the environmental movement severely affected nuclear as an option. Now the group passion for “renewables” may be another wrong environmental turn.
Renewable is a disingenuous word: All those wind towers, turbines and solar panels will have to be dismantled and disposed at the end of their productive life. That detritus isn’t renewable.
Photo by Antonio Garcia on Unsplash
Ike Bottema says
Thank you for this eloquent explanation of the essential need for nuclear power. Naysayers are focused on irrational fears and thus prepared to accept destruction of their environment to placate those fears. They need to know that nuclear power is the safest power generation available to mankind. But to face those irrational fears people must know that nuclear power is ESSENTIAL to our future well being.
Stewart Farber says
This note contains a lot of good points, but there are many details that are even more favorable to nuclear energy. The author notes:
“Waves of anti-nuclear campaigners, like Ralph Nader and Amory Lovins, have been so keen to oppose nuclear that they’ve allowed the environment to receive untold millions of tons of carbon, which wouldn’t have been the case if they hadn’t chosen to wage war on a single technology.”
The fossil fuel burned because nuclear plants have not been built or were shut down prematurely have released in total many BILLIONS of tons of carbon not “untold millions” of tons.
The air pollution (fine particulates, conventional air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, organic carcinogens, mercury) released by burning fossil fuels rather than nuclear have been recognized as being responsible over the past 40 years for many hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in the general population. The pollution from mining the rare earth elements needed for solar panel and wind turbine magnet production have turned large areas into polluted wastelands.
Nuclear is the “greenest” technology available to produce caseload power production and should be supported by anyone who claims to be concerned about public health and environmental quality.
Greg White says
“Improvements in batteries will overcome the intermittent nature of both sources.” If such a battery is ever invented, it would make nuclear less expensive and more efficient. This miracle battery would make wind and solar far more expensive, take up far more land and make them less efficient.
Ken Warfield says
The externalities of nuclear power makes it the most dangerous compared to any other form of energy. What makes it the most dangerous is the profit motive. I am volunteering for an Assembly candidate who’s district includes the San Onofre decommissioned nuclear power plant. SCE has cut corners on the wall thickness of waste containers 20 times thinner than the ones used in Europe! The waste is being stored 108′ from high water and only 10″ above the water table. Between the residue heat and sea water/air, these containers are susceptible to corrosion and hairline cracks. Once this happens, it would be expensive if not impossible to move or repair. This plant is very to San Clemente and would effect millions in SoCal if there were an accident and/or damage to the containers. A few weeks ago there was an article that called it, “A Fukushima waiting to happen”. We need to move to clean, green, renewable energy, without the majority of future externalities.
Stephen H Williams says
Dead on article, Mr. King! Thanks very much for writing it. The future of the planet literally depends on people understanding what you wrote about.
I hope you will take a moment to watch a less-than-four-minute music video I made which makes exactly your point and more:
It’s called “Big Green Taxi” and it’s a re-imagining of Joni Mitchel’s “Big Yellow Taxi” given today’s environmentalists obsession with 100 % renewable energy (planet be damned). It has the following associated website:
Keep up the good work!