By Mark Caine, Breakthrough Fellow
This is a guest post from the Breakthrough Generation blog. Breakthrough Generation is the young leaders' initiative of the Breakthrough Institute, a public policy think tank. Founded in 2007, Breakthrough Generation has fostered the development of young thought leaders capable of fully grappling with the scale and complexity of today's greatest challenges and advancing large-scale solutions over the near and long term. To read more writings from this year's 2010 Breakthrough Fellows, head to http://breakthroughgen.org
Environmentalists have long couched their opposition to nuclear power in the argument that tinkering with elementary particles to produce energy is inherently unsafe. But advances in climate and nuclear sciences suggest that the dangers posed by today's nuclear technology are far less serious than the risks of tinkering with global climate systems.
In 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer gave the go-ahead for the Trinity test, the first human-induced nuclear explosion. As he observed the massive explosion unleashed by his creation, he uttered the now-famous phrase:
"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."With these words, excerpted from the Bhagavad Gita, Oppenheimer captured and reinforced a widely-held sentiment that nuclear technology is a fundamentally destructive force worthy of great respect and profound trepidation.
This view would be strengthened by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a month later and again in 1979 and 1986 by the meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
Justifiably influenced by the specter of nuclear meltdown or, worse, worldwide nuclear war, early environmentalists adopted a vehement anti-nuclear stance. At the time, nuclear proliferation seemed to present an existential threat to the natural environment, to human health, and to world peace.
Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, summed it up in his 1976 report Assault on Future Generations:
Nuclear power plants are, next to nuclear warheads themselves, the most dangerous devices that man has ever created. Their construction and proliferation is the most irresponsible, in fact the most criminal act ever to have taken place on this planet.Forged in an era of fear, uncertainty, and disaster, this uncompromisingly critical stance towards nuclear energy has remained a central tenet of U.S. environmentalism ever since.
While this stance is understandable as a reaction to the events of World War II and Chernobyl, it has become drastically outdated in the nearly twenty five years since the Chernobyl disaster took place.
These twenty five years have seen two fundamental, ground-shifting changes.
First, climate scientists--and increasingly the general public--have become aware that carbon dioxide emissions lead to global climate change and a host of resultant ecological and atmospheric consequences. Second, nuclear energy technologies have developed to become far safer and more efficient than their decades-old antecedents.
These two transitions have redefined the energy landscape; taken together, they should redefine the energy debate.
At this point, anyone serious about climate change should be asking themselves: what role should nuclear power have in a clean energy future? Can we decarbonize our economy without nuclear power?
While the science, the technology, and the debate have shifted beneath their feet, mainstream environmental groups have resolutely held their anti-nuclear ground.
The Sierra Club, an early opponent of nuclear power, continues to stick by the nuclear policy it established 36 years ago in 1974:
The Sierra Club opposes the licensing, construction and operation of new nuclear reactors utilizing the fission process.Greenpeace, another early nuclear opponent, calls not only for no new construction but also for the dismantling of existing plants:
Greenpeace has always fought - and will continue to fight - vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants.Most recently, Friends of the Earth has been releasing egregious anti-nuclear advertisements employing ominous music, dark photographs, and hyperbolic rhetoric to inspire visceral fear of nuclear power.
Contrary to the frightful narratives sown by mainstream environmental groups, the long-term safety record of nuclear power is in fact far better than that of coal, our primary source of electricity. Even in terms of direct deaths, which do not include the tens of thousands of yearly deaths caused by pollution from coal combustion, nuclear comes out on top:
Compiled by Jesse Jenkins, The Breakthrough Institute
When it comes to waste and emissions, nuclear again emerges the clear winner: while powering a single person's lifetime with coal produces 68 tons of solid waste and 77 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, a person-lifetime worth of nuclear-generated electricity produces zero emissions and an volume of solid waste the size of a soda can.
These waste and emissions disparities raise a critical question: which is worse, small quantities of radioactive waste in secured storage or huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?
For greens who find themselves increasingly concerned about climate change and its impacts on humans, oceans, and ecosystems, this lesser-of-two-evils debate should not be taken lightly.
Given the capacity of nuclear to produce emissions-free energy with orders of magnitude less waste than coal combustion, it would appear that the environmental community's reflexive rejection of nuclear energy runs counter to its most basic charge: to employ sound science and smart policy to protect the environment and the people within it.