While world leaders and activists are in Egypt this week to discuss climate change, there are encouraging signs that many are willing to look beyond doctrinaire policies based on renewable generation sources like wind and solar. For all that can be said about the validity of the arguments against nuclear power, it is undeniable that this pressing environmental crisis has converted even staunch nuclear sceptics.
There has been a marked shift to the left in American attitudes toward nuclear power, according to the influential American Climate Perspectives survey published in 2021 with addenda out this year by environmental nonprofit ecoAmerica. An executive summary of the report was also released, in which it was stated that the percentage of Americans who are in favour of nuclear power increased from 49% in 2018 to 59% in 2021. While Republican support remained relatively stable (around 65%), Democratic support rose dramatically (from 37% in 2018 to 60% in 2021). This change in attitude also appears to be reflective of a global trend.
Solar and Wind Power Go Dark
Electricity generated from renewable sources is acceptable technology at specific scales, in specific climates, and in specific locations close to the point of consumption. Solar and wind power, along with the associated battery storage technologies, cannot support a modern economy, as history has shown.
Chief scientist at the Anthropocene Institute, a clean power and climate technology incubator that collaborated with ecoAmerica on its report, Frank Hiroshi Ling, suggests that a growing awareness that renewables are not up to the task may be correspondingly generating interest in nuclear energy. The Democrats, Ling argued, have a long history of being among the movement’s earliest supporters of renewable energy. The deployment of renewable energy sources, however, has not progressed as rapidly as some had hoped. People are becoming aware of the many obstacles that must be overcome before renewable energy can be used to expand current capacity.
There has been a lot written about how difficult it is to switch to a renewable energy-only power grid. When the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, solar and wind power generation come to a halt, and this is the biggest technological barrier. Batteries for renewable energy generation technologies are also resource-intensive, necessitating materials like rare earth metals that are not processed in the United States and come with their own set of environmental concerns.
To paraphrase what Ling said, “I would not necessarily call myself pro-nuclear.” But I’m checking out all the tools we’ll need to stabilise the planet’s climate. That’s why it’s important to consider energy systems from a resilience angle, which requires taking a wide range of mix types into account. Renewable energy is something I support, too. However, every available energy source also has some drawbacks. Though nuclear power would solve many problems, public perception remains an issue.
It’s not always the good guys who steer public opinion and the policies of the government. It would be ideal if we lived in a time when experts could be trusted to discuss important topics like the state of the world economy and the planet’s future openly and without bias, but unfortunately we do not. Science and reason are often trumped by politics and ideology, leading to skewed perspectives and negative results (especially when political ideologues dress in lab coats).
Pioneering environmentalist Stewart Brand wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times in 2008 that the climate change issue has given rise to four distinct camps that can be arrayed along a spectrum: calamatists, warners, sceptics, and deniers. These outliers are typically ideological, political, and impervious to reason. According to Brand, the preferred forum for discussion is among the centrists, who are primarily scientific in orientation. The extremists, on the other hand, consider the moderates to be either stupid, corrupt, or heretical, and the opposing wing to be the embodiment of evil. The extremists usually win the debate. As the denialists predicted, I anticipate the calamatists will push liberal political agendas and the warners will push geoengineering schemes like sulphur dust in the stratosphere if climate change continues to worsen.
Thus, ideological organisations like Greenpeace would rather usher in a new dark age, and political parties like Germany’s Greens would rather fire up coal plants than support nuclear power. After lecturing the world on renewables and serving as a role model to states like California, the news that Germany is tearing down wind farms in order to increase coal production is a satirist’s dream. Germany and California, both of whom had previously promised to shut down their nuclear plants, are now coming to regret those decisions.
Get Your Behinds Out From Under That Desk
It’s ironic that many of the same experts, advocates, and activists who have brought climate change to the forefront of international debate have spent decades lobbying against nuclear energy. Green policies and the public’s fear of nuclear energy can be traced back to anti-nuclear movements of the Cold War era, which often confused nuclear power with nuclear weapons due to a lack of knowledge or skilled propaganda. Many former opponents of nuclear power have come around because of the impact these “green” policies have had on efforts to create a carbon-free future.
