Nuclear Power Debate: 350 Movers, Pragmatic Greens & Fearful Opponents

First, take a deep breath. It is difficult to do when it is your life and career day-in and day-out, but every once in a while, all of us moving in the clean tech space should stop and reflect on the breakneck pace at which everything around us is moving: technology, regulation, public awareness. Sure, maybe climate change legislation will not be through the Senate in time for Copenhagen (or at all this year, or even this Session), but that was an ambitious (and partly arbitrary) timeline. On the brighter side, today’s public discourse and political will on renewable energy and climate change would have been inconceivable among anyone but the green elite even five years ago.

Still, I cannot help but notice that one not-so-novel technology is getting a lot of renewed attention these days: nuclear power. Sure, in the industry we’ve all bought into the CW that “nukes are back,” but it always been accompanied by a “sort of” at the end. Microreactor technology has been a consistent “yeah, but” in that developing conversation. Then in their NYT Op-ed, Senators John Kerry and Lindsey Graham blew the lid off of things with a commitment to good old-fashioned conventional nukes (alongside a commitment to drilling and clean coal that threatens to turn the Senate bill into little more than a symbolic accopmplishment).

Savvy industry observers can still see ripples from the Op-ed and the Capitol Hill maneuverings of the nuclear industry and its supporters. It has played out very publicly (though the nuclear angle has been below the radar) in the US Chamber of Commerce dust-up that has seen heavy nuclear generation utilities like Exelon, PG&E and PNM Resources leave the Chamber over its opposition to Waxman-Markey, which would afford a lot of carbon credit allowances to utilities. The allowances would be very valuable to nuclear-dependent utilties who are (relatively) meager carbon emitters, while the allotments are  unlikely to cover the nut for coal-dependent generators who will not only miss out on the carbon cash bonanza, nbut will also see the added cost of compliance seep into their rates.  Guess which group still has the hammer? The Chamber opposes the bill.

Like much of the energy and environment debate, the nuclear question is making for strange bedfellows and putting putative allies at odds. Bill McKibben’s 350 Movement embraces nuclear, as does former anti-nuke evangelist Stewart Brand in his “eco-pragamtism.” This puts them – at least on this issue – in bed with grassroots groups like the Nuclear Advisory Network, the kind of industry creation that Brand and his ilk were fighting in the 1970s.

Pragmatic greens like McKibben and Brand remain at odds with longtime no nukes voices like Amory Lovins, who debated the question with Brand on NPR last week. Surprisingly, it was cost and not waste (or meltdown) that drove Lovins’ argument in that forum, as he sees nuclear deverting subsidy and investment that should be directed to still-emerging technologies and efficiency efforts.

While Lovins may not have relied on the old standbys, opponents of nuclear power are still hoping that fear plays. Even while echoing concerns about cost, a Boston Globe Op-ed by the Massachusetts-based Conservation Law Foundation relies on concerns about “the very dangerous waste they produce” to rebuke hometown boy Kerry’s support for nuclear plants, writing that “a climate bill must not be traded for the environmental soul of the Senate.” The piece goes on to express concern about “long-unanswered questions about the safety and security of those plants.”

The security angle is gaining traction with opponents. The question of nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation continues to be conflated with the question of civil nuclear power, most notably in the context of the diplomatic sessions that came close to an enrichment export deal for Iranian uranium. In media circles, the spectre of proliferation is working hand-in-hand with concerns about domestic security. Noting the momentum that nuclear is gaining in Washington, reports take pains to note that “[n]uclear power still faces daunting challenges…reactors remain a tempting target for terrorists, requiring ever vigilant security measures.” That from the AP, in spite of the fact that no nuclear plant has ever been the target of a terror attack and there is no public information that indicates persuasuvely that there is any evidence of any substantiated threat of such an attack.

The worm will continue to turn on nuclear. Maybe microreactors will help make headway toward a middle ground. In the meantime, with more and more taxpayer money on the line, advocates on both sides of the nuclear debate will sharpening the elbows to rejoin a fight that seemed dead just a few years ago.

[photo credit: Sakucae]

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One comment on “Nuclear Power Debate: 350 Movers, Pragmatic Greens & Fearful Opponents

Stewart Brand has also been kind enough to endorse my book “Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power.” One thing most pro-nuke and anti-nuke folks share in common is a lack of understanding of how the technology is used in the real world. It’s not The Simpsons and it’s not Star Trek. I’ve worked in US plants over 20 years and have written a novel aimed at the general reader. It covers the people, politics and technology of this energy source, looking at both the good and the bad. “Rad Decision” is free online with no advertising, and it is also in paperback. See the homepage for reader comments – they seem to like it for both its story and information. I think there are many possibilities for our future, both with and without nuclear power, but I also believe we’ll make better decisions about our energy future if we first understand our energy present.

“I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.” – Stewart Brand

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