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Atomic Balm: Some Prominent Environmental Veterans are Talking up Nuclear Power as a Climate Change Solution

In recent years, some major science and environmental players have come forward to endorse nuclear power. Former EPA Administrator and Obama climate czar Carol Browner is one of the glitziest.

Third Way Think Tank/flickr
Carol Browner, former EPA administrator, is on board with the Nuclear Matters campaign. 

Browner signed up for the newest and shiniest effort to sell nuke plants, the year-old Nuclear Matters, founded by electric giant Exelon in 2014.

Nuclear Matters is run by public relations agency Sloane & Associates. Critics call it a nuclear front group, but Sloane prefers to bill it as “starting a national conversation on nuclear power,” and adds that other utilities, nuke builders and suppliers have joined Exelon as sponsors.

The group recruited several other bipartisan political heavyweights as paid spokespeople but none that are catnip for the environmental community, where opposition to nuclear power is the rule, not the exception.

So when Nuclear Matters hauled in Browner as a spokesperson of its Leadership Council last year, she was a big catch.

Browner said she typically devotes a few hours a week to Nuclear Matters and is compensated for her time, but neither she nor Nuclear Matters will discuss her fee.  In late January, she appeared at a Nuclear Matters event in Chicago.

Browner said her conversion to nukes is entirely based on climate change concerns, and began shortly after she left the EPA in 2001. “Climate is the biggest challenge in the world,” she said. “We cannot take nuclear off the table.”

Though she’s enlisted in Nuclear Matters, Browner said she parts ways with industry policy on at least one issue: she has advocated government support for wind and solar – opposed by many of the utilities bankrolling Nuclear Matters.

Browner was reluctant to discuss the current financial struggles of multiple nuke plants, and acknowledged that the industry was still “trying to figure out” the unsolved problems of nuclear waste storage.

Since launching in Washington last April, it’s difficult to determine the impact the Nuclear Matters campaign has had. But Browner is far from the only convert.

A Field Guide to Nuclear Environmentalists

Opposition to nuclear is strong among environmentalists. However, the motives to support nuclear power vary from the pols, the techno-pragmatists, the eco-ancestors and those desperate to counter climate change. Here’s a list of the most prominent, in addition to Carol Browner.

James Lovelock

NASA  
James Lovelock  

Now in his mid-nineties, Lovelock has enjoyed a rock-star life as a maverick scientist, given to great discoveries and an occasional wild overstatement. His inventions also aided our ability to monitor ozone-destroying chemicals in the atmosphere. As late as the mid 2000’s, he also went full-bore wild on the prospects of a climate catastrophe, predicting that the Earth’s human population would be mostly gone by 2100. In this desperate context, he argued, we’d be fools to abandon any carbon-free power source, including nuclear.

Lovelock stood on the extreme edge of the scientific community with his bleak climate views, and eventually walked them back, affirming in 2012 that climate change was real, but not to the “alarmist” extent he’d thought. In another interview that year with Nature, Lovelock stuck by his nuclear guns, downplaying the nuclear accidents at Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Stewart Brand

Stewart Brand has been one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, an LSD-loving Grateful Deadhead, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, and inventor of something that vaguely preceded the computer mouse.

Ten years ago, Brand published a manifesto called “Environmental Heresies” in which he denounced “romantic” environmentalists and what he perceived as a reluctance to embrace genetic engineering. And he stuck a flag in the ground in favor of nukes as a climate fix: “Nuclear certainly has problems – accidents, waste storage, high construction costs, and the possible use of its fuel in weapons. It also has advantages besides the overwhelming one of being atmospherically clean.”

Fortune Live Media/flickr
Christine Todd Whitman

Christine Todd Whitman

New Jersey Governor in the 1990’s and George W. Bush’s first EPA Administrator, Whitman signed on to a paid position as co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASE), organized by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the primary trade association for nuclear in the U.S. Like Browner and Nuclear Matters, Whitman acknowledges that she is compensated, but has declined to disclose how much she or her consulting firm are paid.

At the EPA, Whitman clashed with environmental advocates but she also clashed with pro-business hardliners in the Bush Administration including Vice President Dick Cheney. After resigning, she burned bridges with the Bush White House, saying the Administration “flipped the bird” at environmental regulation.

Whitman continues to co-chair CASE. NEI’s site lists dozens of op-eds and media appearances by Whitman, including a defense of Georgia Power’s rate increases to fund construction of new reactors near Augusta.

