In one of the early Democratic Presidential debates of 1992, when the late Paul Tsongas — then a Senator from Massachusetts with an impeccable environmental record — dared to express the opinion that nuclear power was preferable to coal on environmental grounds, Jerry Brown pointed at Tsongas and said to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are now looking at the world’s first radioactive environmentalist.”
Thanks in no small part to Ralph Nader, opposition to nuclear power has been a shibboleth of the environmental movement. I learned about the mendacity and the Inquisitorial fanaticism of the Nader-led anti-nuke forces thirty years ago, when I worked for a leading anti-nuclear Congressman, Les Aspin. First, I noticed the prevalence of unfacts in Critical Mass propaganda, even on the breeder reactor issue where the anti-nuke forces clearly had the better end of the policy argument. Then I discovered that the confident Naderite prediction of one meltdown per 1000 reactor-years was entirely made up out of whole cloth, and started to think through the nuclear/coal comparison. Then, when I persuaded my boss to switch sides on the question of a moratorium on light-water-reactor construction (he’d authored the first bill on the topic, but declined to re-introduce it in 1995) I learned how nasty and unforgiving the Naderites were in the face of heresy.
In the face of the global-warming problem, this particular smelly little orthodoxy is beginning to break down. At least, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, has come around, and he cites other high-profile heretics.
Opposition to nuclear power has always been based on a refusal to face the fact that, in the short-to-medium term, less nuclear power necessarily means more coal-fired power. But the truth is slowly sinking in, and leaking out, in part due to the global-warming problem and in part due to Nader’s self-discrediting antics in 2000 and 2004. (There’s actually a strong analogy between refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to Gore was Bush and refusing to acknowledge that the alternative to nuclear is coal.)
That’s not to say that the American approach to nuclear power generation makes any sense at all. It doesn’t. Having dozens of power companies operate one or a few reactors each is a recipe for inefficiency in construction and operation. The permitting process, which in effect requires a new design for each site, is a guarantee of expense and delay. If we’re going to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, we shouldn’t do so on forty-year-old technology. And we need a solution to the waste problem. (Mine would be to reprocess the spent fuel, recycling the plutonium into new fuel rods, separating the relatively small amount of very “hot,” short-half-life waste to be guarded for a few decades in swimming pools, and vitrifying the low-level waste into glass blocks out of which pyramids could be built somewhere in the desert.)
But even a dumb nuclear power program beats coal, which emits greenhouse gasses, particulates, and more radioactive material per kilowatt-hour produced (in the form of radon) than nuclear plants. Maybe — just maybe — the country is ready to learn that simple truth.
Hat tip: Kevin Drum.