“I hated nuclear power because I’m an old environmentalist,” said Joshua Goldstein, professor emeritus of international politics at American University and research scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Environmentalism was my primary ideology in the ’70s and ’80s. In my mind, anything nuclear had to be bad. Back then, there was also a movement that advocated for a return to nature and a rejection of modern conveniences. Atomic energy is not that. Quite simply, it’s cutting edge technology. When my generation was young, we all hid under desks in case of nuclear attack.
Goldstein claimed he changed his mind about the issue in light of climate change. Following a career in the study of international relations and conflict resolution, he began to wonder how the state of the world’s energy supply might affect the chances of war or peace. “When I had kids, I started worrying about their future,” he explained. My son converted to environmentalism and is now pressuring me to do something about global warming.
Goldstein looked at the available information and evidence to determine a potential solution to the issue. Even though there were numerous proposals for improving the situation, he came to the conclusion that nuclear power was necessary to address the issue of carbon emissions. In many regions, “we are getting a hybrid of wind, solar, and natural gas,” Goldstein explained. That’s effective, and it’s cheaper than using all coal and produces less pollution than other methods. The problem is that you won’t be able to achieve decarbonization in 30 years.
Those who warn of the dire consequences of climate change almost unanimously call for a complete halt to CO2 emissions from the world’s transportation, manufacturing, and electricity generation industries. In an ideal world, if we were to electrify everything from transportation to manufacturing to power generation, we could have a clean energy grid run on renewable energy alone. But this assurance is proving to be more wishful thinking than practical strategy for decarbonization.
The Climate Mitigation Institute at Princeton University has released a new report called “Net Zero America,” in which they detail five different strategies for decarbonizing high-emissions industries in the United States by the year 2050. While the goal of some of these routes is zero emissions, others allow for substantial cuts while still permitting the use of some fossil fuels. One potential future scenario involves 100% renewable generation, which sounds like a pipe dream to all but the most idealistic of us.
The report’s authors claim to be “generation source agnostic,” with the goal of providing information that will help policymakers, planners, and the like make educated decisions about things like infrastructure, technology, incentives, and regulations. The report is thorough and fair, but it is the result of a world in which reducing carbon emissions is an urgent public policy issue. Those who support nuclear energy feel frustrated because they feel this outcome was avoidable.
Studying the issue leads one to the conclusion that “if we had stayed on track back in the 1970s when people like me were demanding that we stop nuclear power, if we had kept going, we would have a thousand nuclear reactors rather than a hundred now,” as Goldstein put it. Everything in the United States would be electrified, saving 20% of electricity usage.
The mind-robbing effects of fear
The aforementioned Stuart Brand, whose credentials as an environmentalist include the creation of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” has always been a bit of a gadfly among his contemporaries due to his support of nuclear power as a clean energy source long before climate change was recognised as a serious issue. While he promotes a “back to the land” lifestyle, he is also a futurist and notable co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, which claims to be preparing for the next 10,000 years of human civilization (its website states that it was founded in 1996).
Brand’s 2010 (or 02010, if you prefer) TED Talk debate with Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, on whether or not the world needs nuclear power has garnered nearly 1.75 million views to date. Brand explained why nuclear power was the most important technology for generating clean and reliable electricity. Jacobson took a stand for the conventional environmentalist view that alternative energy sources like solar and wind power can meet the world’s energy needs without resorting to nuclear power, which is fraught with danger.
The Anthropocene Institute’s Ling claims that the fear of nuclear power is behind the government’s actions and regulations to phase out existing facilities and prevent new ones from being built. Opponents can use this fear as a drum to scare away potential nuclear supporters, either in naive good faith or with cynical intent. But Ling argues that people are becoming less afraid of nuclear power, and that growing support for it among its historic foes demonstrates that people are more concerned about climate change.
Ling, who lives in both Japan and California, said that after the real-world accidents at facilities like Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011), media coverage of nuclear power was generally negative. These concerns were likely to be amplified by works of popular culture like “Chernobyl,” an engrossing dramatic series on HBO, and “The China Syndrome,” a classic film from 1979.
