Pro-Nuclear Environmentalism

On the 46th of 64 pages of my 2012 book for middle grade readers, Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, I finally ask the question that the earlier chapters are designed to lead up to: “Is nuclear power worth the risk?”

The remainder of the book provides a definite response, but not the definite answer that the readers might be expecting. “The decision is yours. In 2036, when Fukushima is as far in the past as Chernobyl was in 2011, the world’s use of electricity will be very different. And so will the laws and regulations about nuclear power.” I then note that my readers will be the voters who choose the policies and policy-makers, and warn them, “The decisions you will face as a voter will be complex, difficult, and very important for your country and your government. But if governments and citizens act wisely, then the world will have the energy it needs, [and] people will not have to worry about serious changes in climate.”

Besides providing a vivid history of the earthquake, tsunami, and triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility, the book also includes a look at nuclear technology and other alternatives to fossil fuels for generating electricity. I was careful not to stake out a pro- or anti-nuclear position, but rather I provided enough information for my readers to understand the alternatives. That approach left the door open to a solution that might be called “pro-nuclear environmentalism.”

Thus I was particularly pleased to discover a Mother Jones article by Keith Kloor, dated January 15, 2013, entitled “The Pro-Nukes Environmental Movement”. Its subtitle poses this question: “After Fukushima, is nuclear energy still the best way to fight climate change?”

The article focuses on the views of leading climate-change scientist James Hansen and renowned science author Bill McKibben, who answer that question with a definite yes. However, Kloor also notes that solar and wind remain important ingredients, concluding, “Maybe we shouldn’t fixate on only one possible path to a low-carbon future, but rather accelerate progress along all the avenues (from nuclear and clean coal to solar and efficiency) that will get us to the same place–a planet with an atmosphere that remains hospitable. There is no guarantee any of them will get us there fast enough to stave off catastrophic climate change, but we have no other reasonable choice.”

I encourage both the adolescent readers of Meltdown! and the readers of this blog to consider the following:

There are safety concerns with nuclear power, but they can be addressed technologically if we have the political will. But do we have that will? Or will we, like Germany, try to eliminate all nuclear power, thereby increasing coal-burning and losing much of the benefit of its national push toward more renewable sources? Also consider, as Kloor’s article does, the impact of the worldwide boom in inexpensive natural gas produced by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Is the economic benefit of that boom so great that it is also slowing the growth of wind, solar, and biomass?

Kloor’s thought-provoking article is a great starting point. But I hope you will not stop there. Please follow the questions it opens up, and discuss them with your fellow citizens and political leaders.

16 thoughts on “Pro-Nuclear Environmentalism”

  1. I cannot believe anyone would even consider nuclear energy for the future.

    You must not be paying full attention to what’s happening to Japan after their meltdowns.

    Do you realize that 40% of the 100,000 Japanese children tested have thyroid cysts from radiation and 2 have died.

    Did you mention that in your book?

    Did you mention that Japanese children are being forced to eat rice with radiation in it?

    Did you mention how much radiation is in fish caught off the coast of Japan?

    Highly recommend everyone read the other headlines on www dot enenews dot com

    to become better informed!

  2. Dear anonymous commenter,

    I allowed your comment to stand despite its argumentative and insulting tone.

    There is no need to get personal, and hiding behind a cloak of anonymity is cowardly.

    I am far from uninformed on this subject. Anyone who makes that accusation has obviously not read my book or my website page that has been tracking the news about Fukushima so my readers can stay current on the subject.

    But even if what you say is true, that doesn’t mean that nuclear power plants can’t be made safer in the future and that the risks and costs of alternative forms of energy are necessarily better. My work focuses on the open questions, because I am smart enough to recognize that no one knows all the answers since so much depends on future technological developments.

    Of all the reports I have seen since the book came out, I think the best by far were the two Frontline Documentaries:
    “Nuclear Aftershocks”, Frontline, WGBH Boston and Public Broadcasting, originally aired on January 17, 2012. (Program description: FRONTLINE travels to three continents to explore the debate about nuclear power: Is it safe? What are the alternatives? And could a Fukushima-style disaster happen in the U.S.?)

    “Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown”, Frontline, WGBH Boston and Public Broadcasting, originally aired on February 28, 2012. (Program description: An unprecedented account of the crisis inside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.)