Patrick Moore

Billing himself as a founder of Greenpeace (the organization, where I once worked, disputes this), Pat Moore switched sides in dramatic fashion. He’s now a vocal critic of Greenpeace and the entire environmental movement and a ubiquitous spokesman for an array of industries with environmental image problems.

TEDx Vancouver/flickr
Patrick Moore

He was a compensated pitchman for CASE and the Nuclear Energy Institute for a decade, though neither Moore nor NEI will say for how much. He announced his retirement in 2013, but last February, he appeared in print and radio ads touting nuclear’s “low carbon” energy as a fix for climate change. NEI posted the video ad on YouTube on February 24, 2014. A day later, Moore testified before the House Science Committee that human-caused climate change is unproven.

In an email, Moore explained the apparent contradiction between his seeming embrace and rejection of climate concerns on successive days. “If a government has a climate policy that favors “low-carbon” technologies it only makes sense to mention that as one of the benefits of nuclear,” he wrote.

Moore added “I have been a skeptic on climate since at least 1990 when it first got real prominence. In the mid-2000s I became convinced that the ‘warmist’ movement was more politics than science and today I think we are being duped into spending hundreds of billions for nothing while at the same time denying developing countries the benefits we enjoy.”

However, in a 2006 op-ed for the Washington Post, Moore was still promoting nuclear by sounding the climate alarm. “Nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.”

Rainforest Action Network/Flickr
James Hansen, under arrest outside the White House at a coal protest, 2010.

James Hansen

It would be a stretch to say that James Hansen wrote the book on climate change, but not by much. In 1988 Senate hearings, Hansen, then of NASA, laid out a scenario of warming temperatures, rising seas, and melting icecaps that got America’s attention, at least for a while.

His projections bore up well over the next quarter century, though he took heat as his climate change warnings ventured beyond science and into policy, then into a civil disobedience arrest at the U.S. Capitol’s coal-fired power plant and at the White House. After 46 years, he quit NASA in 2013 because “as a government employee, you can’t testify against the government.”

In November 2013, Hansen joined three other leading climate scientists – Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of MIT, and Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research — in an open letter, calling on environmentalists to embrace “a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st Century.”

When asked if he has been approached by, is affiliated with or compensated by any industry group, Hansen, in an emailed response, said: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He added that his embrace of nuclear would have happened even without a climate crisis. “The nuclear industry has an excellent safety record, superior to any other major industry, even when you include (Chernobyl and Fukushima).”

Hansen said he’s received criticism for his nuclear stance that’s “much worse” than the relentless attacks he’s received from opponents of climate action. He said environmental leaders won’t reconsider nukes because “they are concerned that they would lose some of their financial support.” Ironically, that’s a mirror-image of a frequent charge by climate deniers against Hansen and other climate scientists.

kris krug/flickr
Rajendra Pachauri

Rajendra K. Pachauri

Pachauri has chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nation’s gold-standard climate science group, since 2002. In the process, the IPCC has shared a Nobel Peace Prize, been criticized by some climate scientists for being too conservative, and both Pachauri and the Panel have, like Hansen, sometimes been veritable punching bags for climate deniers.

In a discussion in Atlanta last month, Pachauri echoed IPCC’s recommendation for nukes: “You’ve got to look at nuclear. Some countries will, some countries won’t.” Pachauri’s native India is one that will. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck a deal last month with President Obama that could open the door for U.S. contractors to build new nuclear plants in India.

George Monbiot

Dogfael/Flickr
George Monbiot, reluctant nuke endorser.

British environmental journalist Monbiot made a sharp turnaround on nuclear in 2011, but don’t expect to see the industry featuring pull quotes from him. “Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small,” Monbiot wrote in The Guardian.

Unanswered questions

Critics say two crucial vulnerabilities of nukes go unaddressed in U.S pro-nuke pitches: Unresolved questions about nuclear waste disposal, and Wall Street’s wariness about the industry.

Nuclear power plants currently store their waste on-site. Intended as a stop-gap method until a national nuclear waste repository is built, on-site storage in above-ground containers may be as good as permanent, since plans for the Yucca Mountain repository north of Las Vegas were halted by the Obama Administration after decades of delays.

Former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner and state regulator Peter Bradford sees the finance issue as the nuclear industry’s Kryptonite. “Wall Street doesn’t want (reactors), the utilities don’t want them,” said Bradford, who is also Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS is officially neutral on the use of nuclear power, but has often criticized what it sees as safety and financial vulnerabilities in the industry.

“Trying to solve climate change with nuclear is like trying to solve world hunger with caviar,” he said

This series is funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Family Foundation

Read part one: Last Tango for Nuclear?

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