Ling claimed that the “very vocal anti-nuclear crowd” was responsible for “a lot of the policies we see in place up to now.” When it comes down to it, I don’t think the average person gives a hoot about where their electricity comes from. However, the vast majority of people do prioritise health. An increasing number of people are likely to back any effort to increase access to clean energy. Anything that can speed up the process of transitioning away from coal plants and even natural gas would encourage them to consider alternative energy sources that produce cleaner air.
Ling, along with her climate-conscious coworkers at GotNuclear.net, aims to allay public concern about nuclear power by highlighting the positive effects it has on public health. The site includes an analysis of the methodology used to calculate the number of lives saved by switching to nuclear energy from more polluting fossil fuels.
Even if more and more people are coming around to the idea of nuclear power, the question of how to translate this growing support into public policy or financial backing for costly projects remains. According to Goldstein of UMass, there isn’t much of an activist base for nuclear power. He questioned, “Who has been the traditional supporter of nuclear power?” No, not the ecologists. Conservatives who reject climate science tend to be content with the status quo of fossil fuels. Unlike natural gas in Pennsylvania or coal in West Virginia, which could potentially be defended by a senator from that state, there is no such geographical foundation here. It’s a serious problem that you’ve identified.
Adjusting the Dial
Together with Swedish nuclear engineer Staffan Qvist, Goldstein published “A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow” in 2019. The word “nuclear” does not appear anywhere in the title or the lengthy subtitle. In fact, you won’t find it anywhere in the book’s blurb, description, or first two chapters. Sweden, France, and other countries wanted to present this unmentioned technology as an alternative to fossil fuels without bringing up the spectre of the term.
Goldstein stated that he planned to write an article about the technology that highlighted its positive applications. Extreme pessimism about the effects of climate change is simple to produce in writing. Nonetheless, he observed that France and Sweden provided evidence that countries could construct enough nuclear reactors to phase out fossil fuel. He argued that other nations could learn from these programmes.
His personal feelings toward nuclear power shifted over time, so he tried to ease readers into a discussion of potential outcomes rather than force them to grapple with the technology itself. While Goldstein “hated” nuclear power, he realised its eventual necessity. Everything I had heard or read that made me fear nuclear power was, for lack of a better term, a pack of lies. That simply wasn’t the case. It is the safest form of energy, but we were regulating it as if it were the most dangerous. As a result of learning about it, I immediately fell in love with it, so this is a two-part conversion.
When Oliver Stone decided to adapt Goldstein’s book into a film, it was almost as shocking as Stewart Brand’s support for nuclear power. The new documentary “Nuclear,” the product of this partnership, does, in fact, give the term its due prominence. During a press conference for the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, Stone said he hoped his audience would abandon its fear of nuclear power.
In an on-site interview, Stone and Goldstein made the point that those with the most knowledge about nuclear energy have the least apprehension about it. Stone claimed that the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore increased public awareness of climate change, and that he hoped to do the same for the obvious solution. Another thing he brought up was that Gore’s movie didn’t propose nuclear power as a solution but rather leaned heavily on renewables. On the other hand, “there’s a problem with renewables,” Stone said; “it doesn’t work in the sense of getting rid of carbon dioxide because we have been putting it in on top of fossil fuels.” Using fossil fuels has not been reduced.
The reason is that dispatchable power sources, like fossil fuel plants, hydroelectric, and nuclear energy, are far superior to intermittent renewables. Simply put, “dispatchable” means that power can be used whenever it is needed. While renewables can help advanced economies become less reliant on conventional power plants, they cannot replace them entirely, not any time before the much-touted carbon-free goals of 2050.
Ling pointed out that as more and more people in parts of the world have never had access to consistent electricity, the demand for such service will increase. Presently, this need is being met by the proliferation of coal plants across the developing (and already fairly developed) world. He predicted that the suffering that was soon to come would make people “kick the tyres” on nuclear power. We need to accelerate the expansion of renewable energy sources and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. Here’s where nuclear power can really come in handy.