  3. How did the Fukishima death toll compare to those who died from the japanese hydro electric dam collapsing, or even compare to the overall dealth toll of those unfortuneate to be in collapsed buildings? It’s a rhetorical question, the nuclear disaster caused the fewest deaths, much like it has done for the past 50 years compared to all other forms of energy production, just check the UN figures if you don’t believe me……on a related note guess how many died at the ‘3 mile island disaster’, the answer is 0. How many have died mining coal since then?

    ….isn’t that a good enough reason to pursue nuclear, I didnt even mention the green house gas benefits?

    Environmentslist have done more to cause increased green house gas production than all boards of directors for the entire oil and gas industry, I sometimes wonder if they pay environmentalist behind the scenes to oppose nuclear energy.

    • PL, I make similar points about Fukushima and TMI on pages 40-41 of Meltdown!, but I hope I made a more realistic statement about the human costs of Fukushima. [Note: this was written in late 2011 and published January 2012, and it is copyrighted material. Please link to this comment instead of copying.]

      TMI had no measurable health effects, not even among the power plant workers. It led to only a short evacuation of pregnant women and children over a small distance. Fukushima has forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes for months. It has exposed them to a small amount of extra radiation.

      The workers bringing the Fukushima Daiichi to cold shutdown will face some health concerns later in life. A few have had mishaps that exposed them to serious levels of radioactivity. The rest have been adding to their total radiation dose with every hour of work. That gives them a higher than average cancer risk though not a certainty of the disease….

      Still Fukushima’s impact on human lives is huge. How do you measure what it means to be forced out of your home or off your farmland?…

      • re: Still Fukushima’s impact on human lives is huge. How do you measure what it means to be forced out of your home or off your farmland?…

        I agree and do not lightly dismiss this horrible and unfortunate fact. Compared to the coal and fossil fuel mining indistry I’ld have to say many more have lost their farmland and health though, just not all at once in a dramatic newsworthy story…..I guess third world coal miners losing their health and farmland in a prolonged manner isn’t newsworthy/exciting enough for western environmentalists and journalists to care about,

      • The problem with using the evacuation as a point against nuclear power is that it was totally necessary to be long term. It only occurred due to the hyper levels of fear around radiation that are not supported by the science.

        Anti nuclear academic Mark Jacobenso did a global study on the health effects of the releases from Fukushima using the LNT model, he found that in 50 years the best estimate is 130 dead from cancer. Without the evacuation it would rise to only 160.

        On the other hand the evacuation and the massive increase in fossil fuel use to replace the electricity provided by the shutdown nuclear plants are responsible for far more harmful outcomes. 600 died from the evacuation itself. 150 Twh of fossil fuel generated electricity has been added to production. The cleanest fossil fuel, gas, has a death rate per Twh of 4. Oil 36, and coal in developed nations around 15. So at a bare minimum (if that 150 Twh is only provided by gas) there will be 600 deaths per year that the nuclear plants are shut down. The real figure will be many times that.

        then there are the massive psycological problems caused by the evacuation and the fear by others of the dangers of radiation. Dangers that are extremely small even if the LNT model is assumed to be correct (do a google scholar search for “LNT radiation” and you will quickly see it is up for much debate by experts in the area of radiological health).

        Then there is the massive negative economic effects of rationing of electricity and the expensive of purchasing all those extra fossil fuels.

        Finally there is climate change. The amount of emissions released by Japan into the atmosphere have skyrocketed to the point it has just abandoned it’s commitment to decrease emissions.

        All this to protect the Japanese population around Fukushima from 160 deaths that ‘might’ happen over the next 50 years, when there will be 52 million deaths from cancer over that same period anyway.

        The anti nuclear views held by fellow envronmentalists and progressive thinkers rivals in irrationality and lack of evidence that of the anti science climate sceptics imo.

        • I’m glad to have strong comments from both sides on this thread. That was my intent.

          I won’t reply in detail to Ben’s post except to say that the evacuation in the immediate aftermath was necessary since the risk of much more severe contamination was very real. And once people are evacuated, it takes time to clarify that the risk has subsided and the long-term risk was low.

          I haven’t tracked the status of displaced people to see when or whether they returned, but I think you harm your case, Ben, when you minimize the human impact of living through a true emergency. I agree that it turned out to be less of a problem than it could have been, but that doesn’t mean that the risk was not real at the time.

          Argue on, people. Thanks for a good discussion.

  4. good discusssion here. thank you.
    the consequences of disaster are clear enough, but if the scientific community can speak with one voice on the improvements in technological safeguards and show clearly what they are this will greatly help world opinion becoming better informed.

    • “unce popo,”

      You make an interesting statement. I would modify it.

      More important than speaking with one voice is to have an honest discussion. Policy-making is a political process, and the best way to get good policy is to base it on the facts, to the extent that they are known.

      An example where that isn’t happening is global warming politics in the US. There are many policies that can reduce greenhouse gases, but the discussion has been corrupted by people with agendas who deny the existence of global warming or the human signature that is clear in the changes we have seen in recent decades, or attribute the data to a conspiracy among scientists to get research funding.

      We don’t have to agree on a particular political solution. For example, consider a carbon tax, or cap and trade, or regulation. Any of those could move us in the necessary direction. Policy makers can discuss those alternatives while relying on science to give them a factual basis for making their choices.

      By the way, that’s the approach I take in my book. If you have any young readers you care about, have a look at it (

    • Unfortunetely I don’t think its enough to present rationale to convince the public to support nuclear power, the imagary from Fukishama is a powerful tool to win the hearts and minds of many.

      The images from Chernoble and 3 mile island were enough to win the public opinion battle for the last 4 decades, now environmentalists have Fukishama to suport their cause for another decade or two. If it comes down to public opinion nuclear will not florish, we will likely keep on producing the same levels of green house gases for the next 40 years thanks to the environmental movement.

  5. The “elephant in the room” is the fact that spent nuclear fuel remains toxic for tens of thousands of years, if not longer! It is not the choice of nuclear power we are discussing, I believe. Rather, it is the scary, long-term, unknowns about the risks associated with nuclear waste versus the short-term risks associated with fossil fuels, which are better known and understood.

    Fossil fuels also release radioactive entities into the environment. However, the public doesn’t usually associate radioactive release with coal-fired power generation. The public holds mental images of visible smoke billowing out of stacks, ignoring NOx and SOx releases that cause acid rain. The public image of nuclear power generation is centered on disastrous accidents, the ghost towns that once flourished around Chernobyl. We don’t have a mental image, a cultural image, of what radiation looks like. So it is bigger and scarier than the usual and familiar. The horror looms larger than the reality of how well nuclear power works when it works. (Ignore the little spent fuel problem.)

    As long as mankind has existed we have been modifying and shaping our environment, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. What instruments we decide to use in modifying our environment depends upon the economics of the processes and the accessibility of the technical knowledge. We can only give best scientific guesses about the long-term risks associated with each technological choice. If Ugg the caveman eats his food raw he may eat spoiled food and sicken or get parasites. If he eats his food cooked over an open fire he may ingest PAHs from the charred areas inducing cancer. Or he may fall off a cliff stalking his dinner. All are potential health risks, but which is worse? Death by excess cancer is a rich and sophisticated society’s burden. In Ugg’s situation, I’d bet on the tainted food, wild animals, or accidental injuries killing him before charcoal-induced stomach cancer.

    Perhaps our choices were easier to decide once upon a time. As the technology gets more complex and less at hand, as we rely on experts increasingly, the average person doesn’t have enough information to assess the risks by himself. This comment too, muddies the water. Can we trust the scientists? Can we trust the legislators? Can we trust that this is centrists have not obfuscated the decision making process?

    Having worked in both petroleum and nuclear industries I am on the fence. Frankly, the spectre of future disaster due to the current state of nuclear waste management terrifies me. Even though it’s likely I won’t be here to experience this I don’t want to leave this legacy for future generations. On the other hand, why are we doing in terms of public health and environmental damage to the current generation and what legacy is that?

    I detest that these issues are being settled in headlines and sound bites. I think rational scientific discussion and honest fact-finding is the rational approach. But I’m skeptical wherever there is a profit motive. And it’s not just the energy companies that are profiting. Let’s not delay all of the blame at their feet. Let’s continue to direct our efforts at disseminating solid information to decision-makers and the public and stop pointing fingers. This isn’t going to be decided in one day, one year, or even in one decade. The “elephant in the room” isn’t going away any time soon but we want/need power now. What we will choose to do, I’m afraid, will be based on what is more expedient rather than what is more protective of the future generations who will have to deal with our choices and our mistakes… just like the legacy previous generations left for us.

    • Dear Batya van Messel,

      Thank you for a very cogent and thoughtful analysis. One of my major points in writing Meltdown! was to let my readers know that the decisions they will face will be complex. That is the first step in the process toward creating a public whose decisions are not based on expediency. I hope that you take the time to look at that book and, if you feel it is worthy, to recommend it to parents, teachers, and librarians who can help us develop thoughtful and intelligent future citizens.

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