Making Peace With Nuclear

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2008

When Patrick Moore left Greenpeace—the environmental advocacy group that he helped to create in the early 1970s—some activists labeled him a traitor and a corporate shill. It didn’t stop him, however, from becoming one of the environmental community’s most outspoken advocates for nuclear power development—and one of the harshest critics of anti-nuclear activists.

In December 2007, Moore addressed a group of power industry executives and engineers at the Power-Gen International conference. “Environmental activists, including my former colleagues at Greenpeace and company, are now the biggest obstacle to reducing CO2 emissions worldwide,” he said. “They oppose all the realistic alternatives and are purposefully misinforming the public.”

Public Utilities Fortnightly caught up with Moore in February to discuss the state of anti-nuclear advocacy in America.

 

Fortnightly: How do you see the nuclear energy debate evolving in the environmental community?

Moore: The anti-nuclear movement is on its back foot and having a difficult time trying to sound reasonable on this .

How can people who are telling us climate change will cause catastrophe and extinction be opposed to nuclear energy? Their reply is that using nuclear energy to combat climate change is replacing one evil with another. But even the worst nuclear accident scenario wouldn’t cause the extinction of 50 percent of the species, like climate change could. So there is no logic in the position of environmentalists.

Maybe they can snow the general public who doesn’t know what base-load power is, but from an environmental point of view their arguments fail to hold water, and more and more independent environmentalists are supporting nuclear energy (see sidebar, “Activists for Reactors”).

 

Fortnightly: What about the political climate? Democrats are expected to do well in the November elections, and they generally oppose nuclear power.

Moore: When it comes to voting, a large majority of Democrats support nuclear energy. The opposition, although vociferous, is in the minority.

Some Democratic leaders are supporting nuclear energy. [Sen. Barack] Obama isn’t opposed to nuclear energy and he’s made that clear. [Sen. Hillary] Clinton claims she’s agnostic on the issue. Her problem is that she has a large number of people in her constituency who are opposed to nuclear energy. But the Clinton Climate Initiative and the center-left Progressive Policy Institute both are very clear in their support for nuclear energy.

Sen. [Barbara] Boxer has made positive comments about nuclear recently. [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein has always been fairly positive about it, and [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi says it has to be on the table. Even Al Gore says nuclear has to be part of the future. He pooh-poohs it, as they all do. Most politicians try to mute anything positive they say about nuclear energy, to appeal to their constituency.

 

Fortnightly: But what about that constituency? Has Joe Six Pack changed his mind about nuclear power?

Moore: I don’t think Joe Six Pack is the opponent. Opposition to nuclear energy is largely a political activist perspective.

After the Three Mile Island incident, support for nuclear energy fell below 30 percent. Now it’s up to 70 percent, and 80 percent among people who live near nuclear plants. Eighty percent support is phenomenal for anything, especially something controversial.

Of course, it’s a different question to ask, ‘Do you want me to build a nuclear reactor next to your house?’ But the people who already live near a reactor are interested in keeping them there. They’ve experienced how they work, the jobs they create and the tax dollars they bring to the community. The fact new plants will be going on existing sites augers well for success in this initial phase of new construction.

 

Fortnightly: What strategies should we expect nuclear opponents to use against nuclear developments?

Moore: Activists will intervene at every opportunity in the process, but I don’t think they’ll have sufficient support to get tens of thousands in the street like we did in the peace movement.

Nuclear opposition grew out of the peace movement. They’ve tried to move the fear of nuclear war into the fear of nuclear energy. Words are important in propaganda, and ‘nuclear’ conjures fear without saying anything more.

If you look at Greenpeace’s utterances about nuclear today in the United States, they are almost totally fixated on an aircraft crashing into a nuclear plant. They are preying on people’s fears of 9/11. They’re using scare tactics but they aren’t succeeding, because local people resent protestors who arrive on buses from outside the community.

 

Fortnightly: So opponents will bring their own protestors into local areas?

Moore: That will be the plan. There’s very little opposition in the local community, so the only way to get a decent showing at a public hearing is to bring people in from outside.

The anti-nuclear movement has devolved into a grump group with very few credible spokespeople. It’s been reduced to something of a rabble, and their interventions tend to be of a low caliber in most places.

There are still a few people who are anti-nuclear by profession, and who are fairly articulate. They will continue to argue in a way that some people will find believable.

The most contested case is the Indian Point plant where the local politics are liberal and you have the D.C.-based lobby groups nearby. It’s not hard to get 50 nuclear opponents to turn out for a meeting there. But they tend to be shrill, lacking in factual basis. The River Keepers, for example, say Indian Point is killing 20 billion fish every year, but there is no record of a single fish actually being killed. Where did they get this estimate? It’s an estimate of the fish eggs going through the cooling system. In nature only one egg in a million produces a fish that survives, so the argument is just laughable. But they are getting away with saying stuff like that, and the media picks it up.

Opponents are clutching at straws because they are against nuclear energy, and the logic and science don’t matter.

 

Fortnightly: What should the utility industry do to help ensure the nuclear renaissance doesn’t get derailed by irrational opposition?

Moore: They should continue to support and build the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. I co-chair that organization with [former EPA Secretary] Christine Todd Whitman.

Beyond that, the industry needs to develop an easily understood explanation of the scenario where we shift from old technology to cleaner technology. I don’t think there’s a single formula, but we do need a high-level plan that everybody understands and moves toward.

It’s not easy to find consensus because there are many competing interests. But it seems to me one of the very best tools we have is smart metering and dynamic pricing. The industry’s capacity factor is designed to meet peak load. Applied correctly, things like smart metering, ground-source heat pumps and plug-in cars can really flatten out the peak. And then, if the electricity powering those pumps and vehicles is coming from clean sources like nuclear, wind and hydro, then we’ve radically altered our fossil fuel consumption.

The industry needs to develop a clearer vision of that future. People still have too many things coming at them. They don’t really see how it all fits together, but the technology is coming. By 2010 we’ll see plug-in cars coming off the assembly line. If you charge with nuclear there’s no CO2. It’s a beautiful